MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
There’s not much unusual about some beer drinking and a walk down memory lane to celebrate the 20th anniversary of anything.
But activities around the Grey Lodge Pub almost three weeks after the Lower Mayfair tap room officially celebrated its platinum jubilee showed why publican Mike “Scoats” Scotese and his enthusiastic patrons referred to their commemoration as “20 Odd Years.”
As the Budweiser Clydesdales paraded down Frankford Avenue last Thursday, a handful of guys in horsehead masks mingled among the throng of spectators, greeting them with random “neigh, neigh” sounds throughout the late afternoon beer session.
The men and their handlers call themselves the “Majestic Lodgedales” and for years have represented the Grey Lodge in local parades and other festivities. They are ambassadors, pleasure seekers and perhaps part-meme/part-Pagan ritualists. They symbolize the quirkiness that has garnered “the Lodge” a loyal local following and international recognition as one of the East’s premier destinations for craft beer aficionados and barflies alike.
“I’m willing to dress up like a fool to sell beer,” said Scotese, who was not one of the Lodgedales, but who can cite various other instances when he made himself look silly for the cause.
Founded in 1996 at 6235 Frankford Ave., a spot once occupied by the Eagles Place and Mugsy’s Tavern, the Lodge has become known for its eclectic promotions such as Friday the Firkinteenth, Beer Season and the Groundhog Day Hawaiian Shirt Beer Breakfast.
“Friday the Firkinteenth was listed as one of the best beer events in the world by All About Beer magazine,” Scotese, 51, said. “Oktoberfest [in Munich] was on the same list. I’m not saying it makes sense.”
The Grey is also well-known for serving a premium selection of craft beers, like Yards, Dock Street, Samuel Adams, Flying Fish, Victory and Weyerbacher. These brands might be expected in any Center City gastro-pub, but they can be hard to come by in the Northeast. RateBeer.com put the Grey on the site’s (now defunct) “best beer bars in the world” list for several years. Such is the bar’s lofty esteem among the mass media that The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have each sought Scotese’s insights for reports about beer culture.
But after 20 years, the Lodge still has much the same feel as it did in when it tapped its first keg. And that’s why Scotese thinks it has endured.
“It’s a great bar that I think still manages to be a neighborhood bar, has a world-class beer selection and does not have a pretentiousness about it,” he said.
Historically speaking, Scotese and some partners actually bought the place in 1994, two years before it became the Grey Lodge. The taproom occupies a smallish middle-of-the-row avenue storefront. For many years, it was a classic dive bar known unofficially as the “Ave Tav,” although the sign above the door had fallen off the facade decades earlier.
“It didn’t really have a name,” Scotese said.
In the early 1990s, owners changed the name to Eagles Place for about 18 months. Then Scoats’ group took over under the equally short-lived Mugsy’s banner. The partnership soon floundered, leaving Scoats to pick up the pieces.
“I happened to be the last man standing, which really wasn’t a prize. I would have been happy to be one of the ones not standing,” he said.
Although the surrounding neighborhood had been often maligned for its typical urban decay, Scotese saw potential in the location. Other nearby businesses had become local landmarks, such as the original Chickie’s and Pete’s, as well as Tony’s Place pizzeria and restaurant.
As he recounted during a panel discussion at the bar last month, the business’ evolution has been sudden at times but mostly slow and steady. Scotese immediately doubled the number of beers on tap from four to eight. He kept the macro brews like Budweiser, Miller and Coors Light, but started adding the micro brands. By the end of 1996, there were 10 taps.
“I wanted to be able to drink Yards at my bar. I honestly didn’t think there was going to be that many new beers,” Scotese said.
But he perhaps intuitively tapped into something that was to become very big. Philadelphia was on the cusp of the craft beer boom at the time. Yards had opened a brewery a year earlier. They were the first company to start brewing beer for distribution in Philadelphia since Schmidt’s, which went out of business in 1987.
As other new labels soon followed Yards onto the burgeoning market, craft beer bars opened in Old City, Fairmount and other neighborhoods. But the Northeast remained virgin territory. Scotese likes to note that, were the Northeast its own city, it would rank as the third-largest in Pennsylvania. For years to follow, nobody seemed to pick up his lead, leaving the Grey Lodge alone to serve a massive territory.
The bar didn’t change much aesthetically over time. After about five years, Scotese had saved enough “retained earnings” — about $500 — to re-tile the men’s bathroom. He enlisted the help of a friend and art teacher, Peggy, who had a kiln and had just bought letter stamps at a yard sale.
They used the stamps to produce ceramic tiles with famous beer quotes from sage historical figures like Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln. Scoats used his cash to buy blue and black tiles that Peggy convinced him to smash into random pieces. They affixed the pieces to the walls in swirling patterns and plugged beer bottle caps into the grout to fill the gaps.
Then they did the women’s bathroom.
Peggy passed away in 2003, but Scotese has resumed his tile work in recent months. There’s a new wall-size deer logo, perfect for photo ops. Other mosaics depict the Beatles drinking Pilsners at the bar alongside characters from Futurama and a rendering of “Santa Ed,” a longtime regular who passed last December.
Like Peggy, others have made similar behind-the-scenes contributions, notably Patrick McGinley, a former bartender who became a partner in the business in 2004.
While patrons from the Ave Tav days will probably recognize the well-worn yet resilient wooden bar rail — “If you scratch that wood, within a few days it will go back to (look) like nothing happened,” Scotese said — there’s a lot of new-fangled technology, too.
The wifi works great as long as not too many people log on at the same time, the owner insists. And cellphone users get a great signal in the bar, as long as they don’t have Verizon or AT&T as a carrier.
“Sprint and T-Mobile work great,” Scotese said.
“We’ve always been a little bit high-tech. We may have had the first bar website. But we actually didn’t get greylodge.com at first. We couldn’t afford to get that for another two years.”
The owner attributes the Lodge’s sustainability to its conservative approach to growth. Whereas other new ventures often overextend, take on excessive debt and fail, Scotese managed to pay off the mortgage after about 10 years. And while the bar remains an independent operation, Scotese and other partners have opened two other bars.
In 2010, he and Patrick McGinley converted the former Blue Ox Brauhaus in Fox Chase into Hop Angel, a bar and restaurant specializing in German beers and fare. Last year, Scotese and Troy Everwine opened Sawtown Tavern in Tacony.
“Grey Lodge is a beer bar where we rotate draft beers nonstop,” Scotese said. “With Sawtown, we wanted to do something different and we have beers brewed by local breweries for us, so we have house beers on tap. We work with breweries to develop the recipes.”
Scotese openly muses about the day he will leave the bar business behind and tackle other projects, but he has no timeline for that. For now, he still enjoys going to work almost every day.
“Grey Lodge is an awesome bar. I love to hang there and it’s the main place I’m at,” he said. “It’s been a fun ride and I still show up five to seven days a week.” ••
Nancy Rigberg, Ray McCoy and Cornelia Corey have been regulars at the pub for over 15 years. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
What’s on tap: Above, Grey Lodge Pub owner Mike Scotese (right) and partner Patrick McGinley celebrate the business’ 20th anniversary. The Grey Lodge, 6235 Frankford Ave., has become a cornerstone of the Northeast. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO