We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
When Paul Ryan was growing up in Overbrook, his father owned a variety of pubs in West Philadelphia, and after serving in the Navy during World War II, Ryan joined him in the trade. In 1952, when he was 27 years old, he branched out with his first solo purchase: a Penn University haunt called Smokey Joe's.
Despite his dad's skepticism about catering to college students, Ryan saw potential in the tavern on 36th Street between Walnut and Locust Walk. It had been operating there since 1933, when it was issued the state's 96th liquor license after Prohibition's repeal. He threw his heart and soul into the bar, and it flourished, eventually earning the nickname "the Pennstitution."
Over the years, nearly everyone who attended or worked for Penn passed through its doors: Grace Kelly, Candice Bergen, Donald Trump. President Gerald Ford even mentioned the bar in his 1975 commencement address, famously wisecracking that "[Penn consists] of 16 institutions of higher learning and personal enlightenment - 17 if you include Smokey Joe's."
In 1963, expansion of Penn's campus forced "Smoke's" (as it was also known) to relocate to 38th and Walnut. Recognizing that University City's growth had only just begun, Ryan redeveloped the sleepy stretch of 40th between Walnut and Locust into a mixed-use shopping complex. In 1978, he moved Smokey Joe's to the middle of that block - its current location - and handed over operations to his two sons, Paul and Pat. He died in 1991.
Now 63 and 60, respectively, Paul and Pat Ryan recently brought on their own sons as bar managers, but both claim to have zero desire to step away from the only career they've ever known. Across a tabled etched with the names of countless students, they talked about hanging out with the Eagles on Sundays, how they convinced the owners of a hip food truck to take over their kitchen, and why folks who drink at their bar are more likely to succeed.
What's your first memory of Smokey Joe's?
At 36th Street, you could hear the subway going by underneath the bar. At 38th Street, there were Sunday afternoons with the Philadelphia Eagles, because they played at Franklin Field. We were closed on Sundays, but you'd hear a knock at the back door, and in would come Tommy McDonald, Sonny Jurgensen, Pete Retzlaff, Riley Gunnels or whoever, and we'd get to play around with them. My father would stand at the end of the bar and balance his cash registers, and a few of the Eagles would sit and have their beers.
Are Penn kids more rowdy today than they used to be?
They're very mellow and chill - nothing different than 30 years ago, maybe even tamer. We had a place in Stone Harbor called P.J. Ryan's from 1995 to 2005, and the behavior of the 28-year-old "weekend warrior" is 10 times worse than the behavior of a college student here. I think we set a pretty good tone. All the employees wear a white shirt and tie, so people kind of get that this isn't a place where you're gonna be jumping up and down throwing beer on each other.
What were prices like when you first opened?
Drinks were $1 and beer was 50 cents. We had around eight or 10 taps - Budweiser, Miller Lite, Coors Light. Now it's a lot more microbrews. But in general, beer is more expensive today. A drink now is $4, and a beer is also $4. Maybe that's why students are drinking a lot more of the hard stuff than they used to.
More liquor than beer?
Lots of the brown stuff - bourbon, scotch, whiskey - but also shots. There's always a shot that's the "flavor of the year," from Kamikazes to Purple Hooters. Right now it's Fireball, but there's also this shot called "Green Tea" that's kind of cutting into the Fireball craze.
Your kitchen is run by Enjay's Pizza - how did that partnership come about?
I searched them out. We always had light sandwiches and burgers, but we wanted to do a pizza concept. I read all the great reviews of the Pitruco Pizza truck and decided to go talk to them. I went out to the truck at 30th Street and said, ""Do you guys have any interest in having a kitchen inside?" They said yes. It's worked out great.
Do you have many regulars, since your clientele is mostly students?
We get a lot of local people during the daytime, but here's how we explain this place: We're a neighborhood bar, but the neighborhood's all over the world. We get people from everywhere. I could stand at the bar and talk to somebody from Mumbai, Casablanca, Paris, London, L.A., New York. Then, every four years, the neighborhood changes. They all come back at homecoming - it's our busiest day; we have a line out the door.
Where did all the artwork on the walls come from?
The sports photos and plaques, those were mostly friends, over the years. That is to say, they weren't necessarily great athletes - they were great customers. The big colorful drawings were murals at the back bar of the original Smokey Joe's on 36th Street; our dad had them put in frames when he moved. Above the stage is a piece of the original Palestra floor.
You host live music?
We have Kenn Kweeder every Tuesday night. He came into Smoke's probably around 1975. He had a 45-r.p.m. record that he wanted to put on the jukebox, and I said sure. Then we became friends, and he's been here every Tuesday for the last 25 years. We've had lots of musicians play here, too, from Woody Harrelson to G Love.
Other memorable people who've come in?
My father had a famous relationship with Candice Bergen when she was a student here; he'd kick her out all the time. "You've gotta get out, you're too drunk," he'd say. "You can come back tomorrow." At 12:01, he'd let her back in.
There was Tim Mazzetti, who went on to be a great kicker for the Atlanta Falcons. He played football at Penn, but didn't get picked up by any teams after he graduated, so he worked as a bartender here. One Wednesday, he was supposed to come to work, but then he gets a call from the Falcons to go and try out. On Thursday he calls and says, "I made the team! Send me clothes." A week later, the Falcons beat Los Angeles on Monday Night Football game, thanks to his five field goals. Howard Cosell was screaming, "This is the kicking bartender from Smokey Joe's!"
Lots of our former customers are heads of big corporations like Goldman Sachs or hedge funds. We've also had lots of political families - Trump, Biden, Huntsman, Rendell. Anybody who was connected with Penn has come through here at one time or another - if they ever went to bars, that is. Some students just stay home and study. But the ones who've become successful? They usually hung out here. C-students rule the world.
210 S. 40th St., 215-222-0770