It’s a rainy “Leap Night” at MilkBoy, and the band on stage is throwing down like it’s, well, an evening that happens once every four years. Area musician Pete Donnelly—known for his membership in NRBQ and his own group, the Figgs—is celebrating his last night of a six-week residency at the Philadelphia club, and he’s invited some friends. In the house are local singer/songwriters Ben Arnold and Jim Boggia, while on deck is headliner Tommy Stinson, former member of ’80s indie-rock stalwarts the Replacements and currently the touring bassist for Guns N’ Roses.
Donnelly wraps up a song and leans into the mic. “Who owns this place, anyway?” he asks the audience in jest.
Onto the stage jumps MilkBoy’s co-owner, grinning like the guy who knows he’s throwing the coolest party in town. “Let’s get Tommy Joyner to sit in on drums for this next one,” Donnelly announces.
Joyner eases in behind the drum kit with a wide smile and seamlessly lays down the beat for the next song. The crowd cheers. Everyone, it seems, is having a most excellent time.
The scene in this upstairs music space—where the walls vibrate and beer is served from cans at the back bar—is a far cry from the mellower vibe at Ardmore’s MilkBoy Coffee, the offshoot of a productive studio partnership between Joyner and Jamie Lokoff. MilkBoy Recording has since moved to Philadelphia, just above the Electric Factory live music venue.
Opened in 2006, MilkBoy Coffee spawned a smaller Bryn Mawr location that’s now under new ownership. By day, the Ardmore spot is a popular neighborhood hangout. At night, it’s a small but mighty music venue that’s seen a steady procession of local and national acts cross its stage.
For Joyner, the difference between the two locations is small but important. “Our Ardmore place is MilkBoy Coffee,” he stresses between sets at the Leap Night show. “This is just MilkBoy.”
But coffee is still a big part of what they do in Philly, as evidenced by the 7 a.m. opening time, the rich grinds on the menu and a massive La Marzocco espresso machine. The differences: A liquor license for the bar, which also opens at 7 a.m., and a Center City location that brings in more accomplished acts and allows them to do better things in the kitchen.
Joyner and Lokoff had been kicking around the idea of expanding into Center City for quite a while. Then, in June 2009, they were approached by U3 Ventures, owners of a vacant building at 11th and Chestnut streets, directly across from the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital complex.
“It was in the center of the city, and we liked that,” says Lokoff. “It just didn’t make sense to open up another coffee shop, and the one thing that’s cheaper in Philadelphia is getting a liquor license—about one-quarter the cost of getting one on the Main Line.”
In a neighborhood dominated by the hospital, smaller retailers and more than a few empty storefronts, there was clearly a need for some new blood. “U3 structured a deal that would allow us to open with the least amount of aggravation,” says Lokoff.
The final piece of the puzzle was third partner Bill Hanson, a veteran of the food and beverage industry who’s worked with Philadelphia restaurant moguls Steven Starr and José Garces, among others. “He’s been in the business forever,” Lokoff says. “It’s a different animal [for us], and it’s important to have someone who’s familiar with it. Now, we have that same level of expertise with the bar and food as we do with coffee and music.”
“We’re always strapped for money,” says Jamie Lokoff, laughing.
He’s referring to the exposed brick and refinished wood floors that dominate MilkBoy’s interior—a nice aesthetic choice, but also affordable. The spacious, two-floor corner property opens out onto both 11th and Chestnut streets with a broad expanse of garage-style windows on the ground floor. The two-tops that line said windows were actually built by Joyner, and much of the bar lighting is reclaimed from an old furniture store down the street.
Inside, it’s hip minus the hipster pretention, with a staff that radiates hospitality. “They set the tone,” says Lokoff. “No matter how cool I can make this place, what cool acts we have and how funky it looks, the staff sets the vibe.”
The coffee and beer lists anchor the beverage menu, with four standout local beers and microbrews on tap and a huge selection of canned beers. (Wall-mounted crushers minimize the space taken up by empties.) Among the house cocktails, the R5 (with Bulleit Rye and blood orange) pays tribute to the Main Line’s beloved commuter rail line. And MilkBoy Coffee, after all, is just a 20-minute train ride from Suburban Station.
Having a hospital next door means plenty of third-shifters looking for a place to unwind when they get off work at 7 a.m. Though business isn’t bad at the time of our mid-afternoon interview, the barista notes that the “happy hour” crowd had the place packed earlier in the day.
As for the food, think exceptional simplicity. No-fuss favorites like cheeseburgers and wraps are expertly executed by chef and Culinary Institute of America graduate John Bohn, who emphasizes freshness and local ingredients. “In this day and age, everyone considers themselves a foodie,” says Lokoff. “So I knew if it wasn’t good, I’d hear about it.”
But the froth atop the cappuccino has to be the music at MilkBoy’s Center City location. Unlike Ardmore, this spot has a dedicated music space with a larger stage, a separate bar and room for about 200 people. In short, it’s bigger, louder and more suited to its urban location. “We’re a music company first, and because we’re a recording studio and we deal with artists all the time, we’re sensitive to the their plight,” says Lokoff. “So it was important to make it an artist-friendly experience.”
Donnelly, for one, is sold. “It reminds me of the New York clubs I used to play, where it’s a tight, narrow room and you get a few hundred people and it feels like a crowd,” says the veteran touring musician. “It’s not an uptight listening room—and, at the same time, it’s not a raucous rock club. But it’s definitely a show.”
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