The word “romantic,” all images of candles and roses aside, means an idealized view of reality.
It means that it’s the most heightened version of something, the way that it should be or never will be or is going to become someday.
In Philadelphia, romantic things are scarce. It’s relatively easy to live here, which means that although the risk of failure is low, so is the chance of sweeping success. This city is rarely a setting for grand stories, which means its residents rarely identify as protagonists in their own tale. No tropes, no expectations of transcendence.
But at McGlinchey’s at 15th and Locust, the romantic lives. If you’re one of the regulars who shows up on a nightly, weekly, or monthly basis, you can be the protagonist in your own story, the person who is at some point in a journey to something better or worse.
The regulars at McGlinchey’s show up alone, after work or around lunchtime. They speak with each other and the bartenders and watch sports on the TVs, but give marginal consideration to the score. Some have been coming for up to 20 years, since before they were of legal drinking age. If they don’t sit in the same seat each time they’re there then they usually sit in the same area, the one that allows them to literally be seen in the light they want to be seen in.
From far away, It’s easy to wonder what attracts the regulars each night. This is not a bar to bring someone to if you want to impress them. It’s not made for Instagram, for reasons beyond the notoriously spotty WiFi. As one the few dozen smoking bars remaining in Philly, McGlinchey’s is a beacon for smokers, though a source of complaints about clothes and hair that reek for those who aren’t.
But it makes sense when it’s time to pay. It is cheap, suspiciously so, enough for almost anyone to afford to make a frequent habit of patronizing. You can swap $3.55 with the bartender for a lager, which will be served in a glass mug with a handle that holds 20, not 12 ounces of liquid; your money will only be accepted if it is cash.
“As McGlinchey’s regulars have continued to visit across the span of bad haircuts, presidents, relationships, and jobs, this bar has remained the same and it probably always will.”
If you ask the bartenders why everything is cheap, they’ll probably say that the bar’s owners, the brothers Ronnie and Shelly Sokol, have ownership of the entire building, which you could interpret to mean that they are simply lacking much of a profit incentive. But if you ask Ronnie why everything is so cheap, he’ll say that it’s because they’re “not that smart.”
And smoking is a major draw for many regulars, leading you to wonder which came first: the smoking or the comfortable place to smoke. McGlinchey’s exploits a loophole in the ban on smoking that was passed in Philadelphia in 2007. Having been in existence since the ‘50s, it was grandfathered in and can only allow smoking if less than 10 percent of sales comes from food and the rest comes from alcohol. To meet this percentage, they serve plain hot dogs for 75 cents and other processed meats, vegan hot dogs, and hot dogs with chili for a few cents more. Smokers at McGlinchey’s are prone to crafting an altar before them on the bar: the pack itself and a lighter or matchbook either on top of or beside it, drink, and ashtray, either arranged in precise angles or strewn around chaotically but always within arm’s reach.
However, if you spend some time at McGlinchey’s, you might get the sense that, despite its obvious merits, the smoking and the cheap prices aren’t the real reason that McGlinchey’s attracts more regulars than any other bar in the city. You might suspect that it’s because nothing ever really changes. You might look around and realize that it looks like the decor hasn’t been updated in a few decades, which it hasn’t. The marginalia in the bathroom keeps accumulating. The Pac-Man cocktail table continues to soothe and underwhelm. A mural of a man collecting ducks in a river, which is a billboard gifted by the gas company whose employees used to eat lunch at the bar every day, looms. Newspaper clippings going back to the ‘80s, documenting attempts at understanding what it is about this bar that’s special, stay in their frames on the walls.
There have only been two notable changes in recent years. One is the jukebox, which is now a TouchTunes; you might hear Macklemore, a sampling of early-2000s indie rock, Chet Baker, the same ABBA song three times in a row, “Landslide” and all of the opinions it elicits, and Solange on any given evening. The other is the hand towel in the bathroom. The bathroom now has standard disposable paper towels, but at one time everyone dried their hands on one big loop of yellow terry cloth that cycled through a dispenser hanging on the wall. It was legendary for its extreme unsanitariness and some regulars believe that it lost value after the change, since the distinction of having the shittiest bathroom in the city wasn’t worth nothing.
The resistance to adhering to the demands of time is a comfort. As McGlinchey’s regulars have continued to visit across the span of bad haircuts, presidents, relationships, and jobs, this bar has remained the same and it probably always will. Being inside of it feels like cheating something – the city’s smoking ban, an economy and Center City drinking culture that dictates the high cost of drinks, the pressure to mean something explicit, the need to acknowledge that time is always passing. You can even cheat the downsides to both loneliness and attachment. You can sit alone and be in public and private, hidden and exposed, included in daily life while outside of it, which is close to an ideal way to live.