Taste: Spirits: Standing Guard

Protecting tradition — gin martinis, bourbon old-fashioneds — at the Old Guard House Inn

It’s predictable to compare the bar at the Old Guard House Inn to Cheers, but it’s hard to avoid the theme’s refrain when, well, everybody does know your name. And it’s even more predictable to reference Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” when talking about Joe Belza, but if you live in Gladwyne, Joe at the bar probably is a friend of yours (even if he doesn’t give you your drinks for free).

[sidebar]See, the thing about the bar at the Old Guard House Inn and about Joe, who’s worked behind it five nights a week for 14 years—is that predictable is exactly the point. Drinkers don’t come to this jovial 12-stool bar, with its taxidermied decor, in search of novelty and the ubiquitous signature martini; they come in search of constancy and a gin martini. They have for 30 years.

“I’ll have a martini,” one customer begins. Joe completes the order, hands already in motion: “Beefeater. No fruit. Rocks on the side.” He pauses to welcome more guests to the quickly filling bar. “Mr. and Mrs. ­McGowan,” he says, proffering a plate of complimentary hors d’oeuvres, like any good cocktail-party host. Mr. McGowan whispers to his wife: “How does he remember our name?” When the bar’s full, Joe finds one more stool in the coat closet. “There’s always an extra stool,” a regular promises.

There’s no doubt Joe mixes up a fine Key lime martini, but while the crowd runs from contract lawyers to contractors, its tastes span a much narrower spectrum. “When I started out, this was a scotch and whiskey bar,” Joe says. “Then, for a little while, it was vodka. Now people are asking for old-fashioneds again.”