McGillin's Olde Ale House prides itself on being the oldest bar in Philadelphia, a constant since 1860 at the heart of an ever-changing city.
And as I sit at the bar on a Thursday night, I really do feel for a moment like I've traveled back in time — if only to the 1950s. A ruddy-faced man dressed as if he's just come from coaching a suburban youth soccer team leans in to ask the bartender, "What beers do you have for chicks?" As confusion clouds her face, he elaborates: "Like, what will my wife like?" She shrugs and hands him a Miller Lite.
Personally, I prefer the 1860 IPA, brewed by Stoudt's exclusively for McGillin's and a deal at $4.75 a pint.
That's the draw of McGillin's, I guess — it's a come-as-you-are kind of place.
"If you sit at our bar, you might have a federal judge at your left and a union carpenter on your right," said Christopher Mullins Jr., who runs the place with his parents. On my visit, by 8 p.m., a silver-haired couple in Villanova sweatshirts have settled in watching the game in one corner; by 10 p.m., college-age women in strappy tank tops are pushing in behind them to order almost surely ill-advised $3 margaritas.
The bar has only been in two families in those 158 years. The McGillin family opened it as the Bell in Hand Alehouse, somehow steering the business through Prohibition as a tea house and dairy (though the front door, according to lore, remained locked from 1920 until repeal in 1933) then sold it in 1958 to relatives of Chris and Mary Ellen Mullins. The Mullinses took over exactly 25 years ago, when an old bar on a back alley in Center City didn't necessarily seem like a great investment.
"Center City was desolate. Our neighborhood was the red light district," Mullins Jr. said. The bar closed by 8 p.m. most nights — and 5 p.m. Saturdays. The 1970s had taken their toll on McGillin's, too. "There were smoky mirrored walls. There were disco balls. Over the years, my parents have spent a lot of money and time to bring back the historical pieces."
Today, it's half beer hall, half Philadelphia history museum. Highlights include the old Bell in Hand sign and original liquor license; photos and news clippings of famous guests (Ethel Merman, W.C. Fields) and not-so-famous ones (some regulars have brought in framed photos of their own); police patches from every precinct from here to Ventnor; a vintage sign directing customers to the luncheon buffet with "sandwich girls" or upstairs for "full waitress service"; and salvaged signs from Philly institutions that McGillin's has outlasted: Strawbridge & Clothier, Deux Cheminees, Lit Bros. Most were gifts. "We only had to pay for one," Mullins said, "and that was Le Bec-Fin."
The food here does not exactly have Le Bec-Fin-level aspirations. "How are the $2.99 nachos?" I ask the bartender of a Thursday-night food special. His response — "They are $3" — is both deadpan and entirely accurate.
At the least the prices are, like the decor, decidedly retro. "For me," Mullins Jr. said, "the greatest compliment is when someone tells me, 'I used to come here in the '60s, and it's just the same.'"
McGillin's Olde Ale House
1310 Drury St., 215-735-5562, mcgillins.com
When to go: If you like a crowd, stop by during football games or on Sunday and Wednesday nights, for karaoke. Monday through Thursday bring cheap (if not exactly gourmet) food specials. It's open daily, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
Bring: Out-of-town tourists seeking a slice of Philadelphia history, your bachelor or bachelorette party, your grandparents who just might finally believe it's safe to venture into Center City after all.
Order: Stick to beer: There are 26 craft beers on draft, including three house beers brewed by Stoudt's. Most customers opt for the generous pitchers, which range from $6.50 for PBR to $17 for the 1860 IPA. There's green beer twice a year: On St. Patrick's Day, and when the Eagles are about to win the Super Bowl. ("And I have the green palms to prove it," Mullins said.)
Bathroom situation: Upstairs, you'll find vintage wood stalls and crumbling hex tile, but, thankfully, clean-enough modern fixtures.