In some cities, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bar referenced by name in even one federal indictment. But this is Philly, and the corner bar formerly known as Doc’s Union Pub has been so distinguished twice.
The first time was a decade back, when the FBI said state senator and future federal prisoner Vince Fumo, who was charged with 137 counts of conspiracy, fraud and more, had sent a private eye to surveil the bar. More recently, it came up 16 times in the indictment of electrical workers’ Local 98 leaders John J. “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, Michael Neill and Brian Burrows, who owned the place until a few years ago and allegedly paid for thousands of dollars’ worth of work on the property out of union coffers.
Today, the word “Doc’s” etched into the transom and the decidedly Pennsport crowd — all Flyers gear and hoagiemouth when I stop by on a Monday night — are the last visible vestiges of that legacy at what’s now called Mifflin Tavern. The indictment “means nothing to me. No comment,” said Russell Lamplugh, who runs the place with his brother Joe.
It’s just about the only thing the voluble bar manager won’t discuss about his vision for a neighborhood bar “done better," that also hosts drag queen brunches, karaoke and bingo nights, frequent live music performances, and assorted community events such as South Philly NORML meetings.
“We do well with the locals, but we also get people like yous," Lamplugh told me. "I can tell you’re not from around here.”
To expand the appeal, they rehabbed the space last summer into something like shabby chic, distressing the old-fashioned wood cabinets, adding those metal, industrial-looking chairs that have become ubiquitous in restaurant renovations, and investing in lots and lots of mason jars as vessels for serving such cocktails as a Blood Orange Cosmo that Lamplugh said is “popular with the women." (They also have tiny mason jars for shots, an Etsyish innovation I doubt John Jameson dared imagine when he bought his distillery.)
The place, gentrified and repainted, the festive second-floor deck freshly AstroTurfed, provides, among other things, "a great forum for people to come and talk about cannabis,” one NORML organizer told me. “Plus, I hear the electrical work is impeccable.” (Though, under new management, they dare not spark up a joint on the porch anymore.)
Still, despite the cannabis talk and drag shows and craft beers, like the bitter, hoppy Tonewood Fuego IPA ($6) on draft, most people I see at the bar are content with straightforward pleasures: a bottle of Miller Lite and a basket of wings.
Lamplugh, who used to run bars down the Shore, and works a day job at the docks in Gloucester City, chafes under efforts to define Mifflin Tavern, or its demographic. His family is fourth-generation Mummers, and he was raised amid the clubhouses that line Two Street. He wants to appeal to them, but also to the millennials moving in.
To his mind, the food ought to be good, but not excessively so.
“Not everything is scratch, I’m not gonna lie to you," he said. "Our burgers are made from fresh-ground beef. I’m not gonna sit here and tell you it’s grass-fed. That’s not our style.” But I can confirm the french fries are crisp and salty, the roasted veggie grilled cheese tasty, if a bit soggy.
“People come in here and they’re not expecting the world," Lamplugh said. He likes it that way: "We want to exceed your expectations.”
1843 S. Second St., Philadelphia; 267-273-0811; mifflintavern.net
When to go: Game night with drag queen Brittany Lynn falls on Wednesday. If that is somehow not your thing, it’s open Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-midnight; Friday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday, noon-2 a.m. and Sundays, noon to midnight.
Bring: Your entire Mummers club. The entire upstairs space can be reserved for events at no charge, as long as you plan to buy food and drink.
What to order: The locals-only draft list includes some lesser-known offerings such as a New England-style IPA from Phoenixville’s Crowded Castle, and a pilsner from King of Prussia’s Workhorse Brewing.
Bathroom situation: A couple of stalls, newly renovated and like the rest of the place very clean. Lamplugh said his father comes in to clean at 6 a.m. almost every day. “I don’t know why he does it,” he said.