IT’S ALWAYS RUMMY IN PHILADELPHIA: Q&A with Brian McManus, Noted Author & Professional Drinker


Whenever we recall our gloriously misspent season in the dives, aka our 20s, we remember the good times, and those that served, and those that gave their lives, and those lines from Howl:  “Who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night…who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox.” For one long, blurry, Bukowskian year, PW Food and Music editor Brian McManus was living those words. He did it so you don’t have to. He pulled up a barstool at exactly 100 dive bars and tap rooms in our fair city, bent elbows with the regulars and recently published the definitive bar guide for people who don’t much care for high-toned places, Philadelphia’s Best Bars: Drinking And Diving In The City Of Brotherly Love. Well, it also resulted in “some tension in his marriage” and “some liver damage,” all of which he will no doubt discuss during the second hour of Radio Times today and during his reading at the Free Library tomorrow night.

PHAWKER: A good dive is different from a shithole because….

BRIAN MCMANUS: In the book I use a dive rating system from one to five. It goes like this: A dive with a rating of One means there’s “one toothless man at the bar.” Two means “there’s one toothless man under the bar.” Three means “there’s a toothless man behind the bar.” Four: “Leave your valuables at home.” And a five rating means “drink and be merry for tonight we shall die.” The fives are the shitholes, places I wouldn’t necessarily go back to but offer the kind of adventure a One doesn’t. Bars that are rated Three in the book hit Brian_McManus.jpgthe dive sweet spot: your Bob & Barbara’s, your McGlinchey’s, your Dirty Franks, your Locust Bars. Just incredible bars with cheap drinks, surly (but not too surly) service, interesting regulars, and no pretense.

PHAWKER: A good dive SHOULD have….

BRIAN MCMANUS: The smell of stale air. A few hardscrabble regulars. Low lighting. Red light bulbs. Ripped and worn leather booths and barstools. Wood walls. Faux wood walls. Photos of regulars past and present on those walls. Nicotine-caked ceilings. A vague sense someone might do you bodily harm. Cheap, stiff drinks. Jukeboxes oozing music to help mend a broken heart or break it all the more. And, the piece de resistance, something odd, out of place out downright illegal—be it a dog sitting on a barstool, a baby on the bar, an old man making out with a tranny or a drunk quietly sobbing to himself. The type of shit that would get you kicked outta someplace proper.

PHAWKER: A good dive should NOT have…

BRIAN MCMANUS: Bottle service, a humidor for your expensive cigar stash, an amuse bouche, anyone who looks like they’re in peak physical condition, Johnnie Walker Blue Label, so on and so forth…

PHAWKER: The best thing to order in a dive is…

BRIAN MCMANUS: For hard liquor, it’s best to stick to something where the name of the drink is the drink: a gin and tonic, a whiskey and soda, a seven and seven. When ordering beer it’s best to stick to the Macros: your Buds, your Miller High Lifes, your Pabsts.  Most of these places don’t carry small batch craft beers, wheat beer or the like. Besides, the phrase “I’ll have a Blue Moon hefeweizen with a wedge of lemon or orange” just doesn’t sound right coming out of anyone’s mouth anywhere ever, much less a dive.

PHAWKER: The worst thing to order in a dive is…

BRIAN MCMANUS: The opposite of the last question. People who order dry martinis, Manhattans up, Cosmos or bloody Marys in a dive don’t have a right to complain when they taste awful or when they’re looked at sideways.

PHAWKER: The best dive in Philly is… because…

BRIAN MCMANUS: There are a few different answers to this. The most classic and most authentically dive dive is, to my mind, Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar (1200 E. Passyunk Ave.). It’s so, so solid. It’s got a  great mix of regulars, young people, and characters from the neighborhood and it’s open from sun up to 2 a.m. People get absolutely FACED in there and sing and dance and, on any given night, you’re going to see a few things that Dive_Bar_Andrei.jpgwill either break your mind or break your heart, all while not breaking your bank. Also, you can smoke in there, which, as far as dives go, should be the natural order of things.

I go to Oscar’s (1524 Sansom St.) more than any other bar in the city, so it gets my personal nod. It’s a few doors down from where I work, the waitstaff and bartenders there have come to know me pretty well, and I can’t gush enough about the joint. I’m not on Foursquare, but if I were I’d be Mayor McMotherfucker of that place. But it gets a tad crowded, especially during happy hour. And on the weekends, forget about it: the douche-tastic crowd at Club Pulse next door spills over into Oscar’s and it becomes a popped-collar wasteland of tiny dick tanning bed enthusiasts and the women who love them.

To that end, I really love Friendly Lounge (1039 S. Eighth St.), which never seems to be crowded ever. It’s a nice, quiet place to drink, and the regulars there are always interesting. Last time I was in there a guy brought in a bag of polished stones because he heard owner Marco (who has run Friendly with his twin brother Dominick since their mother passed in ‘71) collected them. He wanted to trade his bag of stones for a drink or five. He dumped them on the bar, and it  turns out they were just rocks. Marco’s response to the proposal: “I don’t need these. I’ve got enough in my head.”

PHAWKER: The best dive bar jukebox in Philly is…

BRIAN MCMANUS: Hate to do this again, but how about the best three? I’m partial to the jukebox at Oscar’s for one reason only: It has the The Isley Brother’s Eternal in it, and most every time I’ve been to Oscar’s someone plays “Contagious,” which was written for the Isley’s by R. Kelly and is as close to comic genius as it gets. I know every word, and if I’ve had enough tall lagers ($3.25 for a 23 ounce pour) I’m liable to prove it to the room, which I’ve done more times than I care to admit.

Friendly Lounge has two volumes of Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits. That’s pretty goddamn special. As I mentioned, Dive_Bar_Andrei.jpgthat place hardly ever has more than six people in it, which frees you up to listen to “Movin’ Out” as many times as you want. No one at Friendly will give you much guff if you happen to think “as many times as you want” means “constantly,” which I do. Whenever three or more drunks join voices to sing “Workin’ too hard can give you a heart attack-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK,” God is present.

There’s a fantastic bar in West Philly called BJ Lounge (4027 Lancaster Ave.) which has a healthy mix of old and new R&B. You can follow Teddy Pendergrass with Usher, or listen to Ginuwine right after The O’Jays. They’ve got a couple Sonny Rollins CDs in there too, which is some pretty high culture for a place you have to be buzzed into.

PHAWKER: The dive bar in Philly with the hottest barkeeps is…

BRIAN MCMANUS: Oscar’s. Hi ladies!

PHAWKER: The one dive I will never set foot in again is…because…

BRIAN MCMANUS: DeLeo’s Cafe in Roxborough. I wrote why in PW so I won’t repeat the whole story here (short version: shit smeared on the bathroom walls), but I truly believe everyone in that bar is on meth and will cut you without a moments notice.

PHAWKER:What’s the one thing you should NOT say to a stranger in a dive…

BRIAN MCMANUS: Same rules as Thanksgiving with the family: Don’t talk religion or politics. You’re not converting anyone to your point of view in a dive, and there’s no point in trying.

PHAWKER: The worst thing that ever happened to you in a dive…

BRIAN MCMANUS: I went to the Dolphin Tavern (1539 S. Broad St.) in a tux after a friend’s wedding. Just as the place was about to close two guys beat the living hell out of a middle-aged Ecuadorian man who was telling me and a couple friends his immigration story. They SMASHED his nose, and I’ve never seen anyone bleed so much—blood was just gushing out of his face like a fountain. It happened so quickly and from out of Dive_Bar_Andrei.jpgnowhere that it was just incredibly shocking. So, so sad. There was nothing we could do, and the thugs who jumped him for kicks ran out of there before anyone understood what had happened. My wearing a tux has absolutely nothing to do with the story, but I just thought you should know: I WORE A TUX TO THE DOLPHIN.

PHAWKER: The dive experience you will never forget is….

BRIAN MCMANUS: I was at a dive in Conshohocken that didn’t make the book, but was pretty divey nonetheless. They had one of those annoying Internet jukeboxes that gives customers free reign to listen to anything they can possibly imagine. This is never a good idea, and I’m a firm believer bar owners should stick to jukeboxes stocked with CDs they choose to eliminate some of the truly unfortunate and inevitable combos you hear in a bar with an Internet jukebox (30 Seconds to Mars followed by Marvin Gaye, a solo acoustic performance by Gavin Rossdale of Bush followed by … a solo acoustic performance by Gavin Rossdale of Bush).

ANYWAY, some friends and I were in this bar trading stories about the times we’ve run into someone claiming to be DMX’s father—a dreadlocked man walks up to your table and says ‘Would you like to buy DMX’s dad a drink?”—so I put a few DMX songs on the jukebox. The first one played and this morbidly obese bartender wasn’t at all happy about it. He tells me not to play any more DMX because it’s “not music.” I’ve already paid for three songs, and know that “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” is coming up next, so what am I going to do? It comes on and he unplugs the machine, looks at me very angrily and says “You don’t listen too fucking good, do ya?” If DMX’s dad ever shows up there looking for free drinks, Lord help him.

PHAWKER: How do you go about writing a book like this without becoming an alcoholic or getting knifed in a back alley?

BRIAN MCMANUS: I was teetering on the brink of alcoholism before the opportunity to write the book emerged, and I actually think writing the thing helped me take a couple steps back from it. I love bars and drinking and unwinding amongst friends and strangers after a long day, but after a certain age (and bah-lee me, friend, I am past that certain age) you can’t, Irishman I am, drink as often as I was and not look swollen, puffy or red. Every drinker, given enough time, begins to resemble Ted Kennedy. I sat shoulder to shoulder with a lot of guys who seemed past the point of no return in that regard, and it sapped a bit of the romanticized ideal I’d been constructing in my mind about the Bukowski-esque barfly. The reality I was faced with night in, Dive_Bar_Andrei.jpgnight out, wasn’t gelling too well with the fable I’d built. It’s not exactly a pretty life, and being drunk so much over the year I wrote the book was, perhaps ironically, pretty sobering.

On not getting knifed, I was about to say “I didn’t get knifed in a back alley because I’m not an asshole,” and then I immediately thought of the Ecuadorian man who had his nose shattered at the Dolphin for no reason whatsoever. This is a violent city, and I’ve seen things get scary out-of-hand a few times more than I liked. I was never on the receiving end of any of it while I was researching the book, and I guess that was just dumb luck.

PHAWKER: If you had to do all over again, you would…

BRIAN MCMANUS: …have asked for more money. It was a lot of damn work, and I was happy to do it. But as you walk into your 99th bar and realize you still have a couple dozen to go you start feeling pretty sorry for yourself, which is absolutely absurd. I was being paid to drink, and feeling sorry about that makes me the type of guy that deserved to be knifed in an alley.

PHAWKER: True or false, it is better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done…

BRIAN MCMANUS: I feel as though I could think about the answer to this question for 100 more years and still not know for sure. I do think the guy who smeared his shit on the bathroom wall at DeLeo’s would probably say it’s absolutely false, though.


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