A Deserter Abroad: South Philly
As wonderful as it was to be reunited with family I missed, I found that after a few days of catching up, the yearning for adventure in the big dirty city returned – a longing for a day of sin-dependence.
Just down the road from my crib for the week was the City of Brotherly Love; a place at the heart of America’s revolution and home of the hallowed Cheese Steak.
But what could I do with one day’s freedom in Philadelphia? See the Liberty Bell? Go to the zoo? Raise my arms aloft on Rocky’s steps?
Or, given that Philly is considered one of the best beer cities in America, with a 10-day annual beer festival and dozens of superb breweries, might it be wise to explore its rich craft beer heritage with a blinding pub crawl?
Philly’s Reddit community had given me some ace bar suggestions: An eight-bar trail of ale in Fishtown, one-block bar hops in Center City and several walkable crawls, including one in South Philly. Most of the northern and central bars opened at 4pm or 5pm, like so many gastropubs in London, but the southern ones opened at 11am. That’s how decisions are made.
The south of the city was described as ‘hipster and ghetto’. OK, I’m neither, but South Philly also includes a district named Southwark, a Greenwich Street and, in the intersection of Fifth and Carpenter Streets, one of Philadelphia’s Top Ten Recreational Drug Corners – an accolade that doesn’t come lightly.
South Philly has a middle and working class mix, it’s multi-racial and crucially, it’s south, my favourite direction.
South Philly Pub Crawl
The Liberty Bell may be historically significant, but, having been made in London by English craftsmen, it hasn’t much practical use. It cracked on its first ring. Also, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s just a bell.
The American Sardine Bar, however, is a place that specialises in sardines and beautiful beer.
Knowing I had long day ahead I had to stick with session ales. The plan was to have one pint in each of the five bars suggested by my new Reddit homies, but plans are like dreams – I can never remember the fuckers.
Consequently I took a couple of East Coast beauties on board and had my itinerary approved by the bar staff before toddling on southward.
Feeling magnificent after such a bright kick-off, I walked to the next bar, taking in South Philly’s small, tightly-packed terraced houses, the rubbish on the streets and slightly hard done by feel. The unmistakable stench of strong weed filled the air and I spotted two guys smoking on a stoop. A car pulled up and out popped a dude who bounded towards the smokers. I could see folded dollar bills tucked flat into his palm, ready for a surreptitious handshake exchange. The little tells of the narcotic city.
I received a warm welcome at Second District from a woman behind the bar who, like the barman at the Sardine, knew London. She lived in South Philly and loved it. You could get a house there for the price of an apartment further north. That sounded familiar.
Second District is a brewpub, only serving its own juice. Fortunately, it is pretty amazing. It’s super fresh and has travelled about ten yards before it hits your mouth. It very quickly becomes difficult for that mouth not to ask for another. And so on and so on, until ten yards seems like quite a long way.
This is a serious beer venue, with a lot of taps, beer knowledge and even a cask ale. It has a neighbourhood feel and an admirable half price happy hour for local beer from 4pm to 6pm. I was given a pint on the house for no other reason than to offer hospitality to a traveller from afar. Plus I was given a generous taste of the cask ale, an 8.7 % blonde DIPA called Monk’s Night Out; a powerful, intense and tropical number.
I got lost on the way to the next bar, perhaps unsurprisingly, walking the wrong way for some time in the strong afternoon sun. I thought it was taking a while, but there’s no hurry when you’re happy. I chuckled at someone’s t-shirt proclaiming: ‘Set No Path – Never Lose Your Way‘. Right on. But, hold up, where the fuck was I? I’d made the mistake of setting a path and had then been outsmarted by a sportswear slogan.
The lady at Second District had raved about the burgers at Fountain Porter, so I wisely avoided food and only drank beer until bar No. 4. Here, I also had a Tired Hands HopHands, my Pint of the Day. Both the burger and the beer were exceptional and I began googling property prices immediately. Luckily my partner got in touch at this time, reminding me I had a house, kid and life already.
At Fountain Porter I got to discuss beer and ice hockey at the bar. I know precisely fuck all about the latter, which made me feel like a proper everyman, the type politicians love to court, speaking with great confidence but zero knowledge.
The Pub on Passyunk East, better known as The Pope, was just round the corner from the Fountain and just up the road from Geno’s, home of the city’s most renowned Philly Cheese Steak (see main image). Last time I was in Philly, I fell foul of Pennsylvania’s bizarre booze laws and it was here that those laws reared their odd-shaped heads again. As I went to take my pint (my $2 pint!) outside, I was told a member of staff would have to take it for me and put it on my table, like I was a small child. A small, dipsomaniac child.
‘I know, I know,’ the bar dude said apologetically, as he led me to a table. But it’s not the bar’s fault that liquor laws tend to be written by the terminally uptight.
Heading back to the small town in which I was staying, 45 minutes outside the city, I thought I’d stop for a nightcap or two, before getting my head down. Everywhere seems to have a decent IPA or two these days and some even had their half price happy hours from 10pm till midnight, prompting some more dangerous beer choices, the names of which elude me.
I was enjoying one outside a bar smoking a rollie when a fellow drinker decided he wanted to chat.
‘Man, acid is awesome,’ he told me, his eyes untroubled by the rigours of focus. Then a seven foot guy with an 18th century moustache came up and told me that drinking my beer outside the pub could see me get a $300 fine if the policeman in the car over the road spotted me. I was already heading back in when I heard the first blast of a siren. I attempted to blend in with the crowd as well as a twitchy limey with a guilty expression can.
I thought it wise to stay awhile longer and got talking to a beautiful girl with blue hair.
‘What do you think of America?’ she asked. ‘We’re assholes, right?’
‘We were assholes first,’ I reminded her.
It’s little wonder we have a special relationship.
Kicking out time was 2am, when there were no Ubers to be found, so we did something unusual for this part of Pennsylvania. We walked.
In the morning I woke, alone, on a blue-haired girl’s sofa, to find I had spent all my cash, my debit card was missing and I had grass stains on my knees. All strong evidence of a good day of, if not sin-dependence, then at least vice attendance.
There’s more from Philly in our podcast:
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