All of the Philly Bars I Went to In My 20s Have Closed

Back then we didn’t feel the need to brag that we chose to hang out in the city. Has Philly changed? Or is it me?

lucy940

Photo | Lucy’s Hat Shop. Author not pictured.

The end of Sugar Mom’s marked it: The bars of my youth are gone. The places I haunted as a 20-something are closed. Alfa, Sugar Mom’s, Bar Noir, Mad River, Lucy’s Hat Shop — kaput. Add Khyber Pass to that list, too, because while Khyber today is a very nice restaurant, it looks nothing like it did 10 years ago: a grimy club bar with writing on the bathroom walls and a second floor that shook when the band played too loud — which was always.

Philadelphia was not the same back then, either, not when I got my ticket to drink legally in 2001. No one was trying to re-brand the Gayborhood for marketing purposes. The dining scene was Le Bec Fin — period. No one was trying to convert everything into a condo. Of course this was before the domination of Facebook and Twitter, but we’d never have created a hashtag to make ourselves feel better for choosing Philadelphia. We were not city snobs. We didn’t need to tell people why we hung out in the city, or scream for validation. We just did.


And it's not even like these Philly bars were great. Mad River was a black hole of swaying masses and bros in button-downs and drunk chicks from bachelorette parties. Alfa was where we'd all put on something nicer, maybe swap out low-rise jeans and platform wedges for knee-high boots and a dress bought on deep discount from Strawbridge's in the hopes of meeting someone classy, maybe older and more sophisticated.

Bar Noir and Sugar Mom's were dark and underground, with corners meant for being pressed close together. Lucy's was the place you knew was cheesy, but where you could drink all day long on Sundays, or, more likely, it was the bar of last resort on a Saturday night. Texting wasn't a thing then, so you'd have to wait for the buzzing of your phone, then go outside and maybe pretend that you enjoyed smoking a cigarette — not because of an indoor smoking ban, but because you couldn't hear someone on your Nokia over the thumping bass of Biggie, Ludacris and 50 Cent.

Of course we wouldn't admit to liking those songs. No, we'd talk about The Strokes and My Morning Jacket and Ryan Adams and Bright Eyes and Broken Social Scene. Death Cab for Cutie had a song to match every strata of our fumbling around to try to find something other than a broken heart.

So much of my 20s revolved around the hope that sprung from going to these bars, for the drunk who plagued much of my 20s to turn into the nice guy, or that the stranger-turned-Mr. Right who'd take me away from all of this scene, so I wouldn't morph from the 20-something into the 30-something sipping rum and diet hoping against hope that something this time would change.

***

Still, you swear you're not going to be that person who lets the party end. You promise to yourself that, in the words of Matt Pond PA, "I am not full / on going out / I don't care if / I talk too loud."

But it does get too loud. You do change. It wasn't a man who pulled me out of that scene, but myself, and the knowledge that I was better than to let the random strings or faith or whims of someone else determine how my night, and my life, would go. I got a dog. I bought a house. I grew up, and on.

When I do go into the city, I'm usually back on PATCO well before midnight because I have things to do. The dog needs to be walked, the work must be done the next morning. Nights out are proper dates with proper plans, and ones that do not require midnight texts in order to be arranged.

But I'm reminded of what I used to be when I'm coming off the train into Collingswood after dinner, and the platform is alive with boys in the same blue button-down blue shirts. It's the girls I notice, though, in skinny jeans and pumps, clutching thin jackets close as they wait for the train on its way into the city, the bar at the end of the line, the booze that heats their minds and strains their hearts to let them believe that this time — this time — it will be different, he will really mean it, he'll come to his senses, that this time the cycle will end.

This is why these bars closing don't make me so terribly nostalgic about the Philadelphia that used to be, because it's still there, just at some other new spot with some other crowd. I'm not nostalgic for who I was then either because that time was so frantic, fraught and exhausting. I can put those bars and those memories on a back shelf of my mind, along with the 20-something who favored boot-cut jeans, tube tops and mixed drinks, and who fell for line after line after line.

Because she lived to tell the tale, and came out on the other side just fine.

Follow @byJenAMiller on Twitter.

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  • Frank the Tank

    Another welcome excuse to trot out that cleavage-laden shot of Lucy’s. Thanks PhillyMag!

  • maryan

    Dude, you got old. Get over it. Happens to all of us. You and your bars are irrelevant. You don’t matter anymore and neither do the things you used to do when you were 20. How about Jimmy’s Milan, Gillens, Rusty Scupper, Pop Edwards, London Victory Club, Scruples, P.T.’s, Downey’s, Elan, Bananas, Lickety Split, City Bites, Black Banana, etc. I could go on but why bother? It’s too depressing!

    • Lonn

      maryan, you hit a bunch even older and interesting to me before I left Philly and the state. Jimmy’s Milan was known as a “cheaters’ bar” Lickety was terrific and the Black Banana was a durable, legendary club.

  • Frankie

    Jen…join the crowd. You’re old now! I can’t even remember the names of some of the places I use to go to back in my day. Like goes on. Time to pass the candle to the next generation and hope they don’t fuck up.

  • Meg

    This brought back many good (and not-so-good) memories. RIP to the $20 Drunken Monkey ($10 with your MMR card).

    • Ollie boy

      Did any of you stay home and read a good book??

  • Luckydog

    The very best place was live Bait, before it became so popular you had to wait in lines to get in. They had the best bartenders in town.

  • http://thepistolinbedthirteen.blogspot.com/ njrugger45

    You were drinking at Alfa in a dress you got on sale at Strawbridge’s…which closed in ’96…and you got your ticket to drink legally in ’01.

    I smell a fake ID! ;D

    • joss

      Strawbridge and Clothier was sold in 1996, but the May company retained the name Strawbridge’s until 2006.

    • Robert

      I smell douchebaggery.

  • Ed Trice

    Each generation goes through this inevitable “left of passage” (inverted pun on a right of passage, and possibly one that is transitioned with marginal reluctance). For me, the bars were The Jailhouse (conveniently on Drexel’s campus @ 31st & Market), Cavanaugh’s (which was right next to it, with a walkway allowing you to get there without going back outside), Doc Watson’s Pub, the Trocadero (downtown at around 13th & something, lots of WMMR-sponsored parties) and Smokey Joe’s on Penn’s campus. Each bar was packed so tight, you could hardly move without grazing several pairs of breasts on the way to the bar. With any luck, this was not the highlight of the night, but it was a welcomed consolation prize. Beer consumption was a sport back then, and with 90-cent drafts and $5 pitchers, it was amazingly affordable. Met plenty of party girls through these fine establishments, and I am happy to say better than half a dozen relationships that went over a year resulted as well. Inevitably though, at that stage in your life, you move around to where the better jobs are, little is tethering you to any one place, and it seems as if there is too much to see and hardly the time for giving anything else too much consideration. I enjoyed my time spent at these fine drinkeries. It made for interesting times, met some great gals, and it has the added benefit of serving as a form of nostalgia as old age creeps up on you.

    • Spank

      Dewd. You’re olde. Like me, I guess. The Jailhouse, The troc, Doc Watson’s- hit them all in the earliest 80s, when WMMR rocked and Little Nick Scarfo owned the Bulletin’s headlines.. Underage and full of piss. Missing them days-

  • tracibrowne

    Oh pu-leeze. If you think Philly didn’t have a dining scene is 2001 you’re an idiot. Yes there was a time when there were very few choices but that was back in the late 80s early 90s. Those of us who actually lived in Philly, not commuters on PATCO, lamented the opening of most the bars you mentioned.

    • tb

      “those of us who actually lived in Philly, not commuters on PATCO lamented the opening of most of the bars you mentioned” wow…how condescending and elitist..Of course you would look down on a bar such as Lucy’s (bro-ey as it was) you were probably at Johnny Brenda’s talking about some obscure band that no one had ever heard of, or perhaps bemoaning “corporate greed” under the GW administration.., ..And to dismiss anyone who had to take PATCO and wan’t fortunate enough to live in Philly reeks of pretension.. The equivalent of people in my native NY who lived in Manhattan and yet referred to people from Queens and Brooklyn (native NYers btw) as “bridge and tunnel”…

  • City Dweller

    “We were not city snobs. We didn’t need to tell people why we hung out in the city, or scream for validation. We just did.”

    Way to take yet another dig at something POSITIVE that people seem to love about this city. For someone who hates on Philly CONSTANTLY, you can’t seem to stop talking about it (and getting paid for this shitty nostalgic writing) every chance you get.

    Go be old and insufferable in New Jersey. So tired of your shit, Jen Miller.

  • somegirl

    It’s called growing up. You, Philly and finally, Old City.

  • pjcostello

    Why would you want to meet someone in a bar who would meet someone in a bar???

  • Robert

    Wow. Makes me dislike the 2000s and the Millennials even more. The 90s were fun. The 00s were dbag central.