Last Thursday night, I loitered a few minutes near the corner of 45th and Locust Streets, a quiet intersection lined with no-frills African restaurants. One by one, a stream of fresh-faced but bewildered people stopped to ask, "Is there a bar around here called Fume?"
I couldn't blame them -- either for mangling the name (it's pronounced fume-may) or for their confusion (there's no sign). I pointed them to the unpromising entrance: a side door that leads through Abyssinia, an Ethiopian restaurant, and up a dingy, twisting staircase that spills out into Fiume, a small room decorated with patchy maroon paint and beer cases stacked to the ceiling. Twinkle lights illuminate a handful of tables and chairs where patrons sip an unexpected selection of obscure whiskeys and craft beers to go with fragrant, injera-lined platters of food from downstairs.
I, too, was a little disoriented as I grabbed a table next to the tower of beer cases and ordered a Heebie Jeebie ($11) -- a sour-sweet concoction in a coupe glass made with bourbon, Pimms, white rum, lemon, and Swedish Punsch, an arrack-based liqueur. I remembered Fiume from my college years as a place whose great appeal was vodka tonics that cost $4. When did it join the craft-cocktail movement?
Operator Kevin James Holland confirmed that my Stoli-soaked memories of Fiume's early days were accurate. In true West Philadelphia fashion, "Abyssinia got literally a bunch of self-described anarchists to run the upstairs bar," he said. "Then, three or four months after it opened, they all disappeared, and it sort of fell apart. This is how we know they were authentic anarchists: Definitively, it can't last."
So, Holland, a regular, found himself in charge of the place -- and he slowly set about reinventing it.
During Philly Beer Week one year, he decided to offer 50 beers; now, it's 150, or about 130 more than fit on the wall-size menu (let the bartender help you choose an easy-drinking IPA or obscure gose.) He celebrated a "whiskey week" another year, and now has a menu of 80 whiskeys, mostly American bourbon and rye. There's an $80 pour of the Pappy Van Winkle 20-year-old, and a budget alternative in the W.L. Weller Special Reserve, for $7.
Then, he marked "cocktail week," introducing drinks like the Lead Apron, made with 1792 bourbon, Amaro Averna, house-made bitters, and a hunk of ice sculpted into a sphere -- a flourish not much seen in this corner of the city.
Other aspects of Fiume Holland hasn't bothered to change: There's still no phone. It's still cash only. And there's still attitude. "Welcome to bars. Don't be [a jerk]," advises a sign that sets the minimum tip at $1 per drink.
These days, the crowd is a mix of neighborhood folks, hipsters, and preppy young professionals who pile out of Ubers from Center City. (Who else is ordering $80 whiskey?) It's a come-as-you-are kind of place -- as long as you can find it.
229 S. 45th St.; no phone
When to go: It's open daily, 6 p.m.-1:45 a.m. (The kitchen downstairs closes at 1 a.m.) If you go later on Thursday night, expect a large crowd and no seating.
Whom to bring: Reformed anarchists. People whose snarky comments about West Philadelphia you'd like to silence once and for all. The bourbon aficionado in your life. Seriously: No one who has trouble with stairs.
What to order: The Lead Apron ($12) if you like whiskey; the Pappy Van Winkle ($80) if you really, really like whiskey. Either way, stop downstairs and order the vegetable combination plate. (It's $9.95. Order from the dining room, not the bar. They'll bring it up to your table.)
Bathroom situation: Single stalls -- worse than you'd find in a dorm, better than in a prison.
Sounds like: On a quiet night, 80 decibels of cocktails being stirred, muted jazz, and a loud guy at the bar over-sharing about his recent trip to Southeast Asia. Even when it's busy, it's usually not deafening.