I don’t care much for vodka, or for birthday cake. So I know in advance that birthday-cake vodka will be terrible.
Still, I’m committed. After all, that sweet-acrid flavor? That’s the taste of celebrating another year in the world at the best place to age in Philly: Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar.
I arrive at the intersection of Passyunk Avenue and Federal Street a few hours before my birthday officially starts. The sandwich board outside offers birthday wishes to Toni and Linda, who are in attendance, and to Nov. 17 celebrities who are not: Rock Hudson, Lee Strasberg, and Martin Scorsese.
The bar has stood here since 1938; its original theme was, unofficially, “South Philly dive.”
But it had a quirk: The owner, Anthony “Ray” Capozzoli, used to greet everyone who walked in with, “Happy birthday!”
“Once he said it 365 times, it’d be somebody’s birthday eventually,” his son, Lou, said. “Then they’d say, ‘How’d you know?’ ”
After Ray died in 1997, Lou Capozzoli renamed the place to keep Ray’s legacy alive. Then, things snowballed into what it is today: a year-round birthday party where the guest of honor changes day to day. For your birthday, they ring a bell and give you a goofy hat and cake-flavored vodka in a special, cupcake-shaped shot glass with a candle in it.
Around midnight, I enlist Kit Richardson, 27, whose birthday is ending just as mine is beginning, to join me in this tradition. The bartender frowns at our IDs, then slaps two candle-lit glasses and paper party hats onto the bar.
It’s a rite of Philly passage.
“I had a guy who came in at 7 in the morning to get his free shot, because he just turned 21,” Capozzoli said. He was that eager. “I said, ‘Son, you got a long way to go. Take it easy.’ ”
If you’re lucky, your birthday falls on a Friday – karaoke night.
It’s a supportive crowd, the kind of place where you can belt out the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling,” look down at your feet, and find a middle-aged man you’ve never met before on his knees, playing air guitar. It’s also a place where you might encounter a very angry rendition of Alanis Morissette, directed from one Ray’s regular to another. (“He cheated on me,” the singer explained to me later. “With a teenager.”)
At any given moment, a barback is liable to maneuver in front of the singer, carrying a box full of empties out to the recycling bin.
Karaoke aside, not much has changed here since Ray’s days: not the antique cash register or the wood-paneled walls or the framed photo of Frank Rizzo, or the round tables set with ashtrays the size of bathtubs. (Smoking is still allowed, and the half-dozen fans moving air around are no match for the smog on a busy night.) It’s still mostly a Bud Light and PBR crowd, though some local craft beers are available.
One major change is that the once-working kitchen is now extra storage for beer (and for Pinnacle cake vodka, which they buy by the case). There are still food offerings, but they’re limited. Think: canned spaghetti and meatballs.
“It’s the law we have to have it,” Capozzoli said. “I used to have these signs up for beef stew, and you get these goofs that come in and order it! I don’t even want to sell it. It’s from the dollar store.”
Still, he can’t get too angry with them.
“It’s a birthday bar,” he said. “Who fights on their birthday?”
Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar
1200 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-365-1169, thehappybirthdaybar.com
When to go: In case this wasn’t clear already, go on your birthday. Otherwise, karaoke starts at 9 p.m. Fridays; the bar is open 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Sundays.
Bring: Your out-of-town guests and your takeout Pat’s or Geno’s cheesesteaks from around the corner. It’s an only-in-Philly experience.
Order: The special, for $4, is a can of Yuengling Premium lager and shot of Windsor Canadian. (That’s not the cheapest whiskey available in State Stores, but it’s close).
Bathroom situation: That trough running underneath the bar? Don’t even think about it; it was designed as a spittoon, not a urinal. Instead, get in the fast-moving line for the single-stall bathroom with newspapers spread on the floor and a sign on the wall: “Ask bartender for hand towels.”
Sounds like: On karaoke nights, a 101-decibel mix of Lady Gaga, Springsteen, Radiohead, and Tom Petty, punctuated by the birthday bell.