Top Shelf: Offbeat

Bob and Barbara’s
1509 South Street, 215-545-4511
Long before Maxim declared Bob and Barbara’s one of the country’s best dives, Philadelphians were pounding its quick-drunk special: a shot of Jim Beam and a can of Pabst for $3. While cheap drink helps, the real draw is the entertainment, like old-school jazz (led until his death last year by the legendary Nate Wiley), Thursday Drag Nights, and other oddly fun events. (Drunken Spelling Bee, anyone?) This place pulls a true-to-Philly cross-section that’s rare in other dives: Wharton students rubbing shoulders with older neighborhood locals, gays and Center City hipsters.

12 Steps Down
831 Christian Street, 215-238-0379,
At street level, the Italian Market’s throwback charm is the energetic mix of gritty South Philly stalls and shops selling gourmet goods. And this nearby underground bar — literally 12 steps down — is equally eclectic. A mix of residents perches in neighborly fashion on beat-up stools in the dark, fortune-teller-machine-and-coin-op-pool-table basement that, like its aboveground environs, is surprisingly gourmet, with a list of seasonally bottled craft brews and a menu of vegan options. 

PJ Whelihan’s  
700 Haddon Avenue, Haddonfield, 856-427-7888,
PJ’s Haddonfield outpost could be mistaken for your average sports bar, until you realize you’re actually throwing back beers in a dry town. Ingeniously, the place rides on a technicality: Because the parking lot and most of the building actually lie in Westmont, it’s legit. And the hordes of locals who flock here on game nights (and the drunken college kids on non-game nights) love that. (Duh.) Oh, and don’t be surprised to find members of the Flyers imbibing here in the off-season. My drinking companion was once stricken with pee fright by a urinal-adjacent Bob Clarke. 

Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar
1200 East Passyunk Avenue, 215-365-1169,
The law requires that bars in Pennsylvania close between 2 and 7 a.m., and you’ve got to love a place that hews exactly to the legal limits. Plenty of people take advantage of the early-bird chance for a shot and a beer at this institution that’s been serving since 1938: construction workers, crotchety old chain-smoking neighborhood guys, and well-tattooed strippers who never made it to bed, all of them attending silently to the business at hand — drinking. At night, there’s much the same on-the-edges crowd for karaoke, DJs, quizzo, amateur comedians and football games, though frat boys tend to filter in after pit stops at Pat’s and Geno’s, both of which are less than a block away. They’d be better off checking the joint out at seven to chat up the lonely strippers.

Pen & Pencil Club
1522 Latimer Street, 215-731-9909,
Don’t let the “members only” thing fool you. Friends-of-friends have long managed to finagle their way into this venerable after-hours haunt for members of the press, where theoretically you pay a $40 annual membership fee. Once inside, you’ll be treated to a smoky, dark (good thing, given the level of housekeeping) joint that can be, depending on how the juice is flowing, either quiet and contemplative or noisy and intimidating. They serve microbrews (absolutely no Budweiser) and top- and bottom-shelf liquor, and offer a simple menu. The food and drink, available until 3 a.m., are secondary, though, to the world-class bullshitting sessions between political and media ne’er-do-wells who have nothing better to do, while just-getting-off restaurant and bar workers are merely seeking a final drink.