“Are you two sisters?” slurred the fifty-something man, after sidling up to the bar behind me and my editor, Cathy, who bears no relation and scant resemblance. It was an old line, but not the worst one he would drop, finger guns blazing, in our five-minute conversation. Other contenders: “Samantha? That’s a great name,” and, “You have a great smile; don’t ever change.”
This material, apparently, can still pass for fresh at Del Frisco’s, the Center City steakhouse that opened in 2008 in the ornate and cavernous former home of the First Pennsylvania Bank and ever since has had a dual identity — as a dinner destination best enjoyed on an expense account and as one of the most, er, sociable bars in Philadelphia. It’s the second-largest liquor buyer in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest meat markets, in every sense of the word.
When I arrived on a recent Thursday night, it was filled with men who wore their hair lavishly gelled and their button-down shirts open at the collar, and with women who surely spend as much on Botox, fillers and trainers each month as I pay in rent. (Later, still more women would arrive, with very blond hair, very short dresses and very thick Russian accents. Were they escorts? It might explain why they instantly connected with two much older men at the end of the bar.)
We had to act fast, and ignore a few snarky comments, to claim the last few seats at the curving, granite-topped bar, whose notable features include a three-story-tall wine tower (they stock 12,000 bottles at a time) and the brass stripper pole installed after Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan suggested it was “the only thing missing.” The old fashioned, ($14.50) made with Knob Creek bourbon, muddled cherries and angostura bitters, was poured so generously it overflowed into a small puddle. The black raspberry martini, ($15), a combination of Hendrick’s gin, Chambord and lime, evoked a popsicle melted into a martini glass.
Whatever you may order, there’s no such thing as drinking alone here. Soon, two men sat next to us and struck up a conversation, claiming they, themselves, had only just escaped some curiously aggressive women further down the bar. This didn’t stop other men from strolling up to try their luck — most memorably, a septuagenarian who said he was in town from New York, looking into bringing the Big Apple Circus to Philly. (It has no wild animals, he assured me, only horses and dogs. “So it’s a dog and pony show?” I asked, to his annoyance.)
The bartenders, friendly but beleaguered in uniform vests and ties, rushed to keep up as more customers arrived: a flock of young women in clothing that could pass for lingerie, guys in their 20s wearing golf shirts and flip flops. One called to the bartender, “I’m gonna have my usual.” Met with a blank gaze, he specified his usual was Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA.
It’s fitting that Del Frisco’s is in an old bank, given the transactional nature of the encounters taking place up and down the bar. Everyone’s on a mission, whether business or pleasure. Even one of the bartenders is an aspiring real-estate developer, hoping to get into flipping houses. During a lull, he ran the idea by a customer. “Let me look at the comps,” she advised.
Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House
1426-1428 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, 215-246-0533, delfriscos.com
When to go: I’m told Thursday is V.I.P. night, a prime time for pick-ups, whereas Friday and Saturday are “date nights.” It opens at 11:30 on weekdays and 4 p.m. on weekends, and closes at 11 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 10 p.m. Sunday-Monday.
Bring: Your business associates. Your wing man. Your highest-limit credit card.
Order: The wine is really the star here, and you can get very hard-to-find vintages by the bottle or even by the glass, thanks to a Corivan wine-preservation system. One is the 1995 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet, which is $95 a glass. There’s also seasonal beer like Flying Fish Farmhouse Summer Ale, and a selection of bourbon ranging from basic to obscure. Popular bar food options include the wonton-wrapped cheese-steak dumplings and the giant slab of thick-cut, maple-glazed bacon au poivre.
Bathroom situation: There’s a bodega’s worth of Chapstick, assorted nail files, hair products and even Summer’s Eve wipes, courtesy of a vivacious bathroom attendant who squirted soap into my palm, handed me a paper towel and offered a spritz of perfume, including one, Minajesty, that comes in a Nicki Minaj-shaped bottle with a plastic cap shaped like a pink wig. “That’s so Nicki, right?” she said
Sounds like: About 91 decibels of unidentifiable music and chattering crowds