Where to Drink Right Now: Three Bars Reviewed
2113 East York Street, Kensington
Expectations were high for Martha, the Kensington bar from hospitality veteran Jon Medlinsky. For years he’d been the beer steward at the Khyber Pass Pub. He’d been a server in the Garces orbit before that, and it was an open secret around town that he was planning his own bar. What wasn’t clear was what his vision was.
But now that Martha has opened, we’ve been able to see what Medlinsky was dreaming about for all those years. It’s a two-story-tall cube with a long bar on one side, a fireplace on the other, and a turntable providing the soundtrack—a place unlike anywhere else in Philadelphia, yet with a focus on local … everything.
The menu kicks off with hoagies, created (in part) by pizza savant Joe Beddia. The draft cocktails are based on recipes by Philly booze expert Phoebe Esmon. The meats highlight local favorites like head cheese from Reading Terminal’s La Divisa Meats, guanciale from bacon superstar Ari Miller’s 1732 Meats, and heavenly pepperoni sourced from Frankford Avenue neighbor Kensington Quarters. The cheeses include picks from as close by as the Terminal’s Valley Shepherd and don’t stray any further than Milford, N.J.
The beer list is similarly neighborhood-y (Kenzinger, Hop Hands, something from Forest & Main), but includes cherry-picked outsiders that reflect Medlinsky’s deep love of sour beers—a preference also reflected in the kombucha offered on draft, which is a first for Philly.
And speaking of firsts, there’s no bar in Philadelphia showcasing our booming distilling scene quite like Martha. On opening night there were 52 local spirits stocked behind the bar, which should be the best news possible for anyone out there looking to get a taste of what Philly is really drinking right now.
Three Stars—Come from anywhere in the city.
125 Walnut Street, Old City
It’s been about a year since Jose Garces opened the doors of this space inside the old Bookbinder’s building. And while we’ve always thought it was a decent spot as far as restaurants go—with roll mops and beef-fat fries, steak Oscar, a Welsh rarebit burger with onion jam, and a great raw bar—in October, our panel of expert drinkers chose it as one of the best bars of 2015. And now, after a couple more months and a few more visits, we’re convinced it’s as a bar that Garces’s attempt best succeeds.
This is a place with history that neither denies its roots nor canonizes them. The bartenders are knowledgeable and conversational and never condescending or chatty. But it’s the inventive, extensive (and we do mean extensive) cocktail list that has vaulted Olde Bar’s bar into the company of the region’s best.
And this goes for both traditional drinkers and those of a more adventurous bent. Whether you want to go out on a limb with the Ophelia Winthorpe and its yogurt-washed (!) gin or stick to a classic Hemingway daiquiri or Martinez, Olde Bar can speak to (and serve) both crowds. Plus there’s a happy hour with cheap beer and buck-a-shucks, so there are even moments when the place is a bargain.
All of which adds up to a grown-up drinking spot in Old City—finally.
Three Stars—Come from anywhere in the city.
So, yes, the team behind Opa killed Coco’s—that kinda-beloved Jeweler’s Row neighborhood hangout with the long bar, weird smell and skanky carpet—to open Craftsman Row Saloon. But they did so for the best possible reason: to replace OG Coco’s with a newer, cleaner and better version that keeps everything good about the old place (cheap drafts, lunch hours, a no-bullshit staff and a crowd of mostly neighborhood regulars) while adding a solid, well-executed menu of foods no one has to be concerned about eating and cocktails that echo the creativity of Philly’s high-end bar scene without the upscale price tag or all the bitters.
Seriously, you can go here for a $4 pint of Yuengling or a High Life pounder and be perfectly happy. If you’re fancier, you can go Sly Fox or Dogfish Head or Left Hand milk stout on nitro instead. For those moments when something stronger is required, you can push 10 bucks across the (polished, reasonably un-sticky) bar and get a Port of Philadelphia, which comingles the city’s drinking heritage in brandy, port wine and cider, or a Pear of the Dog, which is essentially a good Dark and Stormy with the not-unwelcome addition of sweet pear puree.
It’s a good bar, a comfortable bar, not too dark or too bright. It’s a friendly bar, with ESPN on the TVs and a staff capable of doing more than one thing at a time (which too many craft bartenders simply can’t). And it doesn’t hurt at all that the food menu is full of stuff you want to eat when you’re at a place precisely like this—fat reuben sandwiches made from house-brined brisket, fries with cheese curds and gravy (poutine by any other name …), excellent chicken croquettes served in small iron casseroles. And grilled cheese sandwiches with a side bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup available for $3.
Like so many other places opening in Philly these days, Craftsman Row is better than it needs to be and precisely as good as we want it to be—a great bar for the neighbors and anyone else who happens to find himself in Washington Square West and in need of gin, cheese curds and good company.
Two Stars—Come if you’re in the neighborhood.