As I pulled open the door to Les & Doreen’s Happy Tap, noise spilled out into the quiet street, echoing through the half-finished construction amid old rowhouse blocks in the heart of Fishtown.
It was karaoke night at the Happy Tap, a 20-year tradition that, somehow, has led up to this moment: a guy in jeans and a T-shirt belting out “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” in front of the world’s laziest self-appointed backup dancers, a group of regulars deep into buckets of Bud Light, wagging their fingers and shimmying their shoulders without ever leaving their barstools.
Personally, I consider singing in front of other people a horror on a par with, say, unanesthetized dental surgery (and, I fear, the pain is mutual). But, if one must, this is the place. Two-thirds of the bargoers are effusively enthusiastic about karaoke; the rest are trying desperately to ignore it as they catch the Phillies game.
The Happy Tap is a narrow corner bar with all the amenities: video poker, payphone, cigarette machine. People have been getting trashed in this space pretty much since the end of Prohibition – only, these days, it has craft beer and Erotic Photo Hunt.
Les and Doreen Thompson grew up in the neighborhood, worked at the bar (then Kelly’s Happy Tap), got married, and bought the place on March 4, 1986.
Les died in 2006. Doreen hasn’t changed the place much since then. The decor is still heavy on leprechauns and shamrocks, mirrors and linoleum, dated Philly sports posters and beer ads. The best seller is still Miller Lite.
But there’s also an unexpected locavore impulse. Thompson stocks the full line from Kensington’s Philadelphia Brewing Co., and more than a dozen flavors of locally produced Jacquin’s liquor.
And, though some Fishtown corner bars have been hostile to the influx of newcomers over the last decade, the Happy Tap welcomed them.
“Every person is a person. I don’t discriminate against anybody,” said Doreen, 56.
The result: A convergence of old and new Fishtown that is not so much a bar as a clubhouse. Once a month, there’s a theme party, like a luau or prom. Wednesday is bingo night: “It’s all ages from late 20s to — my mom’s 82 and she plays,” Doreen said. And regulars and staff take trips together, to Hawaii or New Orleans, or crabbing in New Jersey.
Once, the Happy Tap even hosted a wedding for a couple who’d met at the bar — presumably having locked eyes during a devastatingly beautiful karaoke performance.
I ran no risk of inducing such passion as, in the name of journalism, I mumbled “Lola” by the Kinks into the microphone while breaking into a cold sweat. (If you were there, I apologize.)
Fortunately, the DJ, Sara Sherr, does not offer commentary. She permits deep cuts and crowd-pleasers alike, resulting in a grab bag that wandered from Pearl Jam to Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Wings. Someone went for the low-hanging fruit of “Sweet Caroline”; the entire bar joined in as at the eighth inning of a Red Sox game. I stayed long enough to hear the opening notes of a second rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” then figured my night had been plenty happy enough.
Les & Doreen’s Happy Tap
1301 E. Susquehanna Ave., 215-634-1123
When to go: Almost any time. It opens at 7 a.m. (9 a.m. Sundays) and closes at 2 a.m. There’s a decent early-morning crowd of night nurses, retirees, and young people still out from the night before. For peak Happy Tap, karaoke starts at 9 p.m. Saturdays.
Bring: On karaoke night, your friends with perfect pitch. On bingo night, your ma. On any occasion, cash.
What to order: Local Philadelphia Brewing Co. beers like Walt Wit ($5 a pint) or Kenzinger is ($3.75 a bottle). Or, when in Fishtown, opt for Miller Lite ($3 a can). There’s a full kitchen; the cheesesteak is the best seller ($6.75).
Bathroom situation: Back beyond the store of leftover Christmas decorations, there is a grim, single-stall bathroom.
Sounds like: About 100 decibels of amateur singing. If you don’t like what you hear, sign up and see if you can do better.