Joe Sixpack: Ode to McGillin's - our city's oldest bar

Posted: July 31, 2009

AS IN ANY decent bar, you tend to lose track of time at McGillin's Old Ale House.

A bartender's shift ends, another's begins; one St. Patrick's Day leads to the next; the sun sets, but the neon sign outside glows. The baked potatoes, the karaoke songs, the pitchers of beer, the ceremonial clang of a bell behind the bar, the scrape of a barstool against the tile floor - they blend together in a seamless, happy moment.

Then you look over your shoulder and notice a century and a half has gone by.

There is no older bar in Philadelphia. Known originally as the Bell in Hand, McGillin's has operated in its same location on tiny Drury Street in Center City since 1860, more than a decade before they built City Hall.

On Tuesday, the joint will begin a 150-day countdown to its sesquicentennial by unveiling a new house ale brewed for the occasion by Stoudt's.

The saloon's longevity is remarkable by any measure.

It is older than the city's Cavanaugh's, Dante & Luigi's and Snockey's. It outlasted Palumbo's and the Middle East and Strolli's. Only a few businesses of any kind are older, including the Inquirer (1829) and Samuel Freeman Auctioneers (1805).

What's more notable is the names of Philadelphia institutions that have come and gone in the ale house's lifetime: Wanamaker's, Fidelity Bank, Schmidt's, Scott Paper, Philco, the Athletics. When Strawbridge & Clothier (founded 1868) closed in 2005, the sales clerks held the wake at McGillin's.

You look through the bottom of your mug, and there he is: the foggy image of founder William McGillin, an Irish immigrant with 13 children whom everyone called "Pa." He raised them upstairs; downstairs, he tended to the wooden casks.

"The cellar - with their rows of vats and hogsheads of ale, new, old, medium, light, dark, quick-use, stock India pale, Burton, brown stout and all that - were the pride of Mr. McGillin's good old heart," said his obituary in 1901. "He fairly reveled and gloated in them and prided himself on their neatness and the quality of the brew."

You check for loose change. A glass cost a nickel.

When he died, Catherine "Ma" McGillin took his place, staying open through the Prohibition by serving hot lunches with free baked potatoes. Each November, crowds filled Drury Street and serenaded her with "Happy Birthday." When she died in 1937 at age 90, her funeral at Oliver H. Bair's was so big, they shut down Chestnut Street.

Today, it's an Irish guy from Delaware County named Chris Mullins who maintains the kegs. He owns the place with his wife, Mary Ellen. She's the daughter of one of the Spaniak brothers, who purchased the bar in 1958 from Ma and Pa's last surviving child.

The beer pours from more than 30 taps, most of them handles from the region's craft breweries. Mullins is such a huge supporter of local beer, this deeply Irish bar serves O'Reilly's Stout from Phoenixville instead of Guinness.

Above the bar, framed copies of the bar's liquor licenses dating to 1860 attest to its age. Gone, however, is the old sign behind the bar, the one that was lost when the place went up in flames back in 1971, the one that warned, "Gentlemen will please avoid all political and religious discussion. Loud talking and singing strictly forbidden."

You hear someone swear about another crooked pol: Bill Vare, Ozzie Myers, Vince Fumo . . .

"You can imagine all the deals that have been bartered over the years, just one block from City Hall," said Lew Losoncy, an author and motivational psychologist who's been a McGillin's reg'lar for the past two years.

"It's a hub," he said. "It's a true piece of the social history of the city . . . You walk into the bar, and you feel like you're part of the heartbeat of the city.

"My sense," Losoncy said, "is that it has the same feel it had 150 years ago."

You check your watch. There's still time for another round.

McGillin's countdown to its 150th anniversary kicks off at 6 p.m. Tuesday with the official first tapping of McGillin's 1860 IPA.

In the first of a series of appearances by authors who've featured the tavern in their books, I'll be on hand as a special guest, to read from "Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Guide."

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit Send e-mail to

comments powered by Disqus