A few weeks ago, I wandered into Fiume, a strange but wonderful little bar above Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia in West Philadelphia, and ordered a Special. Now, since its invention at South Street’s Bob & Barbara’s about 15 years ago, the Special — which has been covered in the national press and picked up by many of the city’s more low-rent bars — has meant a 12-ounce can of Pabst with a small shot of bourbon for around $3. So imagine my surprise when the bartender returned not with the red-white-and-blue can of PBR, but a can of throwback Schlitz.
It turns out that Fiume is not the only Philadelphia bar pushing the Schlitz. Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar now offers a Schlitz Special, and I’ve had reports of others holes-in-the-wall doing the same. Some bartenders and drinkers I’ve spoken with complain that the Pabst brand has become too associated with hipsters. Too “ironic.” Indeed, the popularity has skyrocketed since the days when Dennis Hopper screamed “Pabst Blue Ribbon!” at Kyle MacLachlan in 1986’s Blue Velvet . Today, PBR is advertised on NPR’s Car Talk and billboards in the area (the whole Spring Garden El stop is covered in PBR advertising).
As for Bob & Barbara’s, nothing is going to change there anytime soon, including the price of the Special, which has always been $3 (Fiume charges $4). “I can’t mess with the standard,” says owner Jack Prince. “A PBR at Bob & Barbara’s is like a cheesesteak at Geno’s. People come from out of town to have a Pabst at Bob & Barbara’s. It’s a destination.” Plus, the people at Pabst can’t be too concerned, considering that they own Schlitz.