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McGillin’s is celebrating bartender John Doyle’s 50th work anniversary with a yearlong party

“You never know what’s going to come out of his mouth when his Irish eyes start smiling,” said one customer.

This month marks 50 years of service for bartender John Doyle at McGillin's Olde Ale House, and the bar is throwing a year-long celebration in his honor.
This month marks 50 years of service for bartender John Doyle at McGillin's Olde Ale House, and the bar is throwing a year-long celebration in his honor.Read moreTyger Williams / Staff Photographer

John Doyle didn’t intend to work at McGillin’s Olde Ale House. It just kind of happened one day, as these things do around Philly.

He started going to the storied Center City bar regularly on Friday nights in the early ‘70s, when his wife would go to her mother’s house to do laundry.

“I would stand by the door, look around, and just have a couple of drinks,” he said.

Doyle was so stoic and observant that the staff thought he was a cop. So one night when the doorman had to use the bathroom, he asked Doyle to watch the door and he did. Kind of.

“I didn’t check anybody’s ID,” he said.

That was the extent of Doyle’s application and interview process. A few weeks later, in April 1974, he was asked to work Friday nights as a doorman and agreed.

No matter that he already had a full-time job at a West Philly machine shop, this one was interesting too and he had nothing else to do.

Inspired by his new gig, Doyle attended a six-week course at Ronnie’s Bartending School (he still keeps a tiny laminated copy of his 1975 diploma in his wallet) and began tending the bar upstairs at McGillin’s.

But his big break came when the downstairs bartender broke a bottle over an unruly customer’s head (the patron had reached behind the bar to serve himself). Doyle had to cover the bar when his coworker was hauled out by police in handcuffs.

And that’s how Doyle, 79, a married father of two and grandfather of four, came to be the longest-serving bartender at Philly’s oldest-operating bar. This month marks 50 years for Doyle at McGillin’s, which opened on Drury Street near 13th in 1860, and in true Philly fashion, the bar is throwing a yearlong party in his honor.

The celebration begins this Saturday at McGillin’s and culminates next St. Patrick’s Day, which will be Doyle’s 50th at the bar, said Christopher Mullins Jr., co-owner of McGillin’s.

“John is a beloved institution. He’s met a lot of people and he hasn’t pissed off more than he’s pleased,” Mullins said. “He is the party, but he’s also a professional. You’ll never hear anybody say, ‘In the 80s I remember him falling down drunk behind the bar.’”

But don’t be fooled by the mild-mannered demeanor of this thin, blue-eyed barkeep. Doyle can get bawdy with the best of them.

“You never know what’s going to come out of his mouth when his Irish eyes start smiling,” said Stacey Henjes, a friend of Doyle’s and a regular at McGillin’s. “He’s hilarious and every time you’re with him it’s like brace yourself for what’s coming next.”

From huckster to husband

Doyle, who lives in Andorra, was born in South Philly and raised in the Tasker Homes, where he was the middle child of seven in an Irish-Catholic family. Today, he’s the last remaining of his siblings.

His first job was “huckstering,” or selling tomatoes, bananas, and other produce door-to-door as a kid. From there, he worked at a Dairy Queen, a soda shop, and sold newspapers at Municipal Stadium.

After graduating from Bishop Neumann in 1963, Doyle went to work at Carr Tool and Machine in West Philly, until he was called up for the draft the following year. He spent 10 months serving as a medic in South Korea, near the demilitarized zone.

He didn’t see active combat, but the experience — his first outside of Philadelphia — changed his life. He’s still able to easily recite Korean words and phrases, and recalls with fondness the people he met there.

When he returned to Philly in 1966, Doyle went back to work at the machine shop and became supervisor of the shipping department, a position he held for 38 years.

As he told the story of how he met his wife, Laura, in the late ‘60s at the Jersey Shore, Doyle looked left, then right, and leaned in.

“She had the best ass in Margate. I swear!” he said, rolling back in his chair. “We came out of a bar and we’re walking to Maloney’s and my wife was in front of me. She had these white jeans on, and I said, ‘Man, that’s one great ass!’ and she goes ‘Thank you.’”

Doyle, who nearly died of embarrassment right there, didn’t score a date that night, but over the next year or so, he kept seeing the woman whose white jeans he couldn’t forget at bars in Philly and the shore and finally got up the gumption to ask her out.

They married in 1970 and had twin daughters six years later. When Doyle’s wife stopped working to take care of the kids, his part-time job at McGillin’s helped supplement their income.

‘Yo, Joe!’

Things were a lot different at McGillin’s back in Doyle’s early days. The bar only took cash, allowed smoking, and charged 45 cents for a mug of Genny Cream Ale.

Doyle has seen the bar go through good times and bad, like in the early in the 1980s, when business was so slow there was sometimes only one server and one cook working with him at a time and the place would close by 8 p.m.

But that all changed in 1993, when Mary Ellen and Chris Mullins Sr. took over McGillin’s and did a total “flip in one year,” overhauling the menu and keeping the bar open until 2 a.m., Doyle said.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened. It’s amazing what they’ve done,” he said.

Along with working for three generations of owners, Doyle’s run at McGillin’s has spanned eight Philly mayors, two of whom he met (William J. Green III and Ed Rendell).

He’s also met Chase Utley, watched Jason Kelce play cards in McGillin’s, and worked the bar during the Phillies 2008 World Series parade, the busiest day he’s ever seen.

When the Democratic National Convention was in town in 2016 and MSNBC filmed live from McGillin’s, Doyle made sure he got to meet then-Vice President Joe Biden when he stopped in.

“He’s leaving and says, ‘Thanks guys for everything,’ and I go ‘Yo, Joe!’” Doyle recalled. “He goes, ‘What?’ and I said ‘What the hell?’”

Doyle told the future president he’d been waiting to meet him, and Biden came over to take a photo.

“It was a thrill,” Doyle said.

‘Part of the fabric’

But it’s interacting with everyday people that Doyle loves best. These days, he only works noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and on St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Day. On those occasions, the bar is often packed with his regulars who’ve become friends and his friends who’ve become regulars.

Bill Lenihan and his wife, Maureen Donovan, of Center City, have been going to McGillin’s for 20 years and have become so close with Doyle they’ve exchanged numbers.

“He’s part of the fabric of the place, if someone doesn’t know him they’ll know him by the time they leave,” Lenihan said. “He’s so personable, he walks up to everybody and says hello.”

Stacey Henjes and her husband, Tod, of Doylestown, met Doyle down the shore at Twisties in Strathmere. They quickly became friends and then regulars at McGillin’s.

“He’s just as comfortable on either side of the bar. He likes to be the bar customer and he likes to make everybody feel like they’re at home working the bar,” Henjes said. “He remembers what everybody drinks and just watching someone work the crowd at 79 like that is amazing.”

(Doyle’s personal drink of choice is Irish Mist — a honey whiskey — on the rocks.)

Henjes said Doyle is so proud of his job he hands out his business card to everyone he meets (he gave me one after I interviewed him at McGillin’s this week, in case I forgot where he worked or why I was there).

“He’s the first one to come to a party and the last one to leave. I hope I’m like him when I’m 79,” Henjes said.

Recently, when two of his regulars who work for the Phillies heard Doyle was marking his 50th anniversary at McGillin’s, they gifted him a Phillies jersey with his name and the number 50 on the back.

Doyle’s service even impresses first-time customers. He once served two men a couple of martinis and some stout beers and was shocked when they left him a $500 tip — his biggest ever — which he split with the other bartender working that day.

Doyle for President

When the staff at McGillin’s realized this month marked 50 years for Doyle at the bar, they knew it was cause for an epic party.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve never met anyone that’s spent 50 years in any job, so I do think it warrants a whole year of celebrations,” Mullins said.

The cheeky theme of the festivities, “John Doyle for President,” was inspired by a customer who once made stickers with that phrase on them and handed them out at the bar.

Festivities begin Saturday, with an open-to-all party featuring surprise guests at the bar from noon to 5 p.m. Celebrations will continue throughout the year, with specials like Doyle dollar dog days, and will culminate on St. Patrick’s Day.

Mullins said the fanfare is fitting for Doyle, who’s become “an enduring part of McGillin’s.”

“He’s such a true Philadelphian, he talks the talk and he walks the walk,” Mullins said. “People come from all over the country to meet him and that respect and interest energizes him at the end of the day, too.”