With its working class roots and growing hipster crowds, Philadelphia teems with unique dive bars. Here are our favorites.
A shot and a beer. This perfect (and perfectly affordable) combination is so popular in Philadelphia that the city gave it a name, spread the trend at bars across town decades ago, and still sell it for $3. Every dive bar has its own take on the Citywide Special—like a Jim Beam with a PBR, or a Heaven Hill with a locally made Kenzinger pale lager. Explore Philly’s seven best local dive bars, and their best specials, with our list that's been hand-picked by the city’s own top bartenders.
Atlantis the Lost Bar
JB Bernstein, beverage manager of the posh Vernick Food & Drink, likes Atlantis the Lost Bar, two blocks from his house in Kensington. “It has a classic dive feel, no frills,” he says. “The bartenders are down to earth, and there's a pool table in the back. Most importantly, they let my dog Melvin in to chill out while I'm having a beer.” On Sundays, Bloody Marys garnished with a buffet of brunch snacks—a shrimp, salami, peppers, pickles, olives, plus the standard celery stalk—win rave reviews.
Bob & Barbara’s
The place where it all started: Bob & Barbara’s. Before it became the Citywide, a shot and a beer was just the Special at this dive on the city’s famed South Street that’s also known for its weekly drag show. “One of the quintessential dive bars in the city and a shrine to the glory that is Pabst Blue Ribbon,” Bernstein says. “If I'm off Sundays, I'll go there for karaoke.”
Dirty Franks’ claim to fame is its iconic mural of famous Franks, Franklins, Francises, and Frankensteins, including Sinatra, FDR and more recently, Pope Francis along its outside walls. Equally notable is its no-frills interior—with no TVs, no pretension, and no credit cards accepted, consistent crowds of drinkers show up seeking a good deal on cheap drinks.
McGillin’s Olde Ale House
While not a typical dive bar, fans of McGillin’s Olde Ale House may affectionately use the term to describe it. Philadelphia’s oldest continuously operating tavern (since 1860; also the year President Lincoln was elected, for perspective) started when Ma and Pa McGillin opened the bar and raised their 13 children upstairs. The current owners take great pride in the bar’s and Philadelphia’s history, keeping up a display of iconic signs from now-defunct institutions like Wanamaker’s, Lit Brothers, and Le Bec Fin.
The spot, popular among day drinkers and the lunch crowd, serves a free bowl of soup with every lunch. Favorites on the menu include the Mile High Meatloaf, Shepherd’s Pie, and three house beers—all made by Stoudt’s Brewery in Adamstown.
Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar
Pop into Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar on your birthday and get a free drink. Just a stone’s throw from Philly’s famed cheesesteak shops Pat’s and Geno’s, this South Philly spot is full of regulars from the neighborhood and hipsters who enjoy the bar’s live music and nostalgia-covered walls. The bar itself at this 75-year-old spot is a relic: oak tile with a trough that runs along the base.
“Complimentary toys and candy at the bar and on every table bring out a smile in everyone,” owner Robert Perry said of his Tattooed Mom bar.
The downstairs bar and dining room features florescent green walls, vintage couches, clocks, chalkware figures, and touches of international street art. Head upstairs to find the poolroom and lounge that’s covered floor-to-ceiling with stickers, wheatpastes, graffiti, and art.
To drink, Perry recommends the Pickled Punk (complete with King Cake baby garnish) and the Bottled Beauties series, which are handmade and bottled in house. To eat: “The Chubbsteak wrap is a uniquely Mom's take on the classic Philly cheesesteak, with tater tots, fried onions, and mushrooms,” he said.
12 Steps Down
Twelve Steps Down from street level in the city’s famous Italian Market, enter this watering hole with a massive beer menu of rotating drafts, cans, and bottles. Fuel up on onion rings, burgers, and hearty sandwiches. Daily activities—like Super Nintendo Game Night on Sundays, ‘Kegs & Eggs’ on weekends, and $2 Taco Thursdays—add to the fun.
Sarah Maiellano is on the Philadelphia beat for Travel + Leisure. You can follow her on Twitter at @SarahMaiellano.