I was recently called on by a friend in search of somewhere to take a lady for a cocktail and some conversation in this city of love, brotherly and otherwise. After thinking about it for a minute or two, I came up with quite a list of suggestions and decided to jot them down, hand them over and let him choose the one he felt best fit his requirements. Later, while rereading my list, I was happily surprised at what a wonderful selection of bars and eateries there is to choose from in Philadelphia. This town of mine gets dumped on. A lot. Even sometimes I am guilty of it too. But being born and raised here, I can't help having a soft spot and defaulting to a cheerleader of sorts. Maybe I like rooting for an underdog. Or perhaps I just have a keener ability to sort through the mundane and common and see the beautiful gems this town has tucked softly between muck and rubble. In any case, the following is the list that I compiled. These places I mention are great spots for a first date, an afternoon cocktail, catching up with an old friend, people watching, feeling like you aren't in the town you live in, going under the radar, meeting someone new and last but surely not least, these are terrifically atmospheric places to sip on some damn fine drinks. I feel I must also add, the following photos are ones I plucked from pinterest to represent the feel of the establishment and are not actual photographs of the place of which I speak. Here we go...
XIX at the bellevue
Broad & Walnuts Streets. Set nineteen floors above the lobby of one of the city's oldest hotels, this place is not only a hidden gem, it's pure old fashioned Philadelphia class. Bonus points if you can catch the sun setting out on the balcony on a spring or summer evening. A great spot for people watching at happy hour as well heeled nine to fivers take the edge off while mingling with high end hotel folk and theater goers.
the farmers cabinet
1113 Walnut Street. How can you not love a bar with a split personality disorder? One part 'wild west saloon' with a splash of 'drinking parlor of a bordello', the Farmer's Cabinet houses two bars, one providing a serious selection of draft craft beers, the other specializing in cocktails both old and new. The gas lit ambiance and occasional ragtime piano player make this place unbeatable for a nightcap.
the city tavern
2nd & Walnut. Go straight to the drinking room in the back on the right. Grab a seat on a bench and wait for a colonial server to come take your order. Skip the forefathers beer flight & go for a strawberry shrub cocktail. I promise you it tastes even better when the sun is still shinning and your brow is a little damp.
48 South Second Street. The martini glasses they use here are big enough to do the back stroke in. They usually have a jazz duo or trio on Sunday evenings & possibly some nights during happy hour. There is always a glass jar on the back bar filled with fruit marinating in gin or some other spirit. The bartenders hail from Ireland. Tin ceiling, flocked wallpaper and original tile work dating from the turn of the last century. What more do you need?
the caribou cafe
1126 Walnut.The Caribou has been a solid French Philadelphia institution for quite some time now. I have been a patron since high school (about as long as they have had their current POS system) when it was thee cool place to go after class to smoke cigs and drink coffee endlessly. More recently I find it most enjoyable on the balmier days of the year when they open the front doors wide and the wicker chairs & cafe tables spill out onto the Walnut Street sidewalk. I've enjoyed many an evening here with a notebook and glass of something bubbly post French classes or the occasional afternoon with friends enjoying quiche, petite salade and moules et frites.
The Monaco Hotel is located at 5th & Chestnut. On the rooftop of this new boutique hotel is the Stratus bar and lounge. Go here early for a 6pm cocktail. Enter through the swank hotel entrance and take the elevator to the top floor then climb the stairs to the roof. See the city from a new angle high above Independence Hall and Mall. You will be guaranteed to feel like you are on vacation until your glass is empty.
18th & Sansom. It's Starr's version of an English Pub. Yes, it's a little over the top, Epcot Center-feeling but I have to admit I love it. Decent beer, solid cocktails, terrific gin selection, food is hearty & tasty and it looks damn good in there. Best on a rainy or chilly night or even a sunny brunch. Avoid happy hour & weekend nights. I recommend the small upstairs "dog" bar if you can get a seat up there.
18th & Locust. Starr scores again with this, my favorite of all his restaurants. Parc will completely satisfy any & all wanderlust or Francophile yearnings. I recommend a seat at the bar and if you're into raw bars & shellfish and have $50 to toss... the Petite Plateau is not to be missed. A romantic table behind a lacy dressed window isn't a bad option either.
sansom street oyster house
1516 Sansom Street. If I could conceive an oyster bar, this would be it. Clean, white subway tile is the backdrop to this perfectly sterile yet bustling room. The center of all the action is raw bar itself with the schuckers busily snapping open shells and arranging platefuls of tasty treasures from the sea. I enjoy taking a seat at the smaller, main bar usually sipping on something cold, white and crisp. Though the Oyster House has one of the more impressive selections of vermouth and amaro I've seen in the city and I enjoy that too when the mood strikes me.
1524 Sansom. Oscar's will be my dive bar entry for this list because we can't always be knocking back $12+ cocktails all the do da day. Sometimes you just want to go to a place that is familiar and cavernous and equally likable whether it's packed with hipsters or empty except for the three old men drinking Bud bottles alone at the bar. And though this place still smells like cigarette smoke and is a little neglected, a basket of their steak fries and a Beefeater and tonic will still cost you under $10 so you will have some change left to not only leave a good tip but to play some tunes on their quite likable jukebox.
the ranstead room
2013 Ranstead Street. Part speakeasy, part go-go bar without dancers, this back door lounge and bar plays the flip side of the coin to the taco joint up front, El Rey. Skip the chips & guacamole, head right for the alleyway and elbow your way to the bar. The place is small and crowds easily but the lights are dim, the decor is all campy fun and the drinks are stellar, even if the bartenders do take themselves a bit too seriously. The place is great for anything from a girls night out, to a discreet late night rendezvous.
4th & Bainbridge. This corner watering hole and eatery is a breath of fresh air in a neighborhood that seems consistently transient and a stones throw too close to South Street. Walking through the front door gives one a sense of going back in time to a gentler, more elegant time. Besides being simultaneously bright and cozy (and did I mention, terribly handsome?) this bar is extremely inviting. The bar staff is knowledgeable and happy to share. They also have one of the most interesting selections of Scotch Whiskey I have seen around town.
Headhouse Square. Some of my favorite pizza in the city. And they have great house wine served in little tumblers & terrific craft Italian beer imports. The back room/bar is preferable. Look for the wall housing a collection of corkscrews and wine openers. Pairs well with a Ritz movie before or after.
Society Hill Towers. I've never really been here to sit and eat. This place is best atop a bar stool sipping one of their delectable cocktails while sharing conversation and a plate of some of the most creamy and luscious hummus you will ever have. Recommended: getting lost in the alleys & old cemeteries of the neighborhood on your way to or from this spot.
20th & Sansom. Beautiful, beautiful bar. I mean it. I could stare at everything behind that bar all day and not get tired. Maybe drunk, but not tired. Superior liquor selection. Perfectly crafted specialty cocktail list and that is coming from someone who doesn't care too much for house cocktails. Amazing pickle menu. Oh, and the burger really is delicious. Need I say more?