The bar at BlueBird Distilling is a sprawling, wraparound structure within the yawning cavern of The Bourse food hall. Sadly, a single, portable speaker — straining at tinny top volume to set a mood with ’90s hits (Brandy, TLC, Robyn) — is no match for this grand space, especially as cleaning staff noisily drag chairs across the floor.
The Bourse, which officially opened in November as Philly’s most ambitious food hall ever, also has a collective liquor license, making it arguably the city’s largest bar — and promising the novelty of roaming freely, beer in hand, that most Philadelphians get to experience only once a year on Two Street, if at all.
But turning it into an after-hours destination? That’s a tougher proposition. On a recent evening visit to the large, and largely empty, space, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d sneaked into a shuttered food court after hours.
“It is a late-night venue,” said Jared Adkins of Bluebird, the Phoenixville distillery whose subway-tiled space anchors the center of the spectacularly renovated beaux arts building that once housed a landmark commodities exchange. Now, he just has to convince more customers, who will in turn convince more vendors it’s worth staying open late to serve them.
The Bourse, which has more than two dozen food stalls, claims three bars: Bluebird’s newest outpost; Philly’s first chocolate and wine bar, from Chocodiem of Easton; and the TAPS Fill Station, specializing in draft everything: kombucha, cocktails, beer, cider, and mead. But the timing has been rough, Adkins admitted: “It had opened in the Christmas season and right into, go figure, dry January.” Now, they’re making adjustments, he said: softer lighting for nighttime ambience, a better sound system, projection screens showing sports, and events like fourth-Thursday karaoke nights and a March 5 Mardi Gras blowout with a New Orleans brass band.
So, recently I took myself on a Bourse bar crawl. I started at Bluebird, where a small crowd lingered over craft cocktails and takeout. Adkins said his cocktails are mixed to be “spirit forward,” though I tasted mostly ginger in the highly drinkable “Pursue Happiness,” ($12), made with vodka, Aperol, grapefruit, and lime, and was overwhelmed by the herbal Fernet Branca in the aptly named rye whiskey cocktail “Bitter in the 6” ($13). (For purists, straight pours of all BlueBird spirits are available — the best seller is the four-grain bourbon, with the sweetness of wheat and spiciness of rye — as are bottles to take home.)
Next up: Chocodiem, a jewelbox of a chocolate and macaron shop that has sprouted a small bar complete with an Instagram-baiting chocolate liqueur waterfall.
The signature drink here, I was alarmed to learn, is the chocolate martini, a cocktail I’d thought best left in the early 2000s, along with lace-up jeans and trucker hats. But Chocodiem is resurrecting this dubious classic for the craft-cocktail era, with house-made drinking chocolate, in-house cacao-infused vodka, and optional flavors like a shot of fresh-brewed espresso or Chambord raspberry liqueur.
“Dessert cocktails, they tend to be pure sugar bombs,” said Chocodiem co-owner Katherine MacDonnell. “I wanted to make sure ours is not.” The highlight: It’s garnished with a ganache-filled truffle plucked from Chocodiem’s glass case that (come at me, Gibson martini fans) beats a lousy cocktail onion any day.
The bar also serves European-style hot chocolate with house-made vanilla whipped cream — spiked ($11) or not ($6) — and wine-and-chocolate flights ($33 for four 3-ounce pours and four truffles) from a rotating list of European wines on tap.
At my last stop, TAPS Fill Station, the mini-chain’s second location, after Baltimore’s Mount Vernon Marketplace, the best sellers are flights, a good way to sample the 21 draft beers or before deciding what to fill your growler with. I was intrigued by the “halfsie” — tart-cherry kombucha mixed with a local 2SP Art Brut IPA ($8), a theoretically healthy, lower-alcohol alternative to beer seemingly designed for day drinking.
Co-owner Will Glass wants more visitors to stay, linger by the bar’s flatscreen TVs, borrow a board game. On a recent visit, he was playing jazz through a (non-Bluetooth) speaker and talking up plans to bring in savory pies from South Philadelphia’s popular Stargazy to satisfy late-night hunger pangs.
“We’re trying to work with the other vendors to make this not just a lunchtime spot, but also a nighttime spot," he said. “For now, we’re trying to be the place that stays open into the evening and has a food offering. You can hang out with us if the other vendors are closed.”
111 S. Independence Mall E., TheBoursePhilly.com
When to go: Happy hour, which runs until 6 p.m. at Bluebird and 7 p.m. at Chocodiem, is the most vibrant time at the Bourse when it’s also socially acceptable to drink. Bluebird is open 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays, and 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays. TAPS is open noon-10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, noon-midnight Friday and Saturday. Chocodiem is open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, except Sundays, when it’s 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Bring: A big group — there’s plenty of space to spread out. And a growler, since refills are $2 off at TAPS Fill Station.
What to order: The best things I tried at the Bourse were the Pursue Happiness at Bluebird Distilling, and the Powder Keg West Coast IPA from Hanover, Pa.'s Miscreation Brewing at TAPS Fill Station.
Bathroom situation: Cool vintage tile with modern updates, and about as clean as you can hope for.