Besides serving as the birthplace for America, Philly taverns were among the first to get creative with cocktails—and some of George Washington’s favorites are still being poured today.
At The Olde Bar, the pre-Prohibition Clover Club cocktail dates back to a men’s club that would meet at Philly’s Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in the late 1800s.
When I was a child, my grandfather, a bon vivant of the first order, would regale me with tales of his days as a regular at Old Original Bookbinder’s—of epic lunches featuring enough shellfish to feed, as he used to put it, “the Red Army,” and enough cocktails to hydrate a thirsty marathon runner.
So it’s telling that, when chef Jose Garces took over the Old City space after it had been shuttered for several years, he decided to rename it The Olde Bar (125 Walnut St., 215-253-3777), which is more than just a name: It’s an indication of the respect that Philadelphians in general, and Garces and Company in particular, have for our city’s past.
“We’ve married the Garces culinary passion with the ambience of the famous address and the nostalgia of the space,” notes Chris Mann, general manager of The Olde Bar. “The cocktail program is inventive and modern, while paying homage to the original traditions that made Bookbinder’s a landmark in Philly.” Old-time favorites like the rum-based Fish House Punch, a standing order for Washington, and the Clover Club, a pre-Prohibition potion whose origins can be traced back to the eponymous men’s club that met at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in the late 1800s, are given new life here and are finding a new audience as a result.
Reverence for Philadelphia’s past is also on display at the historic City Tavern Restaurant (138 S. Second St., 215-413-1443), where chef Walter Staib cooks the kind of foods that would have been familiar to the Founding Fathers, and where the bar program includes the sort of concoctions that likely fueled conversation among them as they ate and debated that whole taxation-without-representation thing. Among the most famous of these is the Tavern Cooler, which brings together brandy, apple cider, whiskey, and rum.
Then there is Hop Sing Laundromat (1029 Race St.), the three-year-old Chinatown gem that is widely considered to be among the top bars in the world. There, in addition to original cocktails like the now-legendary Fuggedaboutit, which tastes like the best grapefruit juice you’ve ever had yet contains nearly three ounces of alcohol (and no grapefruit juice), cocktail visionary Lê also pays homage to the classics. His Manhattan, for example, is one of the best I’ve ever tasted—a result, he explains, of this: “We don’t have 12 ingredients and three different bitters,” he says, adding, “To me, that’s lazy.”
It’s that focus on quality ingredients, and a respect for the past with an eye on the future (not to mention a local drinking culture highly attuned to the details of what’s in the glass), that has made Philadelphia such a drinks destination—both centuries ago and, even more so, today.