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Guide to Philadelphia’s Best Craft Cocktails

Sip on classic cocktails and secret spirits in Philadelphia’s Prohibition-inspired bars

Prohibition, the “alcohol-free” period in American history between 1919 and 1933, is fully gripping the nation’s imagination with television shows, movies and books documenting the time. In Philadelphia, the social set is partaking in the commemorative Prohibition party at bars, restaurants and shops offering secret entrances, classic cocktails and liqueur-soaked sweets.

Here are some places where the mystique of Prohibition lives on:

Remnants Of History:

McNally’s Quick Lunch

Founded in 1921 as McNally’s Quick Lunch, family-owned McNally’s Tavern flouted Prohibition laws by secretly serving alcohol to its customers. Then-owner Rose McNally did so rather successfully, too, say her granddaughters who now operate the business: a citation from a 1920’s enforcement raid hangs by the door as a memento. Today, McNally’s is best appreciated for a product it sells legally: the revered Schmitter, a proprietary mile-high cheesesteak and grilled salami sandwich piled with cheese, tomatoes and grilled onions.

Details: 8634 Germantown Avenue | (215) 247-9736 | mcnallystavern.com

McGillin’s Old Ale House

“Ma” McGillin helped sustain McGillin’s Old Ale House—the oldest continuously operating tavern in Philadelphia—through Prohibition. When she locked the front doors of the popular bar, she opened up the side and back doors to the knowing public and hired a chef to help her masquerade as an eatery. All the while, the world’s best-known performers entertained in private rooms upstairs. Decades later, one of these rooms still fills with patrons cheering Philadelphia’s sports teams on, as does the ever-packed main bar downstairs.

Details: 1310 Drury Street | (215) 735-5562 | mcgillins.com

Cherry Street Tavern

The Cherry Street Tavern opened in 1900 and stayed that way throughout Prohibition by replacing its bar with a barber’s chair. But patrons were able to get more than a shave and a haircut. Although the sign proclaiming “Ladies’ Entrance” no longer hangs over the side door, a urine trough still reminds today’s visitors of the bar’s long and tenacious history. Current day customers find it to be a comfortable corner bar with good service and hearty hot roast beef sandwiches.

Details: 129 N. 22nd Street | (215) 561-5683

For Those In The Know:

Fiume

Considered the city’s closest approximation to a real speakeasy, Fiume is a secret even to the city’s most savvy nightlife denizens. Located in what resembles a private living room, this West Philadelphia music venue has no sign, no phone and no presence on Internet mapping sites. The only way to find it, in fact, is to be in the know or to climb the stairs that ascend above the Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia.

Details: 229 S. 45th Street

Marrakesh Moroccan

Holding court on an obscure back street for the past 35 years, the palatial Marrakesh Moroccan den is unmarked and indiscernible from the outside. In-the-know diners knock to gain entry to the restaurant. When the heavy solid door opens, a host leads them through a heavy curtain before the sights and scents of North Africa tantalizingly reveal themselves. On weekends, belly dancers add to the ambiance.

Details: 517 S. Leithgow Street | (215) 925-5929

Prohibition Taproom

With its enormous outdoor neon sign that proclaims that a “BAR” lurks beneath it, Prohibition Taproom wouldn’t have succeeded in eluding Prohibition’s watchdogs. But modern-day patrons can rest easy in the comfort of a dark room lit only by a string of lightbulbs and the knowledge that the bar that provides their solace is the only sign of commercial life within blocks of the developing Loft District in which it resides.

Details: 501 N. 13th Street | (215) 238-1818 | theprohibitiontaproom.com

Ranstead Room

To find the chandelier-bedecked, gold-accented, leather-bound Ranstead Room in its back-alley hideaway, party-goers must scour Ranstead Street for a red-brick façade, a dark door and two adjoining “R’s” painted on the portal. Once the entrance is spotted, there’s still another set of doors to cross before reaching the subdued and classy interior, where craft cocktail specialists shake and stir their way into people’s hearts.
Details: 2013 Ranstead Street | (215) 523-9999 | elreyrestaurant.com

Crazy About The Classics:

Chick’s Cafe & Wine Bar

At Chick’s Cafe & Wine Bar, bartenders concoct fresh versions of old classics using absinthe, the licorice-like spirit popular amongst pre-war expats that was, until recently, banned in the United States. Devoted to interpretations of classic cocktails, Chick’s adds drama to the cityscape with drinks like the Pink Moon, a mix of Bluecoat gin, Vieux Carré absinthe, Peychaud’s bitters and fresh grapefruit juice.

Details: 614 S. 7th Street | (215) 625-3700 | chickscafe.com

Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.

Patrons shouldn’t be offended if a bouncer makes them wait on the sidewalk for entry into the swank, below-ground temple to liquid luxury—it’s just Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.’s way of ensuring that each one of its guests has a seat on a leather banquette. It’s only appropriate that the lucky few who get to partake in the hushed atmosphere, hand-chipped ice and elaborately constructed throwback cocktails have a chance to enjoy them properly. After all, the bar is named after the business that fronted for the country’s largest Prohibition-era alcohol ring, which was based right in Philadelphia.

Details: 112 S. 18th Street | (267) 467-3277 | thefranklinbar.com

Southwark Restaurant

One of the first bars to pioneer the classic cocktail craze in Philadelphia was Southwark Restaurant, whose menu runs wild with old-fashioned drinks like the Pisco Sour, Sidecar, Gimlet and Tom Collins. For purists, almost 30 rye whiskeys line the menu, and 20 variations of gin keep the liquid staple of Prohibition alive and pouring.

Details: 701 S. 4th Street | (215) 238-1888 | southwarkrestaurant.com

Time

The aesthetic centerpiece of Time restaurant is a 1930’s chandelier, but what truly sets this parlour apart is its whiskey lounge—serving seven varieties of rye—and its Bohemian Absinthe Lounge. Visitors climb the stairs to enter a Parisian-style salon where patrons go to relax over the sounds of a DJ and the ritual of preparing absinthe from a two-or-four-person tower.

Details: 1315 Sansom Street | (215) 985-4800 | timerestaurant.net

Village Whiskey

Iron Chef Jose Garces recreates a 1930s Windy City saloon with Village Whiskey—complete with décor that’s evocative of the period and bartenders who dress the part. Garces distills his drinks into “Prohibition” and “Repeal” categories, with the former describing drinks inspired but not conceived during the 1920s and ’30s, and the latter indicating recipes that were invented just after the 21st Amendment repeal of the 18th Amendment. Village Whiskey lives up to its name with a dozen selections of rye whiskey, one of the spirits that formed the centerpiece of Al Capone’s bootlegging empire.

Details: 118 S. 20th Street | (215) 665-1088 | villagewhiskey.com

A Long Way From Moonshine:

Root

After studying the history of root beer, which became a non-alcoholic beverage during the Temperance movement of the 19th century, Philadelphia advertising executive Steven Grasse experimented with variations on root beer’s ingredients to develop ROOT, an 80-proof spirit that relies heavily on birch bark. Certified organic, it’s sold throughout Pennsylvania in bars and stores, with a national launch scheduled for early 2011. artintheage.com

Philadelphia Distilling

Philadelphia Distilling, Pennsylvania’s first craft distillery to open since 1919, produces three liquors with ties to Prohibition. The most widely recognized is Bluecoat American Dry Gin, distilled five times in a copper pot still, which was the traditional distillation method until it became a favorite for amateurs who aged it in their bathtubs during Prohibition. Penn 1681 Rye Vodka pays homage to Pennsylvania distillers who manufactured rye vodka long before Temperance. And absinthe, illegal in the U.S. until 2007 and romanticized for the role it played in 1920’s Paris, resurges in the form of Vieux Carré. All three spirits are available statewide.

Details: 12285 McNulty Road | (215) 671-0346 | philadelphiadistilling.com

Beyond The Bars:

Betty’s Speakeasy

If bootleg drinkers had thought to hide their gustatory contraband inside food, they might have turned to the bakers at Betty’s Speakeasy, a storefront and café that tucks beer and liquor into cupcakes. Local beers and national spirits find their secret hideaways within the “Bootleggers” series of cupcakes. And if a hint of alcohol isn’t enough, rebels can up the ante with four flavors of liqueur-soaked poundcake.

Details: 2241 Grays Ferry Avenue | (215) 735-9060 | bettysfudge.com

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