Making my way past the toile armchairs and leather sofas, gilt-framed oil paintings, and thick draperies, I had the distinct feeling of visiting the parlor of some estranged older relative — wealthy and eccentric, with a taste for bygone opulence that would land on the spectrum somewhere between Miss Havisham and Liberace.
But I wasn't in for an evening of stale butterscotch candies and ginger ale. This is 1 Tippling Place, the idiosyncratic creation of Anne Frey — a Rittenhouse Square-area resident whose previous careers include actress, real estate agent and antique-jewelry dealer, though, she said, "really, I was a housewife, if you want to know the truth." At 59, on a whim, she decided to add "bar owner" to that resumé, opening what has, in the five years since, become a serious Center City cocktail bar serving classic pre-Prohibition recipes and hard-to-find single-malt scotches.
I went on a Wednesday and easily found a seat at the glossy wooden bar, which is well stocked with bottles of bitters and house-made tinctures, and atomizers filled with Laphroaig, rosewater, and absinthe. There are also jars of prepared herbs and fruit garnishes, all protected from bargoers by a tiny, salad-bar-style sneeze guard.
The lengthy cocktail menu was first created by a bartender who had trained under Sasha Petraske, who was credited with kick-starting the resurgence of pre-Prohibition cocktails in speakeasy-style settings. Everything here more or less fits the period. That includes the drinks — my favorite
was the bittersweet Paper Plane, a luminous orange-hued concoction of bourbon, Aperol, Amaro Meletti, and lemon, served in a coupe for $12 -- as well as the decor elements, which Frey bought at auction or donated from her own home, including oil portraits of an uncle and a great-great-grandfather. Even the building, with its stylish art deco facade set back from Chestnut Street, dates to Prohibition. It was designed by architects Silverman & Levy in the late 1920s.
When 1 Tippling Place opened, Frey imagined the crowd would be older. She pitched it as a quiet place for boomers to drink. Younger people tend to come in anyway. Frey just wishes they would open the door first. She once hired an artist to paint an elaborate, gold-leaf sign on the front door; then, a fight broke out on the street and someone went right through the glass. (As a consequence -- of that, and of the fact that someone keeps stealing the small street sign plaque outside the bar -- people sometimes assume 1 Tippling Place is styled as a speakeasy. That was not Frey's intention.)
On a weeknight, there was a mix of older people drinking in peace, and twentysomethings sprawled on the couches in shorts and flip-flops. On weekends, the 70 seats can sometimes fill up. There's no standing allowed; you can put your name and number on a list, and maybe they'll call if a table becomes available.
It's a good thing the seats are comfy; obtaining a drink can take upwards of 20 minutes. But they're made with care and unusual flourishes, like house-infused chai bourbon or homemade ginger beer. If you're not in a rush, you can look at the leisurely pace as one of 1 Tippling's charming quirks.
Here's another: It may be the only place in the world where you can get a pour of Balvenie 30-year-old ($185), alongside a ramekin of artichoke-Parmesan dip, served piping hot with a handful of Triscuits ($7).
It's exactly the pairing I imagine my estranged, eccentric great-uncle would serve.
1 Tippling Place
2006 Chestnut St., (no phone), 1tpl.com
When to go: Ever have a night when you need a strong drink and minimal interaction with other humans? That's when. Otherwise, aim for happy hour, 5-7 p.m. weeknights, for $9 cocktails and $5 snacks. It's open Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m. -1 a.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. The kitchen closes at 8 p.m.
Bring: Antiquarians. Norma Desmond types. Anyone who appreciates a well-made cocktail but has trouble with noisy bars.
What to order: The best sellers are the Mexican Strawberry ($11), made with tequila, strawberry, cucumber, mint, and lime; and the Kilt Lifter ($12) with scotch, ginger, apple cider, lemon, honey, and bitters.
Bathroom situation: Fix your makeup before you go -- you'll get no privacy here. It's one of those setups with individual tiny rooms for toilets, and communal, all-gender sinks and mirrors out in the open for all to use.
Sounds like: About 90 decibels of (perhaps unnecessarily?) vigorous cocktail shaking, plus background music that would not sound out of place as the sound track to a Cirque show.