If there were a dedicated safe space for people who are not permitted to smoke cigarettes at home, I imagine it would look more or less like Bonnie's Capistrano Bar, the all-day, all-night South Philly staple for the courting-emphysema set. I find it comforting, in a way, this thick haze of smoke that embraces me like a warm blanket as I arrive and that wraps ever tighter around my throat as the night wears on.
The narrow, smoke-filled room, just off East Passyunk Avenue's trendy restaurant row, is a beloved trapped-in-amber relic that hasn't changed much since Veronica "Bonnie" Leone began running the place in 1974 — the lore around the bar being that she got it through some mob connection.
"That is absolutely not true," says Maria Lauer, Bonnie's daughter and the current owner. "People just assume that a woman owning a bar in the '70s, someone was behind it. She was a single mother and she was given an opportunity to buy this business, really having no idea about it. Women didn't open bars in the '70s, but she did."
Lauer insists Bonnie's real secret to success was she worked an exacting schedule, spending long hours behind the bar and sticking around to drink with regulars after her shift.
"It was different back then. People wanted to see the owner. It was a family," Lauer says.
Lauer, who has a day job in law enforcement, isn't around the bar quite as much.
But, she says, "It's still a neighborhood bar. Pretty much everybody knows everybody there. When I was a kid, if a stranger walked in, everyone would turn and look at them like, 'What are you doing here?' But now the strangers are welcome and they usually become part of the big extended family."
Her strategy has been not to mess with what works. So the bar is still weathered Formica. The beer menu still doesn't get much fancier than High Life. There are still early-morning hours for third-shift workers and bored retirees. And, for sustenance, there's still just the vending machine, which offers four flavors of Combos and three of Marlboros. (You're also free to order from the pizza shop down the street.)
I stop by while it's still light out one evening and find a handful of customers, cigarette packs stacked next to their beers, shouting out answers to Jeopardy! in the rosy glow of a Yuengling sign. A friend, who first came here for a book club meeting to discuss Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, places it in the sacred pantheon of South Philadelphia smoking bars below 12 Steps Down, but above Ray's Happy Birthday Bar. "It's everything I get from Ray's without the sadness," he tells me. Then again, he admits, "I've never walked in the door sober before."
The preferred time to arrive here is late, I learn, and the preferred way to order is by the pitcher — we opt for a $9 vat of High Life — typically with a friend who tops off your plastic cup halfway through, so you instantly lose count of your drinks. Which is to say, a hangover is a near-inevitability.
By 10 p.m., the bar area is packed, and the Capistrano Bar's other unique facet is apparent: It has become, over the years, an unlikely home base for an otherwise dispossessed South Philadelphia gay community. Here, a crowd of older men can flirt openly and sing along to Diana Ross with abandon without bothering to travel to the Gayborhood, extinguish their cigarettes, or change out of that head-to-toe medley of local sports apparel termed the "Philly tuxedo."
Lauer says how the bar got that reputation is another bit of lore lost to history, though, to her, it's not a gay bar. She adds, "It's a whoever bar."
1503 S. 13th St., 215-462-7282
When to go: The party really gets going around 10 p.m., but it's open 7 a.m.-2 a.m., Monday through Saturday. There are $7 weeknight pitcher specials, Lauer says, "but I don't think anybody's really coming in for them."
What to order: A Citywide Special is served here as a pint of High Life and a shot of Evan Williams whiskey for $5.
Bring: The date you just bought $80 worth of sushi at Izumi. Show her you can keep it real.
Bathroom situation: A single-stall room lined with black tile and graffiti scrawl, it's cleaner than you'd expect and — luxury! — offers both hand soap and paper towels.