Historians blame undrinkable water for touching off Philadelphians’ 300-plus-year fascination with beer and ale. At one time, our forefathers enjoyed imbibing at the Blue Anchor, a pub actually shipped here from Ireland in pieces and re-assembled on a local dock.
Soon enough, homegrown Irish watering holes were a fixture in Philadelphia. One of the most revered, Bell in Hand, opened in 1860. That same year, Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann fell dead at 13th and Vine streets; the Public Building Commission held its first meeting; 28 horses burned to death in a fire at Tattersall’s Stables; and the Prince of Wales paid a visit to the city. So clearly, there was plenty to talk about while sipping suds.
Over time, “Bell in Hand” was swapped for the owner’s surname, McGillin, and the tavern grew to encompass the oyster house next door, the back alley and washroom, and the McGillins’ own home (all while 13 children were raised upstairs). When the proprietor passed away in 1901, his wife took over, earning a reputation for weeding out the troublemakers.
“Ma” McGillin remained in charge until 1937, when she passed the business to her daughter. The McGillins’ reign ended in 1958, when two barkeeps, Villanova’s Henry Spaniak and his brother, Joe Shepaniak, took over. That Main Line connection continues today with Henry’s daughter, Mary Ellen Spaniak Mullins, and her husband, Chris, who live in Narberth.
Located just blocks from City Hall on a tiny side street, this Philly icon isn’t especially easy to find. But once you make it there, your efforts will be rewarded with satisfying pub grub, an impressive beer selection and reasonable prices. Irish in name but not in theme, McGillin’s allure has more to do with what it isn’t than what it is (or even what it was). It’s a place untainted by Irish kitsch and a false sense of importance, with a friendly staff that knows it’s not only your good fortune to stumble into this place, but theirs as well.
When the current owners took over in 1993, McGillin’s reputation was intact, but its insides were more than a little worn. Restoration and renovation work included opening up the eyebrow windows that had been boarded up, and redoing the bar and ladies’ room. The latter’s gorgeous, old-style tiling is new, but the look is a decided nod to the pub’s architectural roots.
While the bar has also been updated, the wainscoting on its front is original, as is the terra-cotta tile floor—an unusual design element for its time—that dates back to 1907. Walls are covered with quirky Philly memorabilia, including discarded signs from much-loved but now-defunct businesses like Gimbels and Lit Brothers.
The furniture at McGillin’s is as simple and practical as it comes—sturdy wooden tables and chairs that can withstand just about any sort of punishment. And that should come as no surprise considering McGillin’s hardscrabble history and infamous popularity on New Year’s, St. Patrick’s Day and during Oktoberfest, when lines of revelers stretch around the block and nearby streets are closed.
The rest of the year, the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed. There’s usually plenty of room at the bar, and a seat by the cozy fireplace is the best spot in the house during winter.
McGillin’s is so low-key that it’s become a go-to spot for high-profile types seeking anonymous fun—including celebrities like Will Ferrell, Robin Williams and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’s Ty Pennington. It’s also a favorite lunch spot for many City Hall staffers, past and present mayors, outgoing District Attorney Lynne Abraham and Councilman Bill Green. Local sports personalities have also been known to show up regularly.
And while McGillin’s remains a popular spot for sports fans, some purists have turned up their noses at the flat-screen TVs. “In order to stay another 150 years, we have to stay with the times,” says Mary Ellen. “People love sports, and we have to give people what they want.”
That populist slant is also behind McGillin’s reputation as one of the frontrunners in the local beer movement. They supported local and regional microbreweries long before Beer Week made a splash in the area. The bar’s rotation of draft beers—usually around 35—includes Stoudt’s Fest, Sly Fox Pub Ale (an exclusive), Philadelphia Brewing Company’s Joe’s Coffee Porter, Tröegs’ Sunshine Pils, Flying Fish’s ESB Ale, Yards’ Philadelphia Pale Ale, Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA and Victory’s HopDevil. Regional brews include Ithaca Beer Company’s Apricot Wheat, River Horse’s Hop Hazard Pale Ale and Brewery Ommegang’s Hennepin (Farmhouse Saison).
This past fall, in preparation for its 150th anniversary, the pub collaborated with Stoudt’s to create McGillin’s 1860 IPA. Stoudt’s also produces the two house beers: McGillin’s Real Ale and Genuine Lager. Keep in mind that Guinness is taboo here—and at many other Philly bars—because of what the Mullins and others view as its support for “chain, faux-Irish” pubs.
And though she’s played down trends and high prices on the menu, Mary Ellen recognizes the need to take the food up a notch at McGillin’s. That in mind, she recently hired Todd Bergman, whose résumé includes popular Philly spots Sabrina’s and New Wave Café. The goal is to retain the reasonably priced lunch offerings while going more upscale at dinner with improved specials and sophisticated sides.
Apparently, the move is more about attracting new diners than alienating regulars—especially when they include employees at food-centric Center City restaurants like Table 31 and Jones, who just had their company parties at McGillin’s. Even so, an unpretentious atmosphere is even more appealing when you have the excellent cuisine to back it up.
McGillin’s Olde Ale House
Location: 1310 Drury St., Philadelphia; (215) 735-5562, mcgillins.com
Cuisine: Hearty, homestyle pub grub.
Cost: Most dinner entrées under $10.
Atmosphere: Historic tavern with an unpretentious, sometimes boisterous ambiance and friendly service.
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday (kitchen open until 10 p.m.).
Extras: Private party space on the second floor.