Why the owners of McCusker’s Tavern say it’s not a South Philly bar. (It is.)
The decorative motif is "1970s South Philly rowhouse," complete with the marbleized Formica bar, wood-paneled walls, drop ceiling and, tucked behind a bottle of Jameson, a placard bearing an image of the Pope.
In keeping with local custom, I opt to drive to McCusker's Tavern, situated in a corner of South Philadelphia characterized by its innovative parking culture — astride crosswalks and intersections, atop sidewalks and medians, undeterred by curbs, signage, or the law.
After a long search, I finally find a legalish parking space by another corner bar, where one leather-clad man leans on a motorcycle blocking the sidewalk and sucks on a cigarette while another, standing in the doorway, sends a weaponized loogie on a spectacular arc through the halo of the streetlight to a shivering stop near my feet.
Which is to say, my spirits are not high by the time I spot the glowing beacon of McCusker's vintage fluorescent sign illuminating the corner of 17th and Shunk.
But once I step inside, Ryan McCusker assures me this is a safe space. "We're located in South Philly, but we're not a 'South Philly bar,' " he insists.
It is a distinction subtle to the point of invisibility. The decorative motif is "1970s South Philly rowhouse," complete with the marbleized Formica bar, wood-paneled walls, drop ceiling, and, tucked behind a bottle of Jameson, a placard bearing an image of the pope. The walls are covered in memorabilia expressing a degree of specificity a T.G.I. Friday's decorator could only dream of: a mix of Phillies gear, concert posters, a cigarette machine crowned with a Lego R2D2, a trio of seats from the Vet, a dartboard with plenty of elbow room.
McCusker's, which marked its 50th anniversary this fall, came into being when John McCusker bought the bar from a longtime client, making a just-in-time career shift from a family business — ice delivery — soon to be, er, crushed by the arrival of the ice machine. Still, he shrugs, "Did I make the right choice? I don't know."
Today, McCusker, a world-weary 74-year-old, still works Mondays. But he's not much for interviews. "Print is dead," he tells me.
His sons, Doug and Ryan, 42-year-old twins, are more amenable. Ryan explained that Invincible, the Vince Papale film, wanted them to sign on as a shooting location. They figured it wasn't worth it for some indie film. After Mark Wahlberg signed on, he decided, "I'm never saying no to anything again."
The brothers grew up above the bar and know almost everyone who walks in by name.
"We were raised to do this," Doug says. "My father would have rather us be doctors, but this is our heritage."
The Phillies stuff is John's; his sons added the music posters. "They called us a Pearl Jam theme bar. We're not," Ryan says of a recent Philadelphia Magazine write-up. Above all, they're Phish fans. They've seen 160 shows between them.
Perhaps not unlike your typical Pearl Jam concert, McCusker's is a mostly (but not exclusively) male space — a Phillies bar, and, at times, a WWE bar, where wrestlers sometimes stop in. Everyone seems to know one another — and to have very strong opinions on the Eagles. One man continues an important discussion on football prospects while he walks to the bathroom, then bursts back out with more to say. You don't have to be local, but most are. At one point, a man in shorts and high white athletic socks wanders in from the cold with his dog, a fluffy little Havanese who jumps onto a bar stool. They were on a walk, his owner explained. Why not stop in for a beer?
As Ryan says, anyone is welcome. "The day you can't bring your mother in here is the day we close the doors."
2601 S. 17th St., 215-339-9238
When to go: When I ask John McCusker if there's a happy hour, he tells me, "Every time I wake up." Which is to say, no. Go during a Phillies game for a lively crowd. It's open seven days a week, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
What to bring: A crowd and a hoagie tray — there's lots of space here, and, since the kitchen closed a year or two ago, takeout orders are welcome.
Order: I have seen an apple martini consumed here with apparent satisfaction, but I'd stick to beer or whiskey. They have bottles of Dogfish Head IPA ($7) or a shot and a lager for about that much.
Bathroom situation: The men's room apparently received a long-overdue renovation. The single-stall ladies' room looks unchanged since the '70s but is plenty clean.
Sounds like: On a recent evening, it was 102 decibels of guys shouting about football and music last played at a 1990s school dance: Donna Lewis, New Kids on the Block, Fine Young Cannibals.