In Praise of the Local, Hospitality's Unsung Hero
Updated: Dec 16, 2021
I was sitting at our bar, just weeks before the first COVID shutdown, eavesdropping while regulars got into it: issues of the day, politics, events and characters in the neighborhood. Nothing was out of bounds, verboten, and the language and patois were rich, earthy. These were smart, funny, neighborhood people who didn’t always agree but who cared a lot about each other. They convened here almost every Sunday, sitting at the bar’s elbow and short side and taking their full meals along with a healthy quantity of plonk. They were among several groups and individuals who called regularly, weekly debriefed and decompressed with us. And I thought - not for the first time, but again - that this was one of the things that made me proudest about our place. Sure, the commitment to Abruzzo, the quality of our food, the dedication of the staff, but also this: the convivial vibe that allowed some people to treat it like their local, relax completely, be themselves. Because, to me, there’s no greater service a joint - bar, restaurant, café, whatever - can offer than being a local. Locals are one of the places where community forms and maintains itself. They are part of the connective tissue of a neighborhood.
And they are also, too often, among the least celebrated places. I’m not talking about us here. We’ve gotten more than our share of press and praise. And I’m not obtuse enough to believe that our humble ode to my ancestral region of origin, where (owing to labor and food costs, especially the coin needed to procure local produce and meats and stuff imported from Abruzzo and other parts of Italy) prices are not low, can function as a local for a lot of our neighbors. We do our best to make the place accessible, but things cost what they cost. If we want to keep doing what we’re doing, something’s gotta give. If we want to keep the same staff and stay open. And we do. I know a lot of folks treat us as special-occasion dining. That’s something that has always bothered me, honestly. But I don’t see a way around it. Not with what things cost and most people earn, the disproportionate distribution of wealth. But I digress. When the shutdowns first rolled out in March 2020, there was a lot of talk about how it would affect the dining scene, not just in town, but all over the country. And pieces were written about or by some of the more discussed, anointed, important places. Famous chefs and ownership groups weighed in, talked about a potential decimation of the industry, the probable demise of a lot of top-hole joints. They weren’t wrong. When I could get up off the floor and out of my fetal position long enough to countenance the situation, the view was bleak, heartbreaking. The trench warfare-like attrition rate, the dumb and random hand of fate - Who caught a bullet? Who didn’t? Why? - brought on despair. And, of course, there were the actual deaths and suffering of human beings. And along with those the realization that our society - at least large portions of it - wouldn’t alter their habits, make sacrifices to save others, harbored concepts of liberty and freedom that included no thoughts of duty or responsibility to their communities or neighbors, no empathy. They valued commerce above human life, seemed soul-dead, mindless. Rough days not too far back in the rearview. That is the rearview, right? Anyway, while I empathized and commiserated with the known and usual industry voices and souls making the laments, my mind kept returning to the unsung heroes of this town’s - and every town’s - hospitality scene: corner bars, pubs (real ones, where people still converse, aren’t lost - and I mean lost - in their devices), mom & pop restaurants, diners, greasy spoons, hoagie and coffee shops, etc. Places where people go to hash out the day, after shift. Whenever or wherever that shift might be. Landing spots when the times demand celebration or the shit hits the fan. Births and deaths, jobs won and lost, relationships smoothly sailing or on the rocks. Where you don’t have to explain yourself, can be that self. Where you are known - maybe in multiple states of mind and consciousness - and not only tolerated but taken care of. “You,” that person you know, deep down, who can be a hot mess. Yeah, I’ll say it, where everybody knows your name.
These joints develop organically, generally without high concept, might be passed down through families, or they come and fill interstices, the cracks that can form over time in a neighborhood. They serve - and more than just food and drink - the communities around them, aren’t free-floating and other to their immediate surroundings, culinary mother ships. They are or become part of a locale’s identity, what makes it specific, unique. Without them, you’ve often got shite. And they’ve been in the Dutch for years now, long before COVID. As neighborhoods are developed, gentrified, gussied up for people who don’t already live there, places like these can be seen as impediments to the transition and steamrolled in the name of progress. Maybe they can’t afford the higher taxes and rents. Maybe their landlords sell out from under them or they themselves see a chance to make one big score. All these things are true. But what is also true is that they get far too little love, appreciation, and notice. Especially from the press but also the broader public. They’re taken for granted, mentioned in passing (sometimes with an unearned and infuriating condescension) or - and this is the one that gets on my wick - commemorated as they’re about to go dark or have already done so. Sure, there are some places that get the notice they deserve, but that’s a rarity. Meanwhile, we’re bombarded by list after list talking up the most anticipated throwback cocktail bars or high-concept eateries, “heat maps” telling us where to stuff our faces RIGHT NOW! I’m not against such lists, though they don’t always reflect realities, maybe more the personal preferences of a staff/individual writer in that moment, imaginary landscapes. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. Hell, we’ve been on such lists and were glad to be included. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. But covering a city should include knowing it, or trying to know it, down to its bones, frequenting (or at least visiting) the unvarnished haunts that provide its history, bridge the gaps - where most of its denizens live - between the gilded temples of Ra, serve the masses yearning to get their drink on or comfort themselves with grub. And I don’t mean with some Margaret Mead-style “deep dive” or a one-off about local flavor. I mean treating these places in a way that acknowledges what they are: our glue, what makes this place this place. Because, if you’re out at all in the neighborhoods, it sure as hell ain’t the high-end spots. Those are essential in their own way (we wouldn’t want a city without some of them), but without the locals, they’re expensive Xmas lights on a dead tree. Streams of visitors - neighborhood folks might define them as them interlopers - vector to and from these palaces, often having no interaction with and indifferent to the surrounding quarters. It can breed resentment.
I’m not saying the “luxury” destinations are intentionally exclusive. It can be complicated. Hell, we opened an Abruzzese place in the heart of South Philly, one of the largest concentrations of Abruzzese immigrants (or their descendants) in the US, hoping to interest and attract our neighbors. We didn’t (and don’t) consider ourselves fine dining or high end. We were aiming at a typical trattoria. But some imagined us to be highfalutin, probably because of our prices (by necessity higher than some of the restaurants around us), look, and not being originally from the ‘hood. For American-born Abruzzese, our grub was sometimes foreign, hewing toward traditional recipes and not the Italian-American comfort food the area was known for. And that, by the way, we love. But before our official opening, we threw a big party for the neighborhood offering free food and drink and have continually made overtures. We now have a reliable local crowd that sustains us. It did take some time, though.
Anyway, locals loom large in my own personal history. I grew up in a rowhome in Reading, PA near Cotton Street, an eighteen-block stretch where there was once almost a bar - or two - at every corner. As a kid in the ‘70’s you’d get a feel for what might be going on inside by the music you heard from the street and the types of people walking in and out. It was a Slavic neighborhood, so polkas emanated from some. Foghat and Zeppelin blasted from others. Some were “old man” bars or places catering to factory workers. At other spots, bikers in jackets congregated outside. When I was old enough to pass quality time inside these places, I came to love their rhythms and familiar feel. The pickled eggs in a jar (ubiquitous in Reading), the frightening bottles of Rock n’ Rye and peppermint and peach schnapps that threatened to come out at the end of the night, when things could get a little grandiose, lifelong friendships were proclaimed, and joyful tears flowed freely. Little lethal doses that could turn a nice drunk into a vicious mother of a hangover. But there was also the continuity, sons and daughters sitting on the same stools their parents (back in the day, a little before me, just the dads; there’d been ladies’ entrances and sections) had haunted, sponsorship of Little League baseball and football teams, beef-and-beers to help a family in trouble, conversations and exchanges that solidified community. These types of bars could be found all over the city. While the patrons were mostly Slavic and German in my ‘hood, they were Black, Puerto Rican and Dominican in others. When I left Reading for elsewhere, got my ass kicked, and was forced to return home to my childhood bedroom (more often than I’d like to admit), it was in a local that I reintegrated (as best I could; college and experience outside the town created unseen barriers), caught up on goings-on. Who was working where, who’d gotten married or divorced, died, left town, gone to prison. The place I favored improbably had Lou Reed’s “Vicious” on the juke (not his best, certainly, but a lot better than Poison). One night there I talked a knife out of an old friend’s hand, a soldier who’d fought in Grenada and was having trouble processing it - long story. Anyway, we hashed it out until last call. Then I took him home to crash in the extra bed in my old bedroom. My mom made him breakfast next morning.
I found these places wherever I settled. It was one of the first things I’d do. Find my local.
In DC it was a place that served drinks with booze filling the glass and the mixer on the side. There was Tennessee Ernie Ford and Black Flag side-by-side on the juke. 17th and Q streets. People of every race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social level sat at the bar and conversed. Really conversed. Journalists and lawyers. Punk rockers and would-be street poets. Students and fuckups (um, me). It was heaven. I spent so much time there, participated in so many lock-ins (just about every night), that I’m surprised my washing and other ablutions weren’t part of the staff’s side work. I courted Cathy, my wife and co-owner of Le Virtú, there. With Dinosaur Jr, The dBs, Parliament Funkadelic, and The Plimsouls setting the mood. Because I’m a classy guy. So, she knew what she was getting into. When the guy who more-or-less created that community (a bartender and manager) died a couple of years ago, we drove down to DC for his memorial party. Hundreds of people were there. All with similar stories. Couples who’d met there, lifelong friendships begun, folks who’d acclimated to DC there, became part of the neighborhood, and stayed above water, sane, didn’t do a Brodie thanks to the conviviality and warmth the place naturally oozed.
(the bar at Fergie's) While in DC that place seemed a bit of a rarity, Philly was once stuffed to the brim with its like. Actually, a lot of the stalwarts are still around, hiding in plain sight. And some newer ventures have embraced the ethos, filled in some gaps, and proffered tonics to their respective quarters. I’ve got a bunch of preferred places, though I don’t get out like I used to. And I’m going to unintentionally skip someone. I wouldn’t want to think of East Passyunk without Clark Newman’s Lucky 13, open since 2008. That’s a place where all the elements of the surrounding blocks mix, interact, come to terms with, and get to know each other. A killer juke, an owner who engenders a welcoming and tolerant vibe, and good beer and stiff drinks served without fanfare, Cathy’s and my haunt in the ‘hood. For 27 years Fergie’s Pub, Fergus Carey’s (nearly) eponymous pub on Sansom (now co-owned with Jim McNamara, who’d been an employee there for 24 years), has been without TVs but proffering good food and drink in one of the most convivial environments anywhere. Live music, poetry readings, actual, real life, adult conversation between people sometimes meeting for the first time. A genuine, goddamn pub run by the city’s great publican, its “night mayor,” and the guy I want to be when I grow up (minus the Stones-over- Beatles preference; no one is perfect). All of Carey’s joints, in fact, have some of this warm feel, a reflection of the man himself (who I’d the pleasure of meeting when he was still a bartender at McGlinchey’s and I an unmitigated fuckup). If you’ve not been to Doobie’s - and since COVID, it’s been impossible; this is one place that the pandemic has really impacted and nearly claimed - then you’ve missed out on one of the most essential experiences in Philly. Doobies was the first place in the city I drank in post-college. A haunt for many of the workers in the neighborhood, the meeting and courtship location for more couples than I can recall (I see their posts on FB), a temple of worship to David Bowie (it’s Philadelphia HQ for all things Bowie), and a no-nonsense, down-to-earth corner bar serving up as much soul as it does grub and booze (in fairness, Doobies did get some notice last year from the Inquirer, owing to its perilous situation during COVID). And, of course, there are the ineffable dives: Dirty Frank’s, (the aforementioned) McGlinchey’s, Oscar’s, Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar, Bob and Barbara’s Lounge. ERA, an Ethiopian spot in Fairmount, offers a laid-back environment, diverse crowd, and good, simple Ethiopian food. Krupa’s, also in Fairmount, reminds one of that neighborhood’s roots; a good drinking bar. Not far from us at Le Virtú, there’s Bomb-Bomb BBQ on Wolf Street, a miraculous holdout from South Philly’s not-too-distant past and a treasure. Stogie Joe’s, formerly the Passyunk Tavern, where much of old South Philly gathers nightly for Italian-American comfort food. Relative newcomers Fountain Porter, Watkins Drinkery, and the South Philly Tap Room perform yeoman’s service binding parts of neighborhoods together. There are more of these than I can name. I know I’m not mentioning many essential places. Apologies. We’ve all got our favorites, if we’ve a pulse. In every neighborhood in the city.
Then there are diners. Breakfast 24 hours a day. If you’ve never ever been saved by a diner, at least once, then you’ve not had a life worth living. Not one that I’d want to get within ten blocks of. I’ve stumbled into the Oregon, the Melrose, and the late, great Little Pete’s more times than I can count, needing to be propped up, put right. You’ve not lived until a lady (because more often than not they’re ladies) who’s seen more than you’d ever have the guts to and takes no shit, but whose eyes betray bottomless wells of empathy and compassion (despite dark knowledge), takes pity on you, calls you “Hon,” and treats you almost like your very own mom. I once sat down in a booth, the very picture of “banged up,” and, along with the menu, the woman serving me – who I’d never met and with whom I’d not spoken a word - arrived with a bottle of aspirin. You know you don’t deserve this courtesy. But it restores your faith in humanity.
I could do a rundown of restaurants that aren’t bar-centric, including some BYOBs, that in my mind serve as locals, but I’m sure to omit a place I shouldn’t, unintentionally offend or hurt someone. So, I’ll quit while I’m ahead. Anyway, I think you get the picture.
Maybe my fears about the precarity of locals are unfounded, the product of a guy getting older, stumbling and weaving toward his dirt nap, and turning nostalgic and wistful. Maybe the way people now interact, socialize makes the vibe your regular used to trade in not only obsolete but impossible. It’s hard to be in the moment, have the barriers drop when we are all in our own personal bubble, engaged in our own devices, carrying portals to distant, virtual, untouchable worlds. Dopamine junkies jonesing for a fix. But I hope not. We need to learn to speak with each other, look each other in the eyes, find the humanity, and realize we’re not alone. Yes, that’s risky, and at times uncomfortable. The occasional asshole might try to pop his head in. But who ever said creating community would or should be easy, painless? Introversion, depression, social awkwardness are not recent phenomena. As a young guy, I’d have to psych myself up to walk out my door and into any social milieu (that’s still emphatically the case). Many of my friends were similarly wired. But we did recognize that we’d spent far too much time in our own heads, chasing our own tails, wearing ruts into the same trails. We needed to escape the prisons inside our skulls.
Human beings were a protean, complicated, and potentially dangerous lot. Alternately gregarious and loud or sullen and brooding. They didn’t always think before they spoke or express themselves well, and sometimes said stuff that hit nerve endings like fragments of fiberglass. They were unpredictable. And they scared the ever living shit out of me. But some of them provided the reasons why staying on this rotating experiment in apparent meaninglessness was even tolerable. They were exactly what I needed and why I’m still here. So, I implore you: (if you drink) leave your den or burrow, find a place where the music is good, there’s chatter at the bar, and the bartender engages. I’d suggest a place where the environment isn’t choreographed, performative. A place that’s comfortable in its own skin, unapologetic, where what you see is what you get. These things make for a good local. Not just any corner bar will do. Some of those are pits of hatred and despair. This might require some research, work. Sit down on a stool. Open your mind (at least a little, but not so much that “anything could crawl right in”). And turn off your phone. You won’t be able to predict or control what happens next. The nervousness this causes can be a good thing. You might soon find yourself part of a community. A complicated, messy, and beautiful meeting of hungry souls. Which is better than the alternative. I wish you luck. P.S.
If I missed any places (and I know I missed dozens), feel free to call them out. Let me know. If you think any of the haunts I name above don’t merit being mentioned, please keep that to yourself. There’s enough douchebaggery on these here interwebs, and I’d rather not add to it. While online commentary/reviews can be instructive and useful, they’re usually not. Too often they’re poorly written, ill-considered, and/or vindictive attempts to do damage, get a punch in on a basically defenseless target. Too many are written by people who, being accountable to no one, are not serious about or aware of the responsibility they bear. You might not agree, and that’s fine. But let’s refrain from doing it here, okay?
And if you’re someone who writes about food in this city - and must produce weekly content - or the editor of such a person, consider focusing every week on a local, taking it in, and talking about what you find. Approach the job with an open mind and without expectations. The city needs to hear these stories, appreciate what’s already here, serving our communities. That’ll leave plenty of time to make lists, heat maps, and rankings. Just my two cents.