In Philadelphia, fun diversity at Bob and Barbara’s Lounge
The third in an eight-part series showcases Bob & Barbara’s in Philly.
The dive bar’s obituary probably has been written a thousand times, and yet: The ratio of divebar listicles to divebar obits must be about 10 to 1. Either the dive bar’s demise has been greatly exaggerated or the definition of such watering holes has become so unmanageable that it encompasses just about any place that doesn’t serve a $20 Manhattan. ¶ So how can we characterize the American dive bar so that everyone agrees? In short, we can’t. But we needed some guidelines as we searched for the country’s most authentic dives over the past months. True dives possess a handful of basic attributes: They must have history; they must have regulars; they cannot be expensive; they cannot have craft cocktails. ¶ You might disagree with our operating narrative, and no doubt you’ll dislike some of our choices. But this is our point: A dive bar is personal. It’s where friends gather, drink and argue loudly — and still walk away as kindred spirits.
Arecent Thursday night at Bob and Barbara’s Lounge starts like any other night at the landmark 48year-old bar on Philadelphia’s South Street. Some sun peeks through the stained-glass front window, shining onto the huge, diamond-shaped bar. At happy hour, a diverse crowd of regulars chats in groups, greeting familiar faces as they walk through the door.
“I can’t tell the number of friends I’ve met here,” says Lauren Mulhill, who started coming to Bob and Barbara’s while a student at Temple University and now lives around the corner. “If you’re having a bad day at work, you come to Bob and Barbara’s and it makes it better.”
Music from the Ohio Players and R. Kelly thumps from the speakers; some customers snap their fingers and dance. Standing at the end of the bar is Barney Richardson, a dapper 78-year-old who was born a few streets away. He boasts that he’s been coming to this bar (and its predecessors) for 60 years, including Boots House, which had a separate “ladies entrance” and “a trough on the bottom of the bar here, where people would spit in it.” Naturally, Richardson knows everyone, joshing with the bartenders and the guys on neighboring stools as they buy each other “the Special” — a shot of Jim Beam and a cold can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
A few hours later, only the decor is the same.
“Put your hands together, pussycats!” yells the emcee before host Lisa Thompson, better known as Lisa Lisa, bounds onto the stage to the sounds of Natalie Cole’s “Mister Melody,” then whirls around the floor in front of the stage, lipsynching and collecting dollar bills from the outstretched hands of patrons.
Since 1994, Bob and Barbara’s has hosted a Thursday night drag show, which owner Jack Prince says is the longest-running one of its kind in Philadelphia. It started low-key, with performers changing behind a curtain and dancing behind the bar, but it has grown into something much more.
Lisa Lisa has the crowd — a mix of gay men, lesbians, bachelorette parties and college students — in the palm of her hand: She brings birthday boys and girls up to the stage, where she encourages the audience to wish them both happiness and things that can’t be printed in a family newspaper; she introduces an array of “entertainers,” who perform to the music of Natalie Cole and Macy Gray. Jill Scott’s “It’s Love” turns the bare-bones room into a dance party.
“Our crowd here is very diverse,” says Lisa Lisa. “This is a straight bar, and I think people just want to come out to have fun. When people come here — straight people, gay people, transsexuals, whatever — everybody feels welcome.”
Bob and Barbara’s, 1509 South St., Philadelphia. 2155454511. bobandbarbaras.com.
FROM TOP: Performer Karen Vonsay dances during a drag show at Bob and Barbara’s Lounge in Philadelphia; patrons, including Amber Backes, center, enjoy the dance floor; performer Crystal Electra smokes a cigarette outside the lounge, on the city’s famed South Street.
ABOVE RIGHT: The vintage cash register is right at home at the 48-year-old dive, which has roots even farther in the past. When it was Boots House, it had a separate “ladies entrance.”
ABOVE LEFT: It must be good if Rosey Grier says so. Pabst Blue Ribbon memorabilia is a bar trademark. Order “the Special” and get a shot of Jim Beam and a cold PBR.