Why Prohibition? Well, says Michael Pasquarello, who owns the joint with his wife Jeniphur Whitleigh, there were things found in the basement that led him to believe it might have been a speakeasy once, which would have been between 1920, when Prohibition came to town, and 1933, when it was sent packing. (By the way, should you feel moved to toast, the 75th anniversary of the repeal is fast approaching. It's Dec. 5 - 20 drinking days left till Christmas.)
Precisely what might those items in the arched-brick basement have been? Pasquarello says there were menus for 25-cent burgers. And old saloon ads for lagers. There were paraphernalia from the Pen and Quill, when the place lubricated Inquirer hacks and pressmen. (In the '70s, the Press Bar, a splendidly dreary hole on Broad Street, fulfilled those same needs. It was succeeded by Westy's, 15th and Callowhill, but I digress.)
I suggest to Pasquarello that none of those items implies in any particular way that the Prohibition Taproom was in fact a speakeasy, to which he responded that, well, there was hearsay, "but no concrete evidence." Oh.
But moving on. What is encouraging is that, unlike its immediate predecessors, the Prohibition (whose owners also own Cafe Lift down the block) seems seriously interested in (1) looking presentable; (2) offering quality craft beer - five rotating drafts, including a hand-pumped Yards ESA, and about 35 bottles, several of local origin (Stoudt's Oktoberfest, Dogfish Head Raison d'Etre, Philadelphia Brewing's Walt Wit, and so on).
And (3) offering far better American bistro fare than you might expect in this on-the-fringe neighborhood - a good burger, an honest pulled-pork sandwich on a Metropolitan roll, good slaw, great fries, and a hearty, rustic Lancaster County roast chicken with a soulful orange-rosemary sauce and local root vegetables.
But the place had me at the BAR sign. On a commercial strip, who'd ever notice it? But here in the dark, not a mouse stirring (well, maybe a mouse) in the Loft District, it is something of a beacon and a safe harbor, as straightforward and direct as that hospital H.
You have to be careful with a sign: Too dim and you telegraph that gloomy feel of the Phillies Cigar logo above the diner in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. Too brash, and it looks cheesy. Understated signs - a brass plate by the door - imply exclusivity. Big ones, a big welcome. (Example: The LEVIS hot-dog-shaped sign still erect above North Star Bar.)
Pasquarello wanted a hanging metal sign for Prohibition (too heavy). Then a wood sign with a vintage look ("like it had always been there"), like one he'd seen on a parking lot in Center City: "PARK," it said, nothing more.
When he contacted Gibbs Connor, the master signmaker in East Passyunk Square, Connor had another idea: Why not go for neon?
Connor and his wife had visited Butte and Bozeman and, finally, Livingston, Mont., and he had vivid memories of the vintage neon signage (at the OWL on Livingston's Second Street, and Murray Cafe, and a martini BAR sign with an arrow running to the front door).
"It was burned into my mind," he said. And so it was that with a few yards of luminous tubing and vaporized neon gas the Prohibition Taproom got its BAR sign, stamped like a red-hot brand on the black 13th Street night.
The evening they lit it up, one of the stable hands from the stable barn across the street happened by: "Why would you put up an old, ugly sign like that?" he said.
Pasquarello knew right then he had a winner.
501 N. 13th St.
Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.