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Gory, classy, confusing: A tour of Philly’s Halloween pop-up bars

Clown masks, slime-green cocktails, and scary movies await.

The Halloween-themed "The Nightmare Before Tinsel" pop-up bar in Center City draws a rowdy crowd on a mid-October evening.
The Halloween-themed "The Nightmare Before Tinsel" pop-up bar in Center City draws a rowdy crowd on a mid-October evening.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

This year, a few Center City bars have fully embraced the Halloween spirit, dressing up for the supernatural holiday and turning booze and some unusual cocktail garnishes into short-lived boos. Come the first week of November, they’ll have vanished.

Unlike the full-on Halloween thrills on offer at places like Eastern State Penitentiary or 2nd Sanctuary, the South Philly Halloween adventure curated by Brian Sanders’ dance troupe JUNK, these spooky saloons are more casual. No need to face your fears: You can stop by for a drink and a few eerie Instagram posts, then be on your way.

Our intrepid reporter scoped out the city’s Halloween bars to see what horrors await the basic witches among us.

Nightmare Before Tinsel

This pop-up Christmas bar-turned-Halloween house in Midtown Village channels the gory side of the holiday, with decor that’s designed to be Instagrammable — in a gruesome way.

A cobweb-coated entryway, complete with fuzzy spiders, marks the crossover into an alcohol-fueled abyss. Inside, the ceiling, which had been festooned with wrapped presents last December, is now strung with the bottom halves of blood-spattered dolls and plastic-wrapped corpses, hung upside-down, meat-locker-style. Its walls are clad with skulls and other oddities (clown masks, stone faces, severed baby-doll heads) and outfitted with serial killer-swag.

The costumed bartenders were a little heavy-handed with the booze and light on the orange- and green-colored mixers. Then again, the crowd here probably prefers it that way. The mix of 20- and 30-somethings were throwing back harvest-colored drinks, shouting over a pop-punk playlist and gossiping ghoul-friends, and snapping selfies with the flash on.

Despite the clamoring crowd, drink presentation here was on-point. A $10 Ghostbusters-themed Ecto Cooler shot, with a base of Crystal Head Vodka and slime-green Midori, is delivered in a skull shot glass with dry-ice smoke drifting out of the cranium. For $14, you can order the Blood Bag, a blend of orange vodka and Red Bull with a touch of grenadine packed inside a plastic pouch, served with a straw.

This is an end-of-the-night bar, to be enjoyed well into an evening out, when you’re in the mood for some Monster Mashing.

Runs through Oct. 31, 116 S. 12th St., 215-397-3308,


This bar’s take on All Hallows’ Eve is decidedly more mature. Located on the second floor of the recently opened Pearl Tavern (formerly an Irish Pub), the speakeasy-style barroom is light on blood and gore, instead sporting a slightly haunted vibe. Think the Sanderson Sisters of Hocus Pocus, if the sisters were cooking up cocktails instead of children.

It’s the grown-up option for Halloween bars, with old-school scary movies playing on screens above the bar. On a post-happy hour visit, most of the guests belonged to the professional set, with a few families mixed in. There’s table service at church pews from witch-clad waitresses with fake blood smeared on their arms. The large window overlooking Walnut Street lets in light — a sharp contrast to the shadowy confines of Tinsel.

Though not at all creepy, the cocktails here are killer (all priced at $13). Try the Kiss of Death, a twist on an Old Fashioned with Old Overholt rye, pumpkin ale reduction, and spicy bitters, or the Black Cat, a spin on a sherry martini, served with a black olive.

Runs through Nov. 3, 1123 Walnut St.,

Dark Passage

This maze-like “realm,” as its promoters call it, is set inside a hulking 50,000-square-foot, century-old industrial warehouse on North 10th Street, just steps away from the Reading Viaduct in the Callowhill section of the city. It’s a mashup of a haunted house, escape room, and super-strange improv theater. It’s referred to as an “experience.” And, boy, was it.

It was a long wait, but a short line. The venue can only host about 40 people at a time, and organizers ask visitors to limit their stay to an hour. After climbing a few staircases, you find yourself at a neon-lit bar where you can fuel up for your journey. Then you enter a labyrinthine setup created by movable canvas walls.

On our visit, a crowd of mostly couples was greeted by a powder-faced actor in a lab coat. He asked for help in solving an illogical mystery. Something about a tear in the space-time continuum, for which a woman, Amelia, was ostensibly to blame (classic). You can go to the right or to the left, choosing to follow a path toward the “keepers of control," or another path that leads toward the agents of chaos. Both paths are lined with disorienting objects like flickering TV sets and eventually converge after passing through little pockets that require you to crouch.

Instead of being scared or creeped out, visitors seemed more confused by actors, dressed mostly in leather pants and ill-fitting wigs, who shout gibberish to each other at random points and speak directly to guests at others in an attempt to further what adds up to an unfollowable story arc. It got lost among the ad-libbing and off-scripting and griping about memories not being carried over into other dimensions.

Some guests attempted to solve the mystery, asking questions of the characters and relaying messages between them, but others might have been more contented if some costumed ghouls jumped out from behind the movable walls. Perhaps this “experience” requires an adjusted state of mind.

A drink would help. Unfortunately, the $35 ticket doesn’t include one, but the $6 homemade fall sangria at the bar came highly recommended. That’s a start.

Select dates through Nov. 2, 1004 Buttonwood St.,