I’ve asked the bartender to bring me whatever the most popular drink is at Parkside Beef & Ale. “It’s pretty strong,” she warns, sizing me up correctly. Nonetheless, I soon find myself staring down a pint glass brim-full of rum — six kinds of it! — topped off with fruit juice and a candied cherry. It’s like a Hawaiian Punch to the liver. Only later do I learn the name of this concoction: The Obama. It’s fitting, in that it’s almost strong enough to erase any memory of the last 14 months of travel bans, Russia investigations, and political turmoil.
Of course, it is also a matter of taste.
Augusta Mason, a manager, created the cocktail when the bar opened a decade ago in a moment of yes-we-can optimism. But, she said, one first-time customer balked on the day of the Eagles parade. “He said, ‘It’s the ‘Trump Punch’ now!’ ” Mason recalled. “I said, ‘As long as you’re drinking, you can call it whatever you want.’ ”
Mason was just pleased to see an unusually lively and diverse crowd at Parkside, a narrow, dim bar hidden in the shadow of Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building, a survivor in a row of low-slung buildings left over from Center City’s sleepier days. Over the years, the bar has had its struggles.
“A lot of African Americans come in because it is probably the only bar downtown that plays R&B and hip-hop and has soul food,” Mason said. But white folks? “Even if they do open the door, they look in and then mostly leave right away.”
The bar opened as Big Bang’s (named for owner Hee Bang), with the hope of taking a bite out of the Del Frisco crowd: judges and lawyers from the courthouse nearby. The owners rebranded after a fight broke out in 2012 and four people were stabbed outside.
At lunchtime, the music’s pounding and the bar is packed with municipal workers, yellow safety vests slung over their chairs, eating fried shrimp platters with mac and cheese and collards, and, when the mood strikes, washing it down with tall glasses of something blue and boozy.
When I stop by with a friend on a weeknight, it’s slow. A few women seated at the shiny black bar are downing Obamas. Another man, drinking alone, croons along with the R&B soundtrack in a quiet falsetto. A regular in a dapper suit who works as a legal investigator strikes up a conversation in between relentlessly hitting on the bartender. “She’s a very beautiful woman,” he tells me almost apologetically.
She is also, as the night progresses, increasingly concerned with my failure to drink my Obama. “You haven’t even done a dent!” she says with a furrowed brow. “Must be scared.” In the end, she gives up hope and volunteers to discount it a few dollars. That knocks it down, also fittingly, to a circa-2008 price point.
Parkside Beef & Ale
1433 Arch St., 267-324-3216
When to go: Late-night Mondays, there’s a live jazz and neo-soul band. Happy hour runs 4:30-6:30 p.m. weeknights; get $6 flavored martinis, $5 wine, or dollar-off domestic beers. It’s open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. on weekdays, and 5 p.m.-2 a.m. on weekends.
Order: Go with the flow and select the Obama ($11) and the chicken wing platter with collard greens and mac and cheese ($10.95). This is also a popular take-out beer spot; you’ll pay $12.99 for either a 12-pack of Coors Light or a six-pack of Yards Philly Pale Ale.
Bring: Your City Hall coworkers on a day when they need a liquid lunch. Fans of R&B and soul food.
Bathroom situation: A clean, single-stall unit that’s been remodeled in the not-too-distant past.
Sounds like: In the evening, an energetic 93 decibels — and much louder at lunchtime — with ’80s and ’90s hip-hop and R&B throwbacks that, after a few Obamas, might have you singing along.