In Philadel­phia, fun diver­sity at Bob and Bar­bara’s Lounge

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY TIM CAR­MAN AND FRITZ HAHN tim.car­man@wash­post.com | fritz.hahn@wash­post.com — Fritz Hahn

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.

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