In the early 1980s, a Texas Monthly magazine writer named Jim Atkinson wrote an homage to the "bar bar" and its fight to survive the "wimpifying" influence of the fern bars sprouting up across the country.
The "bar bar," he wrote, was usually a dark, whiskey-drinking place where the arts of conversation, listening, killing time, and holding forth were still prized. And "if somebody knows where you are," he added, "you aren't in a bar bar."
The fern bar, meanwhile, was "about "being" there being there to be seen." And its trappings were too horrible for Atkinson to bear: wine spritzers and pina coladas, fried zucchini sticks and fake Tiffany lamps, guys named Biff scoping out girls named Heather, and bartenders in striped shirts wielding computerized liquor guns to maximize profits.
What Atkinson described was only the beginning of the struggle between independent bars with character and corporate clones such as Bennigan's and Houlihan's. And the situation would get worse before it got better.
But get better it did. Not only have unique "bar bars" been thriving in Philadelphia, but some have begun cooking up a storm in some of the least likely corners.
How about the New Wave Cafe in Queen Village, which, before its current chef arrived, was most noted as a waiting room for the restaurant across the street? Or the Black Sheep, near Rittenhouse Square? All right, the crowd there "can" be "ferny," but the owners earn big points for opening an Irish pub without shamrocks.
Perhaps the most "bar bar" of the new generation, though, is the Standard Tap in Northern Liberties. It's the kind of place Atkinson would love, half-lit with the yellow glow of a gas chandelier that gives the occupants of the hand-built cherry-wood bar and the dining room banquettes a moody air of "I'm not here."
The beautifully renovated building, which has been a Northern Liberties taproom for nearly two centuries, is set at the northernmost fringe of this burgeoning neighborhood. The crowd has an edgy, effortlessly cool air an artsy mix of salt-and-pepper bohemians, restaurant industry insiders, and thirtysomethings with shoulder-blade tattoos who make the Old City folks to the south look like trendy wannabes.
There is no television here. So conversation is the sport of choice if you can surmount the formidable din of the jukebox playing Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. That is, unless you play darts. In which case you'll be doing your damnedest not to hit one of the servers as they exit the kitchen door just a few inches left of the dart board's well-pocked wall.
There may not be quite enough whiskeys for Atkinson's, or my, taste. But the Standard Tap is a premier venue for local beers, with as many as 13 brews on draft and no bottled suds in sight. This commitment to fresh beer is no surprise since one of the Tap's two owners, William Reed, spent five years as a brewmaster at the now-closed Sam Adams Brewhouse on Sansom Street.
But the focus on local goes beyond the beer, from the wood that Reed and partner Paul Kimport used to build the bar and banquettes to the ingredients in Kimport's surprising food.
There is an austerity to the blackboard menus, which simply read "squid," "duck salad," "smelts," or the like. And those bony little pungent fish say "bar bar" as much as anything else.
Don't let the low-key menu fool you, though. This food is ambitious with an honest homemade quality that rises far above the potato-skin/nacho cliches that fern bars worked so hard to standardize.
The duck salad features one of the best legs of duck confit in town, steeped for four hours in a pot of its own fat and then crisped until the skin protects the soft, herb-infused flesh like salty brown parchment.
An appreciation of good ingredients is apparent in some of the other salads, too the crimson mound of sweet roasted beets sided with a dollop of sour cream, or the slices of lusciously ripe red, yellow and tiger-striped green heirloom tomatoes served splayed around salty shards of Locatelli cheese.
I saw only one dessert offered during my visits, but it was a nice rendition of the bistro classic many restaurants flail at: a creme brulee with real vanilla and a still-warm-to-the-touch caramel crust.
A few renovated bar standards still need work. The fried squid with aioli was inconsistent and tended toward bland and chewy. The burgers, while tasty, had a fancy-bun complex, served on a chewy, flour-dusted roll that smooshed the beef to pieces before I could bite through it.
An upscaled grilled cheese sandwich was also defeated by a poor choice of bread, a puffy focaccia that overshadowed the tasty blend of jack cheeses inside. And a beautiful pork chop with greens was overcooked to a parching dryness.
The Tap's kitchen thrives on the rustic, hearty flavors that used to be reserved for European-style bistros, not neighborhood bars. There is a homemade breakfast sausage at Sunday brunch that occasionally finds its way into a creamy corn stew at dinner beneath a crisp fillet of red snapper.
The pate is also made in-house; the night we ordered it, it was a slab of chunky pork and venison ringed with smoky bacon. The soups were excellent: thick lentil one night, an icy-cold vichyssoise another, its creamy potato puree redolent of sweet leek.
Crisp fried softshell crabs were a delicious ode to late summer garnished with cool cucumber puree and tomatoes. And the roast pork sandwich was a monument to gusto, a sopping mound of shredded tender meat on a bun that was absolutely swamped with fennel-scented juice.
As I laid long, roasted green chiles on top, the wonderfully sloppy mess came alive with the kind of heat that made me want to get up and dance. Or at least, throw darts in a genuine "bar bar."