Philly's Pen & Pencil Club has put out a new edition

Manager and bartender Dan Kenney gives a generous pour. (GIANNA VADINO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Manager and bartender Dan Kenney gives a generous pour. (GIANNA VADINO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 06, 2011

LONG AGO, I went into journalism - as do many naïve young men - harboring the ridiculously stereotypical fantasy that I might someday become that hard-drinking, cigar-chomping, Mencken-esque city columnist of yesteryear. In the black-and-white newsreel of my imagination, my workday would end like this: After banging out 800 words of tough-guy prose, I would rise from my Underwood, adjust my fedora (with the press card tucked into the hat band) and slip off to the local press club. There, at a dark and smoky bar populated with rogue characters, I would order a double rye with a beer back. And then I would order another.

By now, of course, most of my journalistic illusions have been shattered. But the seedy milieu of the old-time journalist's bar still persists in imagination. Which is why I was interested to learn that the Pen & Pencil Club - Philadelphia's honest-to-god press club, the oldest existing club of its kind in America (dating back to 1892) - had undergone a refurbishment recently.

I hadn't been to the Pen & Pencil Club in a while. It's not a place I ever frequented, but I'd occasionally been through its wrought-iron doors, sandwiched between parking garages on dimly lit Latimer Street, between 15th and 16th. My experience mostly had been that it was the sort of place you ended up at 3 a.m. on "one of those nights." You didn't talk about what went on behind those doors. What happened at P&P stayed at P&P.

Sure, some journalists still went there, but by late night it was mostly taken over by restaurant waitstaff, cooks and bartenders just finishing their shifts. Like nearby Oscar's and McGlinchey's, it was the dank sort of place that made your clothes smell so bad you wanted to burn them in morning. If it wasn't exactly seedy, it wasn't too many steps removed.

"We were aware that the place, while beloved, had a reputation as a shaggy dog," says Steve Volk, senior writer at Philadelphia Magazine and the club's vice president. "This is a town that really likes shaggy dogs. But this dog was too dirty."

So this summer's facelift of the club's first floor brought in new furniture, new art work on the walls, a new digital jukebox, two flat-screen TVs and the addition of large picture windows on the back wall to let in natural light - perhaps alarming to P&P regulars. But the biggest change may be an HVAC system that improves ventilation, essential since the club still allows smoking. Next summer, work on the second floor will take place.

Hunting for newsgatherers

For Volk and other journalists on the board, the new look is a move back to reclaiming the club's journalistic past - the era when luminaries such as Damon Runyon and Red Smith drank here, and President Taft stopped by.

Those days are long gone. Now, most journalists go home to the suburbs after filing their stories - if they aren't filing remotely from the suburbs.

Regardless, to be an active member, you still have be directly involved in newsgathering in Philadelphia: "Those who chose journalism over all other callings." To supplement that dwindling group, there are dozens of associate members - "friends of journalists," a huge category of people.

"When you look at the place at 2 a.m., it ain't journalists in here," Volk says. "People from the Inquirer don't come into the place." A belated decade after the Web has redefined journalism, Volk's hoping to broaden the club's view of who a "journalist" is: "I'd like to see more of the Internet folks, the bloggers," he says.

"There's not that many journalists anymore. That's the main problem," says Dan Kenney, manager and head bartender at the P&P. "When I started coming here as an associate member, there used to be four dailies in town."

Kenney, who's worked behind the bar for 21 years, is one of two food and drink reasons the Pen & Pencil is still relevant. He's not a "mixologist" in the current, trendy, speakeasy cocktail mode. But he will make you one of the better Manhattans or martinis in the city. The second culinary reason to go to the P&P is because it serves some of the best burgers in the city.

With that in mind, I visited the P&P a few times last week, mostly during the hours before restaurant workers would begin showing up. What I mostly found was a handful of older gentlemen smoking cigars, gossiping and watching the Phillies. What was most peculiar was how quiet the bar was - even the Phillies game on TV was silent.

A guy next to me was chatting with Kenney about how he was recovering from his heart attack a few weeks ago, blowing cigar smoke into Kenney's face as they talked about his new, healthy lifestyle choices. Another middle-aged guy told a story about how he'd been "trapped in an MRI machine" for two hours.

I asked the guy next to me what he thought of the renovations. "Well," he said, "there's no more dartboard anymore. There's no more poker machine anymore. There's no more hot dogs anymore."

"There's no more hot dogs!" someone shouted from across the bar.

"And the windows open now. And there's ventilation, which I guess is good thing," he said, as he puffed his cigar some more.

Kenney poured me what he called a French martini, with Lillet Blanc instead of vermouth. I realize that Damon Runyon would never have been caught dead drinking one of these, but it was very, very tasty.

A sense of nostalgia

When I mentioned the club's facelift to several longtime P&P goers, their reactions ranged from skeptical to outrage. One friend of mine, a restaurateur who said that he had "lots of secrets behind that door," was furious.

"A facelift!" he said. "They should change the name of the place then, too, because it is no longer the Pen & Pencil. Forget it. I won't ever go back."

Honestly, I think that that's an overreaction, but I understand. "Seediness has a very deep appeal," Graham Greene famously wrote. "It seems to satisfy, temporarily, the sense of nostalgia for something lost; it seems to represent a stage further back."

Later, over the phone, Kenney told me, "I'd like to get more people who are a little younger coming in. And I hope people think about us again. Sometimes people tend to forget about you."

What people I talked to remember most about the P&P is that element of seediness - the positive, nostalgic one that Greene is talking about. The Pen & Pencil Club, I guess, alters that at its own risk.


Pen & Pencil Club, 1522 Latimer St., 215-731-9909, www.penandpencil.org. The club's 1892 charter says that it is a place for journalists and their friends. Working journalists can sponsor "associate" members to join. Everyone pays $40 per year.


Jason Wilson has twice won an

award for Best Newspaper Food

Column from the Association of

Food Journalists. He is the author

of "Boozehound" and editor of

"The Smart Set," an online arts and

culture journal at Drexel University.

Follow him at

twitter.com/boozecolumnist

or go to jasonwilson.com

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