Local Vibes on Tap

Cheers for the humble corner bar, a neighborhood hub of friendship, goodwill, and hospitality. 

We cross paths with multitudes every day on crowded streets and SEPTA trains, each in our own private worlds. But there’s one place in every neighborhood where our walls come down: the corner bar. In Philly, a corner bar isn’t just a place to grab a drink – it’s a welcoming hub for local culture, news, and history.

The best corner bars shine like mirrors, reflecting a community’s unique vibe and shaping its stories. Any night of the week, there’ll be a bunch of regulars holding court, and a healthy peppering of newcomers to keep things interesting. Everyone gets along in a corner bar (that’s kind of the point).

After devoting some time exploring the city’s “corner bar culture,” I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite stand-outs; I enjoyed a lot of good food and met many great people who felt like old friends. I hope you’ll be inspired to find your own favorite spots, where everybody knows your name.

 The Rook
4001 Cresson St. (Manayunk)

In Northwest Philly, The Rook is a pillar of Manayunk’s local pub scene. Opened in January 2020, The Rook moved into the site of the old East End Tavern (a stereotypical dive bar). The Rook’s owners put in bigger windows, and redesigned the space to include outdoor seating. Ta da! An upscale spin on a homey social hangout. Check their calendar for live music, Quizzo, and Dollar Dogs nights. Great specials during all the big games (ask about the Jason Kelce burger!).

Speaking of food, shout out to The Rook’s chef! Andrew Edsall aka “the Seoul Man” uplifts beloved bar fare by pulling from his background in Italian and other global flavors. His own yummy spins on fried chicken, roast pork, French bread pizza, smash burgers, etc. A whole tab on the menu features “Specialty Jawn” – signature sandwiches with local attitude. Mangia!

FUN FACT: The Rook’s wonderful Philly sports mural was created by East Falls artist Drew Montemayor. 🤩

Union Tap House
4801 Umbria St (Manayunk)

Not far away, Union Tap from the street looks like any other hole-in-the-wall establishment. Step inside, though, and you’ll discover one of the best corner bars in Manayunk. Union Tap has anchored this block of rowhomes since opening in 2015, knocking out quality food and drink at fair prices and top-notch service. It’s cozy, quaint, and roomier than expected, with – surprise! – a lovely patio out back.

Local foodie “John” tipped me off to this place when he learned I was researching corner bars. He could trust Union Tap’s meals were always on-point, and he never failed to run into people he knew here, no matter when he stopped by.

And the wings! Union Tap is known for its crispy, saucy, award-winning wings. There are 18 different options, from lemon-pepper to strawberry-jalapeno, with every Buffalo and BBQ in between. Wash them down with a selection of draft brews, including great locals and seasonals.

The Nut Hut Saloon
1873 Frankford Ave (Fishtown)

The Nut Hut Saloon is another prime example of a “third place” away from home and work. “Some customers are here just as much as I’m here,” said Gina, the bartender. The saloon feels like a communal living room for the neighborhood’s heart and soul. Indeed, it’s been a local hangout since the 90s—not counting 2023, when the building (and its liquor license) were sold to new owners, who promptly began a total overhaul, inside and out.

For a hot minute, folks wondered if it would still feel local, if the authentic energy of this established watering hole could possibly remain. Please! This place is amazing and living proof that a corner bar is more than four walls and a pool table.

The saloon feels upscale, with vintage, Philly-centric decor. I think the illustrations of Ben Franklin, the Philly Phanatic, etc., work well here, and it’s super fun to see the old bar’s license plate collection still remains a part of the decor. The new saloon’s calendar also continues weekly traditions like their popular karaoke night, which has been a Fishtown staple for years. There’s also weekend brunch, bingo, Quizzo, open mics, and live entertainment.

The bar elevates traditional pub grub: instead of a bowl of peanuts, there are shelled, roasted nuts seasoned with chili, garlic, lime, and sesame. The mac & cheese here has smoked Gouda, and the fries and onion rings come with herb aioli. I had the buffalo chicken skillet, Thai chili cauliflower wings, and a Midnight margarita that rivaled some of the city’s finest cocktail bars.

McCusker’s Tavern
17th & Shunk (South Philly)

McCusker’s Tavern stands out brightly on a block of red brick rowhomes. Inside, it’s like stepping back to the 1970s, from the wood paneling to the swirly Formica bar and the working cigarette machine. A neighborhood fixture for 55+ years, the tavern has served three generations of locals. There’s real history and a palpable sense of community in the mix of young and old faces at the bar.

Owner Douglas McCusker (who grew up above the bar) told me about a time when a family came here after a Phillies game and asked him if he remembered their father. Of course, he did! And that was so special for them all; how your old neighborhood never forgets you. You’ll always have a home at your corner bar.

Need a Post-Game Plan? After a game at the stadiums, you usually end up in one of two obstacle courses: the traffic on I-95 or the human jungle gym that’s trying to get a space on the Broad Street Line. Instead, drive the five minutes it takes to get to McCusker’s Tavern. The nostalgic, wood-paneled, cash-only dive bar has plenty of TV’s, seats from the old Veterans Stadium, and so much throwback memorabilia you’ll think your car is actually a time machine. It’s the exact place you should spend a couple of hours drinking $4 beers and eating greasy onion rings*, while avoiding those hundreds of strangers you high-fived an hour ago.  — Candis R. McLean, theinfactuation.com 

* Scratch those onion rings: according to McCusker’s Facebook page, “We are sorry but our kitchen is out of service. We do invite you to still stop in!”

EDITOR’S PICK: Henry James Saloon
577 E. Jamestown St (Roxborough)

Founded in 1989, this place has 35+ years of memories—a true home away from home for many locals. It looks like a little house on a residential street, but it’s much bigger inside than you think. In the back, there’s a very large outdoor space where half the seating is under a tent, and the rest is spread out on a sunny lawn, each table with its own umbrella.

The menu is solid. Our favorites are the chicken sandwiches, which are almost comically huge and come in several variations, all of them good. They pour a fine Guinness here, and they carry most of the popular beers on tap or in bottles. Prices are so reasonable that I often wonder if I accidentally have an old menu.

You don’t come to The James for a craft beer adventure; it’s really about the people who are extra-special nice here. Not just the servers and bartenders but random customers will greet you hello when you walk in the door as if it’s the most natural thing. They’ll say goodbye when you’re heading out, too: “Be careful now!” “Have a good night!” “Go Birds!” Everyone’s your friend here; it’s a really special place. PRO TIP: For the love of god, get the Brew Fries, and let them know you want the cheese.😋 You’re welcome.

What do you think? Have you been to any of my favorite local bars — do you have one of your own to recommend? Please share below in the Comments, or catch up with me on Instagram @gingersliketoeat. If you enjoyed this feature, please check out last month’s column, about “high tea” at the globally-inspired Prince Tea House in Chinatown.

About Eleni Finkelstein 25 Articles
Eleni Finkelstein (aka @gingersliketoeat on Instagram) is a South Jersey and Philadelphia-based food blogger and journalist. She loves traveling, trying new foods, and cheering on Philly sports teams. You can check out her book, "Eat Like a Local: South Jersey" on Amazon.

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