It strikes me as strange, the notion of arriving at the cusp of Fishtown and Port Richmond — an area with a rich, if endangered, culture of corner bars conceived in an era when it seemed impossible to imagine a beer fancier than a Heineken — and choosing to synthetically re-create just one more of them.
But apparently there’s demand for manufactured nostalgia. I push through the door to find a sizable Wednesday night crowd at Sergeant York’s, a brand-new, vintage corner dive bar fashioned with an instant 50-year patina.
It has crawled into the shell left behind by Jovan’s Place, a real old-school Fishtown mainstay noted for its stuffed cabbage, beef goulash, and service so slow it is said some of the final dinner guests still are waiting for their food. The new owners salvaged its remains — the glass-brick windows; the Formica-topped, horseshoe bar that never made much sense in that BYOB setting; even some furniture — and added sitcom-dive-bar touches like vintage beer signs and photographs harvested from “different old guys’ garages all over Pennsylvania.”
The bar is named for the street and the war hero and above all for the fact that “it just sounded nice,” according to Jacob Cohen, 30, a real estate agent and former drummer for Jimmy Buffett who opened the bar with his father, David Cohen, 60, the former owner of Evolutions, a Delaware Avenue nightclub with a checkered history, and Revival in the space that’s now National Mechanics. A digitally enhanced image of Alvin York, who was reportedly drawn to moonshine and barroom brawls before finding God and military glory, has been co-opted for the logo.
This vision of York would fit right in with the crowd of thirtysomethings, with their creative facial hair and knit caps — the type neighborhood old-timers used to call “hipsters” (as in, “Hipster, go home!” a phrase once shouted in my direction as I dared walk past an authentic Fishtown dive much like the ones Sergeant York is modeled on). Jacob Cohen likes to think it’s a Parc or Harp & Crown crowd, sipping $8 beers on their low-key nights.
“It’s got the feel of a dive and it’s got the hospitality and inventory of some place you’d see in Center City,” he said.
The cocktail list, though, is heavy on flavored vodka. In a moment of optimism I will come to regret, I order the Saul’s Sweet Tea ($9) with mint-infused whiskey, sweet tea, and lemon.
More enticing is the selection of relatively obscure beers: IPAs from Tonewood Brewing, out of New Jersey, and Astoria’s SingleCut on draft, plus cans ranging from a right-priced $2.50 Miller Lite up to a $10 New England-style IPA from Foreign Objects out of New Paltz, N.Y.
The food menu, which the Cohens initially thought of as “a throwaway,” has recently been revamped: the most popular items are an enjoyably salty/spicy/scalliony General Tso’s Cauliflower ($11) and the fried-chicken sandwich on a biscuit ($11), a structurally unsound but tasty creation heaped with coleslaw and pickles and served with undercooked french fries. Even so, it’s light-years ahead of your average dive-bar fare.
Jacob Cohen insists that’s the whole point. Despite the decor (and the press materials) he says, “I don’t feel like we recreated something. We’re making the extra effort to be an elevated dive bar.”
2327 E. York St., 215-425-1424
When to go: Happy hour runs 5-7 p.m. with half-price appetizers. Or catch a 76ers game on the sharp TVs. It’s open 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday, and noon to 2 a.m. Sunday. The kitchen closes at 11 p.m. but stays open until midnight Friday and Saturday.
Bring: Beer fans. Nostalgic types. Probably not your children, unless you want them to practice sounding out the F-word from the bar’s signage and getting an abridged sex-ed lesson (see: bathroom situation).
What to order: Try a pint of the Tonewood IPA ($6) and the General Tso’s cauliflower, a quality bar snack that can be rationalized as health food.
Bathroom situation: Wow, that is a lot of porn. It’s decoupaged all over the walls of the single-stall bathrooms that could otherwise be described as “clean.” Cohen said he’s had families with young kids come in for dinner and seem unfazed by it, though. “They get that it’s a gag.”