In the early days of Towey’s Tavern, blue-collar workers bellied up to the Chestnut Hill bar, where neighbors played pool, everybody smoked, and there was no such thing as a craft beer.
The passing 50-plus years haven’t altered Towey’s, where the beer stayed cheap and cigarette smoke still drifts near the ceiling. But the world outside changed, bringing with it new patrons, then fewer of them. Denizens of the wood-paneled Germantown Avenue institution noticed empty seats even on weekends. At first, they didn’t mind; more room for them.
But in the early hours of next Sunday morning, after one last party, the venerable shot-and-a-beer dive will close for good, casting adrift the bartenders and regulars to whom it has been a second home. The decision wasn’t easy, said Lyn Russo, whose grandfather Frank Towey opened the place, but the bar was a victim of the neighborhood’s changing demographics and a craft-beer boom that sent customers elsewhere.
“It’s strange, because it’s always been such a huge part of my life,” said Russo, 50, who as a child ate pickles and cherries from behind the bar as her parents cleaned the place. “It’s become a family.”
Manager and bartender David Marcolina, who has worked at Towey’s for 30 years, offered a more blunt assessment.
“It’s a great [expletive] bar, and there’s a lot of people pissed we’re closing,” he said. “We’re going to be missed when we’re gone.”
Adding insult to injury in the minds of some regulars, the building will become an outpost of the Foodery, the purveyor of bottled beer that has three locations in Philadelphia and one in Phoenixville. It should do well there, Russo said, given Towey’s popularity as a late-night spot for takeout beer.
But what of the locals, the Eagles and Phillies and Flyers fans, the drinkers who depend on Towey’s for companionship and laughs and community?
“We’ll be homeless,” said regular Tom Bregatta, sighing into his lager. “Who has the patience to babysit all these miscreants?”
There’s disagreement among family members over exactly when Frank Towey opened the place, but according to Russo, it was 63 years ago. From the start, the bar drew construction workers and factory employees coming off night shifts. Often, it was packed by 8 a.m., Marcolina said.
Towey’s is the only dive bar in the area, and although blue-collar types still make up a large percentage of the clientele, now they’re joined by lawyers, judges, doctors, professors, artists, employees from nearby restaurants, and, once in a while, professional athletes. Bill Murray even came in once while waiting for a table at a nearby restaurant.
“He stood by the cigarette machine,” Marcolina said. “People walked in and looked at him, like, oh, that’s Bill Murray. Nobody paid him a bit of mind.” He also left a $50 tip.
Towey’s was eventually taken over by Russo’s parents, John and Lois Towey, who ran the place until several years ago, when Russo took over. Russo’s father died in 2010.
Marcolina, 63, started out as a bar regular who lived in an apartment upstairs. After a construction accident left Marcolina unemployed, John Towey knocked on his door and offered him a job. After a while, he started selling cheesesteaks out of the bar for $3, which only added to Towey’s charm among faithful patrons.
The bar has four brews on tap, a fridge full of beer, and an array of liquor bottles bathed in pinkish light behind the bar. Decorations include mirrors, neon beer lights, and bags of Herr’s chips and popcorn clipped to the wall. A sign behind the bar reads: “The customer is always right. … Bartender decides if you are a customer.”
Over the years, some of Chestnut Hill’s well-heeled residents have turned up their noses at Towey’s, said John Spruance, a bartender for 16 years. But he always took pride in the bar’s lack of pretension. When customers ask to see the wine list, Spruance writes “red” and “white” on his notepad and hands it to them. Occasionally, someone asks why people are smoking. “To me, it’s a matter of, you want something to drink or not? You comin’ or goin’?”
It’s not that Towey’s never tried to change with the times. But saving the bar would have required a total image overhaul, Russo said, and experiments with modernizing hadn’t gone over well with regulars. First, Russo added some craft beer. Then, last summer, she made it nonsmoking.
“That was a disaster,” Russo said. “Our longtime patrons were like, ‘Screw this, we’re out of here!’ I think they felt why fix what’s not broken?”
Russo, who planned to try the smoking ban for six months, ended it after a week.
In Towey’s heyday, the scene was rowdier, with breakups, makeups, and the occasional argument between friends. (“We have our share of morons,” Marcolina allowed.) The bar was most festive on snow days, when it was often the only bar open in Chestnut Hill, and on Christmas evenings.
“I’ll never forget the first Christmas night,” Spruance said. “I open up, and an hour later it’s packed with people who are sick of being around their families!”
Spruance and Marcolina are considering career changes after Towey’s closes. Russo said she and the rest of her family are hoping for an upbeat mood on the final night, which will include live music and all the Towey’s staff as well as past and current regulars.
Then, sometime after the last customer leaves, the real party will start, and the staff will gather and reminisce for as long as they see fit. At some point, the last Jamesons will be poured, the last pints of Miller Lite drained. Then they’ll lock up for the last time.
“That’ll be one of the hardest nights, or mornings, as the case may be,” Spruance said. “Just locking the door and walking away.”