Philadelphia makes it easy to party like it's Prohibition time, with award-winning craft cocktails, authentic speakeasys and a rich historical record hearkening back to the 1920s. (Left photo courtesy Franklin Mortgage, right photo courtesy Ranstead Room)
Prohibition, the alcohol-free period in American history between 1919 and 1933, made a huge cultural impact on our nation and continues to be an influential, intriguing slice of history today.
From TV shows like HBO’s Atlantic City-set Boardwalk Empire to festive 1920s celebrations around the city, the Philadelphia region toasts to Prohibition all year long.
Starting Friday, October 19, and continuing until April 28, the National Constitution Center will be curating the first-ever exhibition of its kind entitled American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
This special exhibit will feature more than 100 rare artifacts from the bygone era including actual copies of the original, ratified 18th and 21st Amendments plus some interactive fun.
In honor of the kick-off of American Spirits, we’ve compiled a list of all the places beyond the exhibit where you can party like it’s Prohibition. Check it out:
Surviving Prohibition-Era Bars of Philadelphia
• McNally’s Tavern: 8634 Germantown Avenue. This historic tavern founded in 1921, formerly known as McNally’s Quick Lunch in Prohibition time, remains in the McNally family still to this day and never stopped serving drinks to its customers, even during the time it was outlawed, says original owner Rose McNally’s granddaughter. They’ve got the proof, too: there’s a citation from a 1920s enforcement raid hanging by the door as evidence. While you’re there, ask for the Schmitter, a sandwich like none other with cheesesteak, grilled salami, cheese, grilled onions, tomatoes and special Schmitter sauce.
• McGillin’s Olde Ale House: 1310 Drury Street. The oldest operating tavern in Philadelphia has been kept alive all these years with the help of “Ma” McGillin who disguised McGillin’s as a restaurant and managed to keep the place in operation even back during Prohibition. With some help from a hired chef, she kept the front doors locked and snuck guests around back and into a private room where world-famous performers entertained for secret parties. Snap forward to modern day and you’ll find patrons still filling those same rooms, only now you’ll find them cheering on Philadelphia’s sports teams instead.
• Cherry Street Tavern: 129 N. 22nd Street. This bar secretly kept Prohibition era patrons coming with a clever little disguise: a barber’s chair. Sure, they’d give you a cut and a shave, but you’d get more than just that. The urine trough still runs around the bar and reminds visitors of how far back the history of the place runs. Don’t let that detail discourage you, though; obviously those days are long gone and now customers find Cherry Street Tavern to be a cozy spot for a hot sandwich and good, friendly service. Oh, and the separate “Ladies’ Entrance” sign is long gone.
• Hop Sing Laundromat: 1029 Race Street. This place is sexy, secret and exclusive — all of the characteristics of what a real Prohibition-time speakeasy was like, even if the owner denies that the place is inspired by Prohibition-era establishments. If you are allowed in Hop Sing (if you’re dressed appropriately and acting discreet enough), you can have your shoes shined in the lobby. Just don’t try to take pictures or use your cellphone. The place feels authentic because of this and the fact that cocktails are being mixed at your table and carts carrying rare bottles are rolling by. Order some food from nearby restaurants and have a vintage throwback of an evening filled with the sleek style of underground Philadelphia nightlife.
• Fiume: 229 S. 45th Street. Even the most city-savvy cats in town haven’t always heard of Fiume, the closest thing to a real speakeasy in Philadelphia. This West Philadelphia joint looks like someone’s living room and doesn’t have a sign, a phone or an Internet presence, but we can assure you that it’s for real. Lucky for you, thanks to us you’re now in the know. Typically, the only way in is by word of mouth or if you accidentally take a walk up the stairs that take you above Abyssinia, the Ethiopian restaurant below. Listen to some live music and sip a secret cocktail — what better way to live out the romance of the Prohibition era?
• Marrakesh: 517 S. Leithgow Street. This palatial watering hole has been hiding out in an unmarked, indiscernible building on an obscure back street for more than 35 years. Knock at the heavy doors of Marrakesh to be guided through the restaurant’s hefty curtain and be lead to the North African oasis of belly dancing and ethnic-feeling ambience.
• Prohibition Taproom: 501 N. 13th Street. With a name that more than rings bells of the bygone era, Prohibition Taproom is a bit easier to locate with big neon sign hanging out front stating “BAR.” Maybe back in actual Prohibition times this would have blown their cover, but modern-day patrons obviously need not worry. Located in the emerging Loft District surrounded by horse stables, Prohibition Taproom has a vibe that will make you feel like you’ve traveled time — with the exception of the enormous beer list, delicious food, weekend brunch and Sundays’ BYOV (bring your own vinyl).
More Prohibition, below.
• Ranstead Room: 2013 Ranstead Street. Decked out in vintage decor, Stephen Starr’s Ranstead Room kills it with the ambience. From the glittering chandeliers to the gold accents to the leather-bound furniture, this place is an awesome back-alley hideaway. The two adjoining “R’s” on the dark doors of the red-brick building are the only sign of nightlife you’ll find, but enter the next set of doors to get a taste of the craft cocktails that make the hunt for this place more than worth it. Hint: it’s located adjacent to El Rey.
• Ruba Hall: 414 Green Street. Short for the Russian-Ukrainian Boating Association Ruba is a quirky little cash bar drinking hall hidden away behind Silk City. They serve booze, keep the crowd dancing and keep the doors open until 3 a.m. almost every night. Become a member for a small fee and avoid paying a cover each time.
• Pen & Pencil : 1522 Latimer Street. A local favorite, especially among the service industry crowd, P&P is an after hours club located right in downtown Philadelphia. Established in 1892, it’s actually the oldest continuously operating press club in America and has housed famous guests such as President William Howard Taft and George M. Cohan until the wee hours of the morning.
• L’etage: This place conjures nostalgia for the old-times with its elaborate, dramatic decor, the French-inspired snacks, the fabulous cabaret and the dimly-lit quarters. Letage’s drink menu has also gotten them some attention including the Best of Philly award for Most Reasonable Wine List.
Classic Craft Cocktails
• Farmer’s Cabinet: 1113 Walnut Street. Everything from the look of this Victorian-era bar to the bartenders’ old-time get-ups to the hand-crafted, classic cocktails give this place a totally classy, throwback-feeling vibe. Though The Farmer’s Cabinet’s farm-to-table style cuisine seems like it’s a part of a modern-day trend, it’s totally inspired by the age-old way to serve. Take that and a huge beer list, an extensive spirits menu, hundreds of candles and some old-time photos to add some pre-Prohibition charm.
• Chick’s Social Kitchen + Bar: 614 S. 7th Street. Old-time classic cocktails with a modern flare are one of the major draws of this joint. Using absinthe and other Prohibition favorites, bartenders are devoted to concocting fresh versions of the spirits. Add a little drama to your nightlife and order Chick’s updated take on the Sazerac — made with Peychaud’s Bitters, Jim Beam Rye and simple syrup in a Herbsaint absinthe-rimmed glass.
• Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.: 112 S. 18th Street. Don’t be put off if a bouncer asks you to wait outside to enter this swanky, underground hot spot for luxury libations. That’s just Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.’s way of making sure you get a seat on a leather banquette. You’ll be happy you waited once you feel the exclusive vibe, see the hand-chipped ice and take a sip of a carefully created classic cocktail. Named after the Philadelphia business that fronted for the country’s largest Prohibition-era alcohol ring, this is a must-see downtown club.
• Southwark Restaurant: 701 S. 4th Street. Offering old-fashioned favorites like the Pisco Sour, Sidecar, Manhattan and the Mai Tai, Southwark Restaurant was one of the initial catalysts of the classic cocktail craze sweeping the city. Prefer it pure? Try one of the 30 rye whiskeys or close to 20 different gins to feel that throwback vibe. The delicious farm-to-table dishes are equally necessary to try.
• Time Restaurant: 1315 Sansom Street. Sip on one of about a dozen varieties of rye in the Bohemian Absinthe Lounge or take a walk up the stairs and enter the Parisian-inspired salon to hear some DJ mixes and watch the barkeeps pour the traditional towers of absinthe at Time. The ambience of the place is set by the gorgeous 1930s chandelier that sparkles overhead.
• Village Whiskey: 118 S. 20th Street. Iron Chef Jose Garces’s blast from the past, Village Whiskey, will make you feel like you’re back in a 1930s Chicago speakeasy with its bartenders and decor decked out in the traditional garb, the menu that’s divided up by “Prohibition” (drinks inspired during the 20s and 30s) and “Repeal” sections (created just after the 21st Amendment repeal of the 18th Amendment), and the extensive selection of whiskey. Rye whiskey, the blend that made Al Capone’s bootlegging empire such a hit, comes in more than a dozen varieties here, as well.
• Ortlieb’s Lounge: Cheap drinks, great specials, top-notch bar food, nightly events, weekly live jazz nights and a killer ambiance make this a great little NoLibs watering hole that is sure to make you feel like you’re sitting in an old tavern in the 20’s. Don’t miss the Jazz Jam hosted by long-time Ortlieb’s owner and booker Pete Souders.
Local Prohibition-Inspired Spirits
• Art in the Age: 116 North 3rd Street. Initially inspired by the history of root beer, which was robbed of its alcohol during the Temperance movement in the 1800s, Steven Grasse developed ROOT liquor. The success of this certified organic, 80-proof birch bark spirit led him to create Snap (ginger), Rhubarb and Sage liquors, as well — all of which are now sold throughout the United States. Grab a bottle at your local liquor store or stop by Art in the Age’s Old City store for booze, apparel and tons of nifty Prohibition-era style merch.
• Philadelphia Distilling: 12285 McNulty Road. This is the first craft distillery in Pennsylvania to get started since 1919. Philadelphia Distilling takes its cues from Prohibition times with its four hand-crafted liquors: Bluecoat Gin, Shine White Corn Whiskey, Penn 1681 Vodka and Vieux Carre’ Absinthe. Out of all of those, Shine (three-times distilled in a copper pot) is the most clear-cut salute to Philadelphia’s history as the mecca for moonshine distilling back in the day, but all of these spirits are carefully concocted to pay tribute to the rich bootlegging history of hooch and, of course, to be purely delicious.
• The Barbary: 951 Frankford Avenue.This place pays homage to just about every decade of music from the last century with its nightly themed parties, but once a month they throw a Speakeasy party hosted by DJ K Rex. This is the real deal, too — only exclusive members can enter. Warm up to the Barbary’s staff, DJs and crowd and you just might make your way in the club. The floors are literally bending to the weight of the roaring dance parties where patrons cut a rug to the tunes of the 20s sipping their Old-Fashioneds.
• City Food Tours’ Walking Prohibition Cocktail Tour: Get a solid taste of the city’s Prohibition-inspired cusine on this walking tour of some modern Roaring-20’s styled bars and speakeasies including the downtown cocktail bar Time and the dashing 1930s style fine dining establishment Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House. Sip some liquid history with drinks like the Southside (Capone’s favorite), the Mary Pickford and the Sazerac. Advance reservations are required; call (800) 979-3370 to grab a slot.
• Craft Brewing at the Philadelphia History Museum: 15 S. 7th Street. Learn all about the history of brewing in Philadelphia from the times of William Penn to the revival of craft brewing in the modern age at Craft Brewing: It’s a Beer Revolution. Watch video interviews with brewers from Dock Street, Philadelphia Brewing Company and Yards — three local breweries that carry on the legacy of the city’s brewing heritage. Located on the second floor of the Philadelphia History Museum, this exhibit concludes the Made in Philadelphia Gallery, which pays homage to the industrial manufacturing that once took place here in what was formerly referred to as the “workshop of the world”.
• Historical Society of Pennsylvania: 1300 Locust Street. For those who seek a more investigative look at the records and artifacts from Prohibition times in Pennsylvania, HSP allows the public to submit requests to see things like letters from local temperance societies, documents from Prohibition activist Florence Bayard Kane and records from Gold Seal Manufacturing Company (the makers of Bosak’s Horke Vino, a wine-based elixir made in the 20s).
• Eastern State Penitentiary: 2027 Fairmount Avenue. Philadelphia’s most famous historical prison was the former pen of legendary Prohibition ganster Al Capone. Despite his empire having been run throughout Chicago for the most part, Capone spent eight months inside Eastern State from 1929-1930 after being convicted on charges of carrying a concealed weapon. Visitors can get a look at the cell he once occupied during the eerie tour of these creepy chambers.
• Betty’s Speakeasy: 2241 Grays Ferry Avenue. Betty’s tucks booze away in “Bootleggers” cupcakes Prohibition style. National spirits and local beers deliciously disguised in a storefront and cafe’? What better way to get a taste of Prohibition than with a bite of liqueur-soaked pound cake.
• Yuengling Brewery: 501 Mahantongo Street, Pottsville. After Prohibition ended, Yuengeling sent a truck load of their “Winner Beer” to the White House as a token of appreciation to President Roosevelt. The oldest brewery in America, founded in 1829, is still selling their brews like hotcakes and offering free tours to the public.
• Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey Distillery Tours: 925 Canal Street, Bristol. Rye whiskey originated in Pennsylvania and endured through Prohibition, a fact of history that founder Herman Mihalich decided to celebrate by creating his own brand. This Bristol distillery creates its own version of the old classic and offers tours of the place every Saturday upon request. Schedule a tour to learn how it’s made.