We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
Step into Oscar's Tavern, let your eyes adjust to the dim red light, and take a look around. You could be forgiven for thinking you jumped back in time to 1972. That's when South Jersey native Harry Choudak, his father and a friend of theirs (given name: Oscar) took ownership of the building at 1524 Sansom St.
The space had housed a tavern called Kleinman's, but the partners wanted a new look, so they went shopping at The National. They bought a complete package from the Old City restaurant supply depot - it included everything needed to operate a food and drink establishment, from booths to sinks to counters to paneling.
In the four decades since, furniture has been reupholstered, refrigeration has been replaced, plumbing has been upgraded, and walls have been polished. But outside of general maintenance, that original bar package is still in place, welcoming customers to tip back glasses from the same vantage points as when it was first installed, 43 years earlier.
That consistency is the bar's best selling point, at least in the view of Joe Mullan, the 36-year employee who's now general manager. He's watched the number of liquor licenses on the block swell from one to eight (with more on the way), and concluded that instead of competing on novelty, Oscar's might as well lean on its throwback status. Plus, not ponying up for grand renovations means he can keep food and drink prices low - another appealing distinction.
Mullan began bartending for Chodak when he was 21. Over the years, he slowly assumed more responsibility, learning the ins and outs of the biz from the man he would grow to consider his best friend. When Harry died in 2011, his son Richard Chodak became the bar's official owner. Joe became the bar's face.
Not that it's a visage you see in public all that often. Mullan views Oscar's as his entire life. It's where he met his wife. It's where he sees his friends. It's the vantage point from which he assesses the changing streets of downtown. He remembers when they were busy only during the day - trodden by office workers who fled home on the 5 o'clock train - but appreciates that they're now flush with young city-dwellers who light up the night. He's proud the bar he runs flourishes in the middle of all that, helping keep Philadelphia grounded and real.
How did you end up running this bar?
I went to bartending school and got a job for Stouffer's - they had restaurants around the city, and one of them was right across the street. I'd come over to Oscar's on break when I was working a split shift - work lunch over there, come over here from 3 to 5 or so, then go back and work dinner. Then one day, Harry asked me if I wanted to work here, instead.
Why did Harry open the bar to begin with, do you know?
His father had owned other bars before. Why'd they open this one? I don't know. I can't speak on other people's behalf.
Has the bar always looked like this?
It's been the same as long as I've known it. People say, "You guys haven't put a dime into the place." Hello? We reupholstered the booths, I redid the floor, I just put in a new air unit. But people don't see that stuff. They say, "Why don't you remodel?" Well, nowadays we're in competition so many other places - there's enough of those places. My business, my marketing, is to not be the same as those folks. Stay reasonable, keep costs low, keep overhead low, and that way you'll do volume, quantity.
And it works - you've stayed busy?
We have, but the business is very different now. Back in the '80s, we used to open at 7 in the morning and did most of our business at lunchtime. People used to drink at lunch! We used to have two lunch servers on Monday, three on Wednesday, four on Friday - that's how busy we were during the day. That's why I took the coffee pots out.
To make space?
No, because people would just sit here lingering after lunch drinking a cup of coffee. Which was like 30 cents or something. I'm like, I have a line out the door and you're sitting here drinking coffee? Yeah, you gotta go. Now we don't have coffee.
Did you really have customers who came in at 7 in the morning?
There used to be people standing outside if I was late. Like, take it easy, will ya? It's 7 in the morning. I'm talking about office people.
They'd come get a drink before going to work?
We had a guy who used to come in, Joe. He worked around the corner. I forget where. He would stop in before work and then come in again around 10. Just have a mug of beer. But he would never wear his coat, even in winter, and he would always carry a paper. One day I asked him why, and turns out it was so when he went back in, people would think he was just on another floor or something. "Where were you, Joe?" "Oh, I was on the sixth."
Has your food menu changed, over the years?
No. It's the same. Burgers, steaks, wings, fingers, fries. Pub fare.
Who came up with the sandwich-and-a-half deal?
That's been there since they opened. It was Harry, or his dad, or whatever.
What about behind the bar - like the beers - did that change?
Oh, sure. We have eight taps now, but when I started here, we only had four, and they were under the bar, not on top. We served 8-ounce mugs - Schlitz was 35 cents and Michelob was 40 cents. Bottled beer was 90 cents. A 7 and 7 was like $1.10.
What do cocktails cost now - they're still pretty cheap, right?
Now they're like $5. We have to maintain the prices - that's what we're known for.
There are classic drinks printed on your placemats - do people order those?
Those placemats are collectors items! We still get them from the same supplier as 40 years ago. But yeah, people order from them. They torture us. I mean, c'mon, who the heck's drinking a rum cocktail? "They're looking at them goofy placemats again," we say.
Do you like that Oscar's lands on lists as one of the best dive bars in Philly?
It's a double-edged sword. I've always said that even a negative reputation is better than no reputation at all - that way customers know what they're getting into. But some people will think, "Oh, it's a dive bar, hell with this place, we can just be messy, trash it, it doesn't matter." Well, no. It does matter. I worked here 36 years. I take a lot of pride in this place. It hurts my feelings when somebody says this place is a toilet. This is my whole life right here, man.
There are a lot of people in Philadelphia who respect for this bar.
I get a lot of good feedback, I really do. I could be anywhere in the city, up in the Northeast or something, and if I have my Oscar's T-shirt on people are like, "Oh my God - I know Oscar's."
When did the lunch business die down?
It happened gradually. Maybe in the late '90s. But as that business stopped, it just shifted to the other end. Now we're busy at night. The town's happening now. Something simple that shows it - I could stand outside any Friday night at 11 o'clock and see all these people walking their dogs. What's walking dogs got to do with anything? Well, nobody brings their dog into town to walk them. They don't bring their dogs in from Haverford or Jersey. No, they live here. When the bars close on Friday and Saturday nights, it's like Mardi Gras out here.
What's the busiest day of the year for you?
The Saturday before St. Paddy's is packed. I think it overtook the Mummers. Because the weather's nicer, normally. There have been times that St. Paddy's Saturday has gotten so busy that I just have to close the door and say we're not letting anyone else in. Because there's nowhere to go - look how big this place is. You'd have to body surf back to the bathroom.
Best thing about being in the bar business?
All the different experiences. I've probably forgotten more things than I remember. People are always saying, "Remember that?" I'm like, "No, but I'll take your word for it."
The hardest part?
In a small operation like this, you're always hands-on. I'm on call all the time. Like, we're putting a new floor in the back kitchen. The guy's gonna meet me here at 6 a.m. on Saturday. So I gotta wake up at 4:30 in the morning to come here from Jersey and watch him put the new floor in. What am I gonna do? Watch cartoons?
Do you plan to keep doing this for a while?
Yeah. What the hell else do I know how to do? This is what I do. I know what I'm doing here. And I enjoy it.
1524 Sansom St., 215-972-9938
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday