Two decades is a long time for any bar to stay in business, but on the eve of its 20th anniversary, Fergie's Pub is more vibrant than ever.
The bi-level drinkery at 1214 Sansom St. is a cornerstone of the local beer community, a go-to destination for indie music acts and one of the anchors of booming Midtown Village.
How did an unassuming Irish pub lay claim to such standing?
It all began Nov. 28, 1994.
Business partners Fergus Carey and Wajih Abed had mounted a quick renovation of a German tavern called Hoffman House, which in its final days had turned into a dive bar. Mirrors were pulled off the walls, carved wood panels were polished with olive oil and scenes from the Book of Kells were painted on the console behind the bar.
As evening approached on opening day, a line formed and stretched to the end of the block and around the corner onto 13th Street. The weather was relatively mild for the Monday after Thanksgiving, a bonus..
At 7 p.m., Carey and Abed looked up from their last-minute preparations, took a deep breath, and unlocked the door.
A crush of thirsty people poured inside, quickly filling every chair and stool. Customers perched on tables, settled on stairs and even sat on the ground, leaning on the walls of the not-yet-furnished second floor as they tossed back pints of Guinness (the single keg was kicked within an hour), Yuengling, and Rolling Rock.
The party continued through 2 a.m. and picked up again the following night, and again the night after that, and the next, and all the way through the end of the first week. All the stunned proprietors could do was hope their adrenaline kept up as they made drink after drink.
The reason for the initial success was simple.
"We were the first new thing to happen in years!" exclaims Carey, who is known to most Philadelphia drinkers by the nickname he shares with the bar.
According to records, his memory is mostly correct. Old City's Sugar Mom's didn't come online until at least the next month, and Stephen Starr wouldn't shake up the cocktail scene with The Continental for another year. The independent restaurant scene in Philly was generally lagging; a Philadelphia Inquirer article in January 1994 gushed with excitement about Dave & Buster's landing at the waterfront.
But it wasn't just novelty that made Fergie's Pub an instant hit.
In addition to being in the right place at the right time, Fergie and Wajih were the right people.
Between the two of them, they knew what seemed like the entire city. Carey had the in with the younger crowd, thanks to his time bartending at McGlinchey's, and Abed had the loyalty of older Philadelphia diners, from his 24 years handling drinks at Bookbinders Seafood House.
"What made the difference here was just me and Fergie," says Abed. "People trusted us. They didn't care about the neighborhood, they just wanted to come to the pub. We offered reasonable prices and a nice meal."
Reasonable prices, then as now, are subjective. At McGlinchey's, Carey was used to pouring 50-cent drafts. At his new pub, one of the bottles on the opening beer list was selling for $10.
That bottle was Chimay Blue, a beer Carey had stocked to please buddy Tom Peters.
Carey's future business partner, Peters was manager of Copa Too (now Jose Pistola's), where he made it a mission to introduce great Belgian beers to the Philadelphia community. He even spent his own money to install a hand-pump beer engine, so he could pour casks from a fledgling local brewery called Yards.
"Back then, this was a Rolling Rock town," Peters said, laughing.
Today, things are different.
"Fergie's Pub is the worst beer bar in Philadelphia!" Carey says, signature twinkle in his eye. "I'm thinking about making that our new slogan."
He's joking, of course, but only partly. He means it not as a dig on his eponymous tavern, but as compliment on the state of the city's beer bars in general: If I run the worst one, imagine how good all the others must be.
Fergie's also helped pave the way for the rejuvenation of a neighborhood known for sketchy characters.
"My wife and I used to live across the street from Fergie's, and we'd make a quick run across and try not to get entangled with the [people] that trolled the neighborhood," Jason Evenchik recalls. He now owns three flourishing establishments in that vicinity (Time, Bar and Vintage), and it's one of the busiest restaurant strips in town.
The desire to make neighbors happy has been the driving force behind most of the bars Carey has opened — "What I wish for my places is that if you live close to them, you're happy they exist," he says — but after two decades, the clientele at his original spot is no longer locals only.
In today's Philadelphia, Fergie's Pub is a tourist destination.
"It's because of smartphones," opines Abed. "People come from the Convention Center, pull up a map, and this bar pops up."
"People used to cycle uptown to Fergie's because there was no place in South Philly to get a good beer and good burger in a safe environment!" Carey says. "Now there's a hundred places."
Asked whether we're approaching a saturation point, whether there can be too many good bars in Philadelphia, Fergie responds:
"That's like asking, 'What is the meaning of life?'"
20th anniversary celebrations will be held at Fergie's Pub all weekend, from November 27-30 (closed on Thanksgiving), culminating in a party starting at 7 p.m. on Monday, December 1, featuring Victory North and Three Blind Mice playing live jazz downstairs and a rock 'n' roll band upstairs.