As I descend from the Market-Frankford El, a salesman at the base of the stairs calls to me with a pitch. “Works, I got works,” he says, as though those arriving at the Somerset station could only be in search of heroin.
I, however, am here for something else — something that, according to many city and state officials, is almost as insidious. It is a so-called stop-and-go bar, a genre that’s being targeted for increased PLCB enforcement and that has been in the crosshairs of City Council, which sought to crack down on the establishments in part with a potential ban on the safety-glass partitions between staff and customers. (To complicate things, a state representative has pitched yet another bill to preserve the partitions, after all.)
But, for now, it’s business as usual. So, in the Friday afternoon gloom of the El tracks, I follow the neon glow to Steak & Beer, a neighborhood mainstay. What I find is a tightly packed space that’s part bodega, part hoagie shop, part bottle shop, and part clubhouse for the undercapitalized people of Kensington.
Unlike some notable nuisance bars, Steak & Beer is already on the right side of several key legal requirements: It has approximately the minimum required 30 seats (I counted a few milk crates that were, indeed, occupied on my visit). A sign on the safety glass proclaims, “No Loosies.” And, as the law requires, the place serves food — cheesesteaks, hoagies, even scallops (10 for $3?!) — though I’ve been advised against sampling it.
I’m here at the suggestion of Max Marin, a journalist who lives nearby. Max likes this place for a simple reason, he said: “The forgotten people of Philadelphia need a space to be.”
Critics say places like this enable alcoholism and encourage public drunkenness. They have a point. Max counters that the behavior here tends to be better than at Sips — and notes that, for patrons, prices even at nearby dives like Bentley’s or Jack’s Famous Bar may be out of reach.
We select $1.25 cans of beer from the fridge and splurge on shots of Old Grand-Dad bourbon, which cost $2.50 and come in the type of plastic ramekin you’d fill with ketchup at a fast-food condiment station.
The owner, behind a clear partition, declines an interview request but offers a free Steak & Beer calendar, “Pets 2018.” It comes with a set of reminder stickers for an imagined wholesome year ahead for Steak & Beer’s clientele: “family photos,” “special worship,” “swimming pool service.”
The place is buzzing by 3:30 p.m. with a racially diverse, mostly male crowd. Almost all of the narrow wooden booths are full. In a corner, a man piles change into short stacks he can convert into alcohol. He asks whether anyone can spare a quarter for a beer, and a woman hands it over, telling him, “Honey, I don’t care what you spend it on.” In another corner, a man who Max tells me is homeless and a heroin addict and who once took a swing at him with a two-by-four takes a quiet moment to enjoy a Bud Ice pounder and a bag of Cheez-Its.
The festive atmosphere — a contrast to the chaos outside on Kensington Avenue — is a collective effort. A man fuels the TouchTunes with R&B and soul selections. People talk to one another, maybe dance a little. They aren’t staring at their phones (which are mostly flip phones, anyway).
As the crowd swells, a man in an ankle-length white leather trench coat over a pinstripe suit makes a circuit of the room, spritzing a perimeter of air freshener. “Some people smell,” he explains simply. “I’m just trying to make it nice in here.”
Steak & Beer
2769 Kensington Ave.; 215-425-8484
When to go: It’s open 11 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. There is no happy hour, per se.
Bring: Cash. They have everything else here.
What to order: Bud Ice, $1.75 for a 25-ounce can, is the runaway best -seller, but there is so much more on the menu. Ciroc Peach, Jim Beam, and Maker’s Mark sit next to three flavors of NyQuil. Wine recently became available, in full-size and single-serving bottles. There are a dozen types of bar soap, plus shampoo, Tylenol, gum, and jerky. There are Pringles and mango-flavored cigars, Tampax and Raid, socks and gloves, scratch tickets, birthday candles, sexual stimulants, and Peanut Chews.
Bathroom situation: Get the key, attached to a duct-tape-covered wooden slab, from the deli counter, and pass through an unmarked door into a room that doubles as a mop closet. Do not expect to find a mirror, hand soap, air dryer, or paper towels.
Sounds like: A boisterous 98 decibels of the Spinners on TouchTunes layered over lively conversation, the rumble of the El overhead, and the sound of Law & Order SVU on the television.