The Northeast Times takes a look at the people, pubs and pints inside Philly’s early morning bar scene.
By Max Marin
There’s no line outside of McKenna’s Bar at 6:52 a.m.
Less than a minute after the doors open, the first regular lumbers in — a 71-year-old named Phil with a handlebar mustache and a slight hearing deficit.
Without inquiry, Denise Jovovich, one of the Mayfair bar’s morning bartenders, pours him a glass of cheap beer. News is the room’s only soundtrack. Phil watches and sips his drink with a look of satisfaction and inner peace.
Everyone knows the evening bar scene. But at 7 a.m. nearly every day of the week, at least 30 bars across the Philadelphia open their doors and start pouring drinks to a diverse cross-section of the city, from shaky-handed alcoholics to overnight workers, from coffee drinkers to bereaved funeral goers. I visited seven early-hours bars between first call and noon, had a drink (or two) at each, and I’m here to tell you how very emotional I am feeling at the moment.
Sorry — just sorting through these barstool notes for the first time. What sober me is here to tell you is that going to neighborhood bars in the rosy hours after dawn is every bit a fascinating way to see a city as in the evening.
At McKenna’s, where mugs of Pabst Blue Ribbon are famously 80 cents a pop, it begins with the retired crowd.
Phil will soon be joined by a 90-year-old neighborhood man named Billy, who walks to McKenna’s from his house every morning, drinks four or five small snifters of Pabst, and does pushups and situps on the barroom floor. It’s an overwhelmingly male-dominated scene — and not just at this Frankford Avenue waterhole. Hang around, and you’ll assuredly catch the group of elderly women who still come in through the bar’s antiquated LADIES entrance in the back.
By mid-morning, Jovovich says they’ll have at least six drinkers stretching down the narrow barroom with no place they’d rather be.
“People hang out all day,” says Jovovich, who works from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. three days a week. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Hey! You did my whole shift with me!’ ”
Most bars would lose money by opening this early. But in working-class areas from the Northeast to South Philly, early-morning bars are part of the neighborhood fabric.
Less than half a mile from McKenna’s is the Taproom, a corner joint on a sleepy residential block. According to longtime bartender “Kathy,” who requested withholding her full name, mornings are decent business. It gets more competitive once the bar-saturated Frankford Avenue corridor opens up full force in the afternoon.
“Some people come in to watch the morning news,” Kathy says. “Certain people come in just to play the games. Some people just come in to listen to the jukebox first thing in the morning.”
The retired class is joined by the gainfully employed. In Mayfair, bartenders say midnight-shift SEPTA operators, firefighters and State Road corrections officers are mainstays of the morning bar crowd.
Two blocks away at Sheffield Tavern, a worker snoozes after a shift in the smoker’s outpost. The bar’s empty at the moment, but morning barkeep Ashley Lang notes she already had two graveyard shifters who came in for a night cap. And it changes day by day, hour by hour. “Once people have found their neighborhood spot, they stick with it,” she says.
I down a beer and move to the next spot. If I wanted to, I could walk to Ralph’s Bleigh Street Bar just down the street.
Mayfairians are lucky to have so many options.
There were 1,442 restaurant liquor licenses in Philly as of 2016, according to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. For the last several decades, state liquor law has allowed any business with a restaurant liquor license — which covers everything from lavish steakhouses to neighborhood dive bars — to start serving booze at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and as early as 9 a.m. on Sundays. At Philadelphia International Airport for an early international flight? The good law granteth you booze as early as 5 a.m.
But in Center City and University City, despite the concentration of 24–7 business facilities, there are fewer first call options than there are in this half-mile stretch of the Northeast.
Work overnight in University City? Spread Bagelry isn’t your everyday bar, but I’ll mention it because it’s one of the few spots that serves booze at 7 a.m. And over on the east side of Broad Street, Milkboy is one of the few — or maybe the only bar — open to third-shift Jefferson Hospital staffers looking to unwind as the rest of the city rolls out of bed.
Five years ago, I spent a summer working the overnight shift at a now-shuttered diner. Us third-shifters would hand off the aprons to the morning crew around 7 a.m., feeling equal parts weary and wired. Happy hour called, but who’s open? I frequented quite a number of morning bars in the River Wards, as well as some famed South Philly haunts like Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar — a place that some joke never closes.
But put Ray’s aside for a moment. South Philly still has, bar none, the city’s most prodigious morning selection.
At Fireside Tavern on Oregon Avenue near 6th Street, five people chat around a circular bar beneath signs with catty messages like, TIPPING IS NOT A TOWN IN CHINA, and, IF YOU’RE DRINKING TO FORGET, PLEASE PAY IN ADVANCE.
Shortly after I sit down, a man who is feeling very good and whose name I can’t quite understand forcefully gifts me with damn near an entire box of Tastykake Jelly Krimpets. Is the morning crowd more generous than the evening crowd? It’s only 9:30 a.m. — still too early to tell.
Another patron is a young-looking retired postal worker who lives in Jersey. He found Fireside on his commute home from the city for so many years. Now, he still comes back in the morning one or two days a week to hang with the manager, Tommy. He reads the paper. He smokes cigarettes in the A/C and he’s smiling the whole time. Why go out of his way for this?
“Philly folks, there’s nothing like them,” he says. “Jersey people are kind of uptight.”
The more time — and drinks — in South Philly, the more I hear stories that defy easily identifiable types of morning drinkers.
It’s a quick Lyft ride north to Michael’s Place at 11th and Mifflin.
Nicky Chrysler, a retired car salesman turned bartender, highlights one of the stranger morning routines at his bar: a crowd of 15 or 20 people dressed in all black walk into the bar early in the morning and order a round of shots. It happens maybe once or twice a month.
They’re going to or coming from a funeral at one of the area’s churches.
A bit farther north, Bonnie’s Capistrano Bar just started opening its doors at 7 a.m. a few years back. The bartender, John (no last name given), has even more stories about the variety of the morning crowd he sees in South Philly.
One girl regularly comes in dressed for the office. She orders a double bourbon on the rocks. Sometimes a single after that, depending on the day. “I think she doesn’t really like her job,” John says. Another guy at the bar nods knowingly. He’s been there, too.
John’s going through various morning shifts that have stood out over the last few months, and he stops on the day after Donald Trump’s election in November. The gloom of that day in liberal strongholds like Philadelphia was well-reported. People called out of work, and you can guess where droves of them went.
“We had almost a full bar,” John recalled. “No one was celebrating. One girl was crying.”
It’s easy to romanticize drinking at this time of day for those who don’t do it regularly. The truth is that most of the conversation is as repetitive and predictable as you’ll find at any happy hour or last call. People complain about parking and taxes. They laugh and cry and swap stories of better mornings.
But the morning bar is there for those who need it, in good times and bad, although especially in bad. ••
IF YOU GO…
McKenna’s: 7322 Frankford Ave.
McNally’s on Rhawn: 427 Rhawn St.
Mill Pub: 6700 Martins Mill Road
The Taproom: 7701 Walker St.
Sheffield Tavern: 4501 Sheffield Ave.
Ralph’s Bleigh Street Bar: 7401 Torresdale Ave.