In a year of writing columns, I've interviewed more than 50 bar managers and owners. Never have I heard one mention creating a "safe space."
That is, until I meet with Mike Dunican and Will Darwall, the 29-year-old co-owners at Win Win Coffee Bar — a four-year-old establishment with a social mission that hardly seems to jibe with politically incorrect restaurant-industry culture. "We realize that many normal, run-of-the-mill places are less attentive to structural exclusion," Darwall says, sounding more like a dean of student life than a bar owner. "We wanted to create a space that takes making a safe space seriously."
That's made the place a venue for events like queer and feminist karaoke nights and politically progressive literary events, as well as a storage site for provisions for Occupy ICE protesters. It also put them in the eye of an internet maelstrom in June, after they asked a drag performer, Aunt Mary Pat, to leave because a transgender staffer thought the act was mocking trans people. The owners said they were trying to navigate a difficult situation but supporting their staffer felt like the obvious right choice. They weren't prepared for the backlash. Consequently, their social-media mentions are a lost cause; their Facebook rating is now a bleak 1.6 out of 5.
That number, however, is misleading, given that this particular safe space remains perhaps Philly's best sleeper cocktail bar. Thanks to the perma-pop-up Pizza Gutt, it lately also has emerged as one of its most coveted foodie destinations.
Things were quiet as I arrived at the cozy, low-key storefront, situated on a stretch of Spring Garden Street that not too long ago felt like a no-man's land (and that still is home to a gun range and a number of vacant storefronts) but that lately has begun transforming into a leisure destination, anchored by several new breweries, the Union Transfer concert venue, and the brand-new Rail Park.
I rushed there from the office to claim a bar stool, knowing competition is fierce for the thick-crust, sauce-on-top, Detroit-style square pie framed by a perimeter of strategically burned cheese. Daniel Gutter, who took over the kitchen last summer, has been selling out preorders weeks in advance, but one of 24 pizzas reserved for walk-ins was all mine — spinach, tomato sauce, mozzarella, and ricotta layered on a chewy, focaccia-like crust.
It was everything I'd heard it would be. What I didn't expect was one of the more interesting cocktail menus I've seen lately, including seasonal offerings with house-made syrups and custom liquor infusions, like the Garden Gimlet, with gin, Suze, green peppercorn bitters, and arugula syrup. My favorite, though, is the section devoted to cocktails made with locally roasted Elixr coffee, like the cold brew Negroni, a wonderfully rich, sweet-bitter mix of coffee, Campari, and sweet vermouth swirling around a swatch of orange peel and an oversize ice cube.
The goal, said Dunican, "has been to do the cocktail program without the pretensions that come through in a lot of the cocktail scene."
Also not a pretense: the DIY aesthetic in this space, with its plywood shelves behind the bar, salvaged wood benches, and exposed duct work. This business was financed on sweat equity and "our youthful lower backs," Darwall says.
It launched as Philly's first co-op coffee shop and bar, with six owner-workers and an early-morning-to-late-night business plan. But they quickly learned the limits of their capacity. "We were pretty undercapitalized," Darwall says. "That meant that the offer we had to present new worker owners, we could never really make that attractive." Since then, they've adjusted course, cutting the all-day coffee shop hours, edging away from the co-op vision and, in their most transformative move, becoming a semipermanent pizzeria.
Darwall says he's not sure where they'll go next. After an overly ambitious launch, they've learned lessons — including perfecting one thing at a time. For now, they're playing it safe.
Win Win Coffee Bar
931 Spring Garden St., No phone. winwincoffeebar.com
When to go: Happy hour runs 5-7 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, and brings $1 discounts on local beer like St. Benjamin or Pizza Boy, as well as $3 off selected cocktails. It's open 4 p.m. to midnight Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday and from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Order: One of Pizza Gutt's 10-inch pies ($13-$25) for two or three people. And don't leave without trying one of the cocktails made with Elixr coffee, the perfect energy drink for a stroll on the Rail Park.
Bring: Pizza fans. Cocktail aficionados. Also, because it's a coffee shop as well as a bar, it's a good choice for sober friends who can choose from espresso drinks, tea and house-made sodas.
Bathroom situation: In keeping with the theme, there's an all-gender restroom with an extra braille sign, a posted zero-tolerance policy for "oppressive, intolerant, or toxic behavior" and graffiti offering an off-menu suggestion: "Eat the rich."
Sounds like: A chill 82 decibels of low-key indie folk rock and almost inaudible beats.