On a recent Friday night at happy hour, the pub looked a lot like your typical Center City sports bar. It has the requisite exposed-brick walls, floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto the sidewalk, a dozen or so flat-screen TVs, and 32 beer taps pouring everything from Bud Light to Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA.
Except, on this particular night, only one television was tuned to basketball; a second showed CNN, and the rest displayed music videos -- Elton John, the Jackson Five. And two bartenders, spry young men in see-through black tank tops, were trading vigorous shoulder massages.
That's Woody's, a Gayborhood mainstay named for Bill Wood, who founded the place.
It had been a decade or so since I'd last visited. But I was inspired to return after headlines recently mentioned the bar -- or, more specifically, mentioned its co-owner since 2007, Michael Weiss -- for allegedly providing lavish gifts to now-indicted Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. (Reportedly, his rewards included a "District Attorney, Special Advisor" badge, to flash as needed.)
That was not, however, Woody’s first appearance in the city’s newspaper archives. An urban survivor, it endured through the AIDS crisis, the decline and resurgence of the inner city, and a period of rampant violence against LGBTQ people that forced 11 neighborhood bars to get together in the '90s and organize a Center City Nite Watch. More recently, Woody’s and 10 other gay bars were required by the city to participate in bias training, in response to reports of racial tension and discrimination.
Whether those tensions have been defused, I can’t say. What I do know is that when I returned, on a Saturday around midnight, I found people of all genders, sexual orientations, and skin colors getting sloppy drunk together in apparent harmony.
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When I arrived, there was a line to get in to Woody’s. So I went instead to a bar called Rosewood, which (surprise!) actually also is Woody’s -- part of a "five-clubs-in-one" sprawling complex that now wraps from 13th Street around the corner to Walnut.
Rosewood, dark and glossy, with chandeliers, a pressed-tin ceiling, and tufted black leather booths, is Woody's attempt at classy. It features a cocktail menu heavy on flavored vodkas and rums. Next door is Globar, which still looks much like the sterile-white yogurt shop the space housed a couple of years ago, now updated with a DJ booth, a bar, and, as the night progressed, sweat-steamed picture windows.
Then there’s Woody’s classic. A $10 wristband buys access to the upstairs dance floors, where you don’t so much walk as ricochet, pinball-style, propelled by butts and hips of all sizes and shapes. In a room with a hip-hop sound track, a woman in light-up sneakers and a floor-length multicolor wig danced alone in a corner. A couple of guys in jeans and baseball caps writhed on a stripper’s pole. Couples of all configurations made out on the dance floor.
Downstairs, amid an older and slightly more staid crowd, tiara-and-sash-festooned invaders were tolerated, if not welcomed. (Amid the FAQ on Woody's website is the question, "Can you stop allowing annoying bachelorette parties?" Answer: They, for the most part, cannot.)
But as closing time drew near, bridesmaids and bar regulars alike joined together in a resounding sing-along of “My Heart Will Go On.”
In the end, racial tensions and corruption allegations may tear us apart -- but, at least for four minutes and 39 seconds, Celine brought us all back together.
202 S. 13th St., woodysbar.com.
When to go: Woody’s is open 5 p.m. (7 p.m. Tuesdays) until 2 a.m. Go between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Friday or Saturday -- the only time when all three bars are open, along with dancing upstairs. If you pay the $10 cover, you can also get into nearby Voyeur free if you go before 1 a.m.
Bring: Go alone and make friends.
What to order: Yards IPA on draft ($6), or house specialty shots, like the Bacardi Limon Drop ($9).
Bathroom situation: The all-gender, single-stall bathroom off the main bar was fairly clean -- and large enough to house yet another nightclub, in the event that Woody’s sprawl continues.
Sounds like: Even when it’s mostly empty, it’s still a roaring 95 decibels. Music ranges from hip-hop to EDM to Top 40 remixes.