Hipsters and Grandpas: Triangle Tavern Reviewed

Part red gravy, part watering hole, this “old-man Italian bar” revitalizes the best elements of a disappearing Philly institution: the neighborhood taproom.

Spaghetti and Meatballs at Triangle Tavern | Photo by Jeffrey Towne

Spaghetti and Meatballs at Triangle Tavern | Photo by Jeffrey Towne

There’s only so much you can tell about a restaurant from its staff’s sartorial choices. But Triangle Tavern’s bar — whose bulbous edge gleams darkly with decades’ worth of varnish — offered a fascinating study in contrasts as I settled in amid drifting speckles of disco-ball light. A bullet casing swung from my bartender’s pale white neck as she stirred Dubonnet into gin. Nearby, a slender crucifix tagged its owner as a South Philadelphian of a more iconic stripe. And passing between them was a young black man rocking a Portland Trail Blazers jersey.

In one direction, Passyunk hipsters sipped amaro and whiskey cocktails. In the other, a 40-something gentleman ordered a second High Life longneck in honor of his sister. Back in the wood-paneled dining room, families with young children wolfed bowls of spaghetti while women in reading glasses ordered mussels, red or white.

Triangle Tavern dates to 1933. After it stood empty for six years, Stephen Simons and David Frank revived it in May. You’ve heard this story before, right? Timeworn dive reboots with seasonal small plates and $8 double IPAs?

Not this one. The new Triangle aims for what executive chef Mark McKinney calls “an old-man Italian bar.” Which is evidently just what all the neighbors were pining for — Italian, old or otherwise.

The red-gravy menu looks like an estate-sale artifact, from the chicken parm and garlic bread to the curlicue-bordered paper it’s printed on. (A handful of vegan offerings — including admirably crispy-skinned Buffalo seitan “wings” — are the contemporary tip-off.) From an old-school lasagna packed with Italian Market sausage to De Cecco linguine tumbled with chopped and whole clams, long hots, and enough garlic to wipe out a vampire nest, it’s solid food at fair prices heaped in mounds best described by the Sophia Loren quote in the restroom: “Spaghetti can be eaten most successfully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner.”

Nightly specials provide the occasional upscale accent — say, P.E.I. oysters with a fennel-shallot mignonette. Apart from over-breaded clams casino, everything I ate was satisfying in a by-the-book way.

The bar is a blast. A quenching $6 glass of Frankie Sodano brandy punch had as much going for it as a $12 Negroni or a $7 draft vermentino. Even my goblet of vodka-spiked “adult water ice” was a sugar-restrained winner.

It’s been a tough decade for Philly’s old taprooms. But Triangle shows what an important role they can play in knitting a neighborhood together. After my third dinner, I watched a nose-ringed dude with a tattoo climbing up his sleeveless shoulder fall deep in conversation with a man whose button-down oxford set off a salmon-pink tie. There was a time when that used to be the whole point of hitting a bar after work.

At the Triangle, it’s that time again.

2.5 Stars – Good to Excellent

Triangle Tavern [Foobooz]