It was 1 p.m. on a Saturday — to my mind, not quite Miller time. But the regulars were, as if by appointment, arriving at Dean's Bar, settling onto stools beneath the shamrock and Celtic cross and vintage map of Ireland.
I was here, at the Irish consulate of Gray's Ferry, at the urging of a Philly.com reader named "N.D." Harvey Sumner, a die-hard Notre Dame fan who signs each of his emails: "GO IRISH!!!"
Industrial decline and white flight surged through this neighborhood decades ago, and the ebb and tide left Dean's standing nearly alone on a clear-cut block. (Its only neighbors are an auto body shop and the rusting carcass of the Store, a Gray's Ferry institution that sold its last pizza pretzel in December.) But for men who grew up here — guys like Sumner, of Washington Township, N.J., who showed up in a sporty windbreaker, looking like the high school basketball referee he is — the gravitational pull of Dean's remains strong.
They do not come for the beer selection (which ranges from High Life, in $2 cans, to Rolling Rock for $2.50 a bottle). They're not here for the wine (Sutter Home mini-bottles, $4 a glass). They're definitely not coming for the food — though, as I sipped my beer, an older man shuffled in, was introduced as “the chef” and set out a couple of Styrofoam plates of Cheez-Its before sitting down and ordering himself a beer.
They're here because they, their fathers, and their grandfathers have been coming since Dean’s opened in 1933.
Or maybe it was '34, Phelim Dean said. "But '33 looked better on a T-shirt.”
What he does know is that his grandparents created it as a post-work retreat for refinery workers. Later, his father, Phelim “Gabber” Dean (a loquacious type, apparently) took over. Now, a third generation is in charge.
Despite the upheaval outside, Dean’s remains a time capsule.
“That's a big thing down here, reminiscing,” Sumner said.
They reminisce about the old gang, 30TO, that held down the corner of 30th and Tasker. The time Old Man Novelli got hit in the chest with a softball. (A quart of beer cured him.) The day that Sumner brought another referee, a black man, to Dean’s for post-game beers. "Get that guy out of here!" someone shouted. "Why? 'Cause he's black?" Sumner asked. "Nah, 'cause he's a lousy ref,” came the response. Then, they all drank together for the rest of the afternoon.
Still, after a century of fraught, sometimes violent race relations in Gray’s Ferry, Dean insists everyone is welcome at the bar, even though it tends to attract the same old faces. And for them, it is a second home: the meeting point for bus trips to Notre Dame games; the clubhouse for the Americans New Year’s Brigade; the designated after-party spot for weddings and funerals.
After so many years, Dean doesn’t try too hard. He removed the draft lines in 2008 while renovating after a fire. He got the neon shamrock above the door restored, but, with the price of electricity today, he doesn’t bother keeping it illuminated.
He has a nephew who’s taken an interest in updating the place. Dean’s open to it. One thing, though, will never change.
“Do I envision this being a place where someone walks in the door and there's not a Dean sitting here? No. That will never happen.”
2854 Tasker St. (aka Dean’s Way), no phone, no website
When to go: St. Patrick's Day. Notre Dame games. Otherwise: Noon to whenever Dean starts yawning, Friday to Sunday. From Tuesday to Thursday, "It's discretionary, according to what happened the night before.”
Bring: Your uncle whose weekend uniform includes St. Gabriel’s sweats and a claddagh ring. Anyone who appreciates the value in a $2 can.
What to order: Beer.
Bathroom situation: The men’s room, I’m told, may not have a functioning lock. I wouldn't know, as I was directed to an unmarked door around the corner: the possibly-never-before-used ladies' room. It looks like the bathroom at your in-laws’ house, except someone has misapplied (or reimagined) a wall decal that now reads: "May all who enter as friends leave guests."
Sounds like: Stone-cold silence when you first walk in the door. After that, 88 decibels of chatter about the old days.