Welcome to a periodic series in which I take a look at bar and restaurant design in an old-guard but newly-trendy part of Philadelphia. Fishtown, Kensington and Port Richmond are three adjoining neighborhoods in Philadelphia, an area informally known to many as the River Wards. (Technically “River Wards” also includes the Bridesburg sections of Philly.) The area is deeply working class, often industrial, and very residential. It’s also been hugely popular in recent years, with many new bodies moving in and corresponding amounts of attention (and money) following. For an area with until-recently compressed real estate values and relatively low population density, this has meant huge changes to these neighborhoods.
The commercial corridors of Frankford, Girard, Lehigh, Allegheny, Richmond, Front and Delaware Avenue, bordering and crossing through the Wards, are refilling and redeveloping. In some areas this occurs at a much faster clip, in others, hardly at all. The Market-Frankford line and Girard trolleys lend proximity to the Northeast and Center City, feeding growth along their routes. I-95 is a direct shot to a few major arteries on the river-bordering side. In general, these neighborhoods are filled with far more people than have lived or spent money here in decades, and it’s not hard to find someone willing to gamble on opening up shop.
All over, older establishments are being purchased, redesigned (or not), resold, gutted, demolished, rebuilt and re-imagined. Vacant lots are disappearing two or three at a time on some blocks, spider-webbed with framing and then gone. The formerly longer, grittier views are being replaced with contemporary-industrial metal panel fronts, the newest kind of cookie-cutter row homes, or deliberately hand-turned artisan style designs.
In part because I’ve lived in the River Wards myself for 11 years, in part because I like to go out for drinks and snacks, and in part because I find hospitality design interesting, I am taking it upon myself to lend a very biased opinion of watering holes in the area. I will mainly focus on bars, but I’m not unwilling to talk about a restaurant serving excellent drinks. I’ll have one drink at each place and I’ll talk about how the place looks and feels. As a person, I’m explicitly “new” to the area to anyone who’s lived here from birth, a characteristic common to the general population. There’s much that sets me apart from my neighbors, some of it superficial and some of it not. However, I’m also explicitly settled in here. I have spent untold warm heavy nights listening to the lives of the people around me and percolating into theirs, intentionally or not. The walls are thin here in so many ways.
I love the cobble-stoned corners, older residential detailing, industrial buildings and unexpected green caves. I despise the noticeable distrust of outsiders, even as I observe how painful the distance to wealthier parts of town can feel. All the relatively recent interest in Fishtown, Kensington and Port Richmond is built on decades of inequality (in terms of services, infrastructure, funding, et cetera). Class and race aren’t absent factors. I can only offer my own view, cringe a bit at the inevitable outing of my sociocultural positioning, and move on from there.
For this first installment, I’ll talk about Fishtown Tavern and Fishtown Social.
1301 FRANKFORD AVENUE | SUNDAY MAY 29 | 9:45PM
DARK & STORMY, $8
This corner bar was a fixture in its current location long before being purchased, redesigned and reopened under Buffalo Billiards’ Curt Large and Josh Semesh in 2012. Since then, it’s grown steadily in popularity with a generous selection of craft beverages, low-commitment yet energetic DJ nights, definitive dive-bar aesthetic, and a quality late night kitchen menu. The Frankford Avenue address is within walking distance from Frankford and Girard, a popular commercial epicenter where out-of-town and college crowds swarm on weekends. This means a steady stream of new faces appear at the bar. But enough Fishtown residents call this a favorite spot to keep it feeling like the solid local it is.
The footprint of the space represents one of my favorite Philadelphia small-business trademarks: the pie-slice shape created by a street cutting acutely through the grid. The entry door is located at the apex of the triangle and opens directly into the larger portion of the bar. The total square footage is about the size of an average row home, maybe 18′ x 35′ x 10′ high at it widest measurements, and it feels as cozy as it sounds.
There are two main rooms: the front room with bar, polished chrome metal pipe bar stools and high-top tables, and the back room with wooden black painted banquette seating and low checkerboard-top tables edging the walls. The ceilings throughout are painted red and scattered with black 12″ x 12” direct-glue ribbed acoustic panels. In the front room, the bar runs parallel to the length of the room and terminates into a wall with a single large window filled with glass block. The long wall is finished with painted charcoal-gray panels. A few tiny old casement windows are cut high into the exterior wall. The floor is matte dark-red brick. In the back room, the walls are paneled with nearly full-height black painted wood and painted red plaster above. A half partition separates the toilet rooms from the rest of the space, simple and black like everything else. The floor is laid with worn black-and-red checkerboard vinyl composite tile.
The vibe is distinctly do-it-yourself rock-bar, with exposed-bolt steel legs on the banquette, pipe-mounted wall speakers and industrial wire cage sconces. Electric is run through surface mount conduit and the fans are numerous, a 15″ double-headed metal-cage style. The air conditioners are plug-in yet built directly into the wall, another classic Philly row home move. The walls are hung with beer can folded-metal art pieces, and a light up plastic dog and dismembered mannequin perch atop the beer fridge. A lone string of gold tinsel runs above the chalkboard menu behind the bar. The bar itself is steel-edged with a tiled floor detail just beyond a stone-topped footrest, and it still looks enough like a urinal trough to elicit the jokes, if not the function. There’s a TV mounted in the corner of the bar, at the time of my visit showing back to back episodes of The Honeymooners. The space is dim, lit sparingly with low voltage track heads in matte black, a splash or two of red neon, and a back-lit stained glass panel depicting a ship at sea. It’s a dive.
For my drink I honor the wet summer night and order a Dark and Stormy. It’s sweet and refreshing and served without much fuss in a pint glass. The cocktail menu here is filled with old classics and a smattering of artisanal-liquor concoctions. The by-the-glass wine list includes a canned sparkling rose. The beer selection is prolific. The food menu reminds me of a combination of snacks your friend’s parent would slap together after school, like the beef tacos or spicy mac-n-cheese, but also items a foodie friend would serve you at their BBQ, like the lamb burger or mushroom flatbread. The main thread here, as in the rest of the bar, is one of cozy familiarity, but just different enough to make you want to leave your house. It’s a good position for a space that has been operating as a local watering hole longer than many of its patrons have been alive. I like coming here because it doesn’t feel like a huge departure from the reason I like this part of town in the first place. It’s a bit worn and a lot loved.
There is no discussion of change in Fishtown without a reflection on the relative set of experiences visiting a bar like this. To me, Fishtown Tavern strikes the right balance of old and new, but that’s also because I’m one of the types it’s catering to. It feels comfortable to me. It’s dim, so you’re not on display, but it’s public, so you could run into someone you know. It’s not so expensive that a drink or snack here needs to be a special occasion. But I’m sure to someone who lived on this street for 40 years before it was sold and reopened, it’s a yuppie paradise. I have been called a yuppie in these neighborhoods enough times to know what it means here: Anyone who didn’t grow up close by, who moved in as an adult, who doesn’t really belong. It’s a way to distinguish us vs. them. This is Philly. It doesn’t mean that I stop showing up, or even feel unwelcome anymore. It’s more a recognition that creeping gentrification is essentially the reason real estate prices change in an area like this, and there’s interest to purchase an existing old bar and rebrand it in the first place.
To continue the conversation, I wait for a break in the steady downpour and run the few blocks northward to Fishtown Social.
1523 FRANKFORD AVENUE | SUNDAY MAY 29 | 11:00PM
ARABAKO TXACOLINA, XARMANT TXACOLI, $15
Another corner, another pie-shaped bar: Fishtown Social is similar to Fishtown Tavern in a few high-level ways, such as the new ownership, Frankford address, and small footprint, but it strikes a different note entirely. Here the old mosaic-tiled stepped entryway opens into a warmly lit and distinctly high-end space, with a white stone-topped bar dominating the single room. The floor is finished with dark engineered wood in an artful hand-scraped look, planks running parallel to the bar and offsetting the pale water-blue painted walls and embossed tin ceiling. The tall window frames are new, stained to match the dark wood of the floor with simple high-top tables and barstools running along them. Behind the bar, glossy subway tiles are set neatly above a narrow stone shelf. Classic dark-stained bottle shelves frame the mirrors listing featured wines in an airy hand.
Fishtown Social is a wine bar specifically, serving curated by-the-glass selections in all the usual categories and only a small offering of mixed drinks. I take the bartender’s suggestion for the Arabako Txacolina white, and I won’t pretend to know a single thing about it but I can tell you it’s from Basque, Spain, has a very long pedigree of grape varietals and is described as follows: jalapeno, crisp, zippy. It’s lovely.
The space is clean, organized and deliberate, maybe a bit reserved. Polished chrome wine taps gleam softly; serveware is neatly arranged on a residential-style wall-mounted unit at the back. The bartender is young and extremely polite. There are candles flickering on all the tables, tiny-petaled white potted flowers in tumblers on the crystalline bar, and Edison bulb brass pendants giving off an inviting glow. The framed art is spare, monochrome or abstract, and framed in black wood with large white expanses of mat around the prints. Overall, the palette is limited, with dark browns, blacks, ivories and a desaturated blue-green tint dominating the space.
This is absolutely an upscale bar, thoughtfully designed and executed. Not a single wire is astray; everything unsightly is hidden and finished. The toilet rooms are literally sparkling with cut-glass mirrors and burnished-metal look porcelain floor tile in a 12” x 24” brick format. It’s very tasteful and classic, so orderly I feel a bit bedraggled sitting at the pristine bar with my rained-on bangs. Aside from me, only a few other patrons are enjoying the glow on this damp Sunday night, sipping on wines and looking over the menu. It doesn’t feel anything like Fishtown – or, should I say, the Fishtown I’m used to.
It’s soothing, but in a generic way. I am impressed by the quality materials and careful detailing. This renovation was well-done and it shows. But frankly I find myself wishing the cracked and repaired mosaic tile of the exterior step lent its taste of salvage to the design of the bar inside. The satisfaction of something useful saved and made beautiful is hard to beat. It’s one of the best markers of good design in any older-environment renovation. Philadelphia can be a lovely city for the most beautifully preserved details. I like seeing anything to celebrate that. The ceiling in Fishtown Social gets close, with its embossed painted designs and beautifully timeless grey-green mint color. But overall the bar is so perfect I wish it weren’t.
Vanessa Wong is an attorney and the owner of the bar, along with her husband Ryan Slaven. The two live in the neighborhood nearby and purchased the building as an investment. They first installed tenants in the apartments above then moved onto developing the street level commercial space. In a Zagat article from earlier this year, she described their decision to open it as a wine bar: it filled the need for a spot with “grown-up appeal.” To her, there were more than enough places to get drunk amongst mannequin parts. Aesthetically, it’s exactingly successful. You could take your rich suburban relative here, or your boss, or a date you wanted to impress. There is truffle-parmesan popcorn to snack on and charcuterie to order and cut into impossibly tiny pieces for tasting. These are excellent snacks, trust me. But they are not particularly low key (as another article describes the intended experience). At least, they don’t seem that way to me.
That Fishtown Social could be summarized as the answer to one woman’s desire for a comfortable local tells you everything about how much these four blocks on Frankford have changed in the four years since Fishtown Tavern reopened. The boom here has been long in the making, but the pace has accelerated tremendously in the last one or two. Fishtown Social opened in March of this year. I am certain it won’t function as shorthand for the new elitism much longer than the next place to top $15 a drink, but it is a new sort of normal to someone, isn’t it? Meanwhile, the corner pub on my own block, buried in Kensington off the main drag, advertises $2 beers. But in the seven years I’ve owned my house, have I ever had a drink in that bar? No. So I can make the joke, but not really.
The essential point is one of relativism. Both Fishtown Tavern and Fishtown Social are authentic; both reflect the people who live and drink here. As a marketing exercise, the aesthetic of any bar ideally represents the persons likeliest to leave money there. Watching how people design their investments reveals their picture of success. Whose interest becomes most valuable over time? And how is it borne out at the point of sale? A bar is a social place, so these articles could be social profiles: how the people living in the River Wards spend their time, and who investors imagine them to be. It’s the same with the bars themselves. Some will stop, some will stick, and some will stay.