This is the first installment of BarCode, a new weekly column that explores Philadelphia's bar culture, from gastropubs and cocktail bars to clubs and dives.
The bartender took out a machete.
I suppose I should have expected it, having ordered a $13 cocktail called East Meets West that's described on the menu as "served in a young coconut."
Still, I had to ask whether hacking open a coconut was on your typical bartending school syllabus. The bartender shrugged. "It's a new one," he said before pouring the fresh coconut water into a shaker with a homemade toasted-coconut-and-cinnamon tincture and Wild Turkey 101, then decanting the drink back into the peeled coconut shell, along with a slice of lime and a fistful of mint leaves.
It's a rare bit of flair for Banh Mi & Bottles, a bar and restaurant that carefully avoids pretense in its just-the-facts-ma'am name, in its unfussy decor (concrete-slab wraparound bar, exposed brick and ductwork, flat-screen TVs tuned to hockey), and in its premise, as the latest bottle-shop-meets-bar to open in Philadelphia. But, B&B -- as it will surely be known -- is a bottle shop/bar with aspirations.
Philip Search, the ponytail-and-plaid-wearing architect of the bar program, talks a big -- almost, (dare I say it?) "huge" -- game: "We have arguably the best cocktail program in the city."
That's debatable, given the proliferation of the craft cocktail culture in the city. But in any case, the cocktail-snob factor is high here: There is a secret 60-drink list that bartenders don't generally let patrons see, instead coaching them with a series of questions like: "Are you looking for something to sip or something refreshing?" Search is contemplating some sort of passport for drinkers ambitious enough to collect 'em all. Bartenders likewise will help you choose a whiskey, since basic bros who like Jack Daniel and Johnnie Walker don't hang out here.
Just as much rumination went into the other drink lists: beer (there's a craft-heavy draft list, plus around 300 bottles), wine (though it's served in jam jars, to save on breakable stemware), and boilermaker (there are three variations on a Citywide Special). The food is Vietnamese, or Vietnamese-ish, courtesy of owner Tuan Phung and his father, a chef at South Philly institution Pho Ha. A favorite is the pho brisket sandwich ($9), available with tofu or beef and served with a small bowl of broth, like the fortuitous love child of a banh mi and a French dip.
The grand opening is set for Feb. 5. But B&B -- on the western frontier of South Street's busiest commercial stretch -- was already buzzing with a rather un-South Street crowd on a recent Thursday evening. Friends shared small plates at the bar. A man drinking alone tried and failed to extract information from a bartender about the recipe for B&B's house-made gin. A group of six at a table in the back got acceptably rowdy, and no rowdier.
Still, the potential is there for rowdiness. Yes, I paid $13 for a whiskey-coconut cocktail. But it was highly drinkable, and refills are discounted to $8. Better safely stow the machete.
Banh Mi & Bottles
712-14 South St., 215-800-1533, banhmiandbottles.com.
When to go: Anytime. If I lived nearby, I'd be a regular. As of Feb. 5, it will be open 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Friday; 1 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday; and 1-10 p.m. Sunday. Kitchen closes at 1 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Who to bring: A date you want to impress with your hipster cred. Your friend who drinks only craft cocktails, along with your other friend who hates cocktail bars because all he wants is a $4 Citywide.
What to order: If you're not drinking out of a coconut (and, really, you should be), let the bartender help you pick something from the secret cocktail menu.
Bathroom situation: Clean, single-user restrooms designated for men and women.