On a rainy Saturday afternoon, there wasn’t much to draw people to the corner of Kensington and Allegheny Avenues, unless you were counting the open-air drug market. There's a check-cashing shop, a rehab center, a bodega notable for the soda-crate Stonehenge someone has set up around a yawning hole in the sidewalk out front.
The exception is Jack’s Famous Bar, a neighborhood fixture since the end of Prohibition in 1933.
Inside, 83-year-old owner and cook Mel Adelman, ordinarily a silent presence in a back booth, reading the paper and awaiting food orders, was dropping some disconcerting news on his regulars. He’s close to selling the bar his family has run for more than 70 years. He hopes the new owner won’t change it — but he has no guarantees.
For now, though, a century's worth of drinking culture remains preserved in this narrow barroom.
High shelves are stocked with several hundred whiskey bottles, most unopened, hoarded by the original owner ahead of World War II. Their contents are mysterious, the labels blackened by decades of cigarette smoke. Group photographs of Jack’s patrons, dated from 1933 to 2006, document the bar’s evolution: There once was a staircase ascending to a segregated women’s area; it’s been removed, replaced with booths upholstered in cracked black vinyl. The faces in the photographs have changed, too, from an all-white crowd to a multiracial mix.
I had invited the writer Linh Dinh, because he has several times coaxed poetry out of the place – most recently in his book Postcards from the End of America. Dinh likes the roast beef sandwiches, the cheap lager, the people. One day, he watched a woman sit there for an hour, drinking out of an empty beer glass, raising it to her lips and setting it back down again.
“She needed to be among people. She couldn’t afford another beer,” he said. “They didn’t kick her out.”
Dinh has lately focused his writing on the American decline, a stark reality here at K&A.
“It’s a shame what it has become," bartender Rita Carrasquillo said of the neighborhood. "This is the walking dead out there."
Jack’s is a refuge from all that. There’s steady takeout traffic, for 40-ounce bottles of Milwaukee’s Best and colorful garlands of lottery scratch-off tickets. A man came through selling scented oils; later, a woman wandered in with red roses wrapped for individual sale. “A couple years ago, I saw people selling meat here,” Dinh said.
Others stick around, to drink alone together. The dress is mostly casual, sweatshirts and jeans; even a linty sweater with a few pieces of cereal stuck to the back isn't out of place. A man who introduced himself as Kevin is the snappiest dresser, with a windowpane plaid blazer and spotless white-and-black loafers. “It’s not like you have to wear a suit to come in here," he said. "I feel comfortable in a suit.”
It gets smoky. It’s the kind of place where the smell stays with you until laundry day. You could call it a dive -- though Adelman, who does not drink or smoke, would rather you didn’t. When he won “Best Dive” from Philadelphia Magazine, he wasn’t sure how to feel.
“I thought it was a derogatory term,” he said. “But I realized that’s a term they use now to show a regular bar, a neighborhood-type place.”
It was the death of Adelman's brother and business partner, Joseph, last year that got him thinking it was time to sell.
Dinh mourned the end of an era. He climbed up to a high perch with his camera to take one more group photograph of all us day drinkers at Jack’s, and wondered whether it would be the last.
853 E. Allegheny Ave., 215-634-6616
When to go: It’s open 7 a.m. (9 a.m. Sundays) to 2 a.m. daily. When the hours were set, Adelman said, “it was different. You had the factories, with people working three shifts.”
Bring: Your unemployed friends: They can afford to drink here. Also, Philly history buffs, dive-bar connoisseurs, smoking holdouts.
Order: Lager, obviously. Over time, the standard serving here has evolved from 7-ounce glasses (once 10 cents each!) to mugs, then pints. Now, you can get a pint of Yuengling for $2.25, or a pitcher for $4.
Bathroom situation: As noted on multiple signs, including one on the front door, Bathrooms Are for Customers ONLY! The single-stall women’s room recalls an airplane bathroom. Soap? Yes. Paper towels? No place is perfect.
Sounds like: About 90 decibels. Sometimes people talk, sometimes they don’t. Either way, there’s a steady backdrop of music that runs along the lines of Peter Frampton, Bob Seger, Paul Young -- nothing too recent.