As I sipped my Manhattan, a $9 cocktail made with Bulleit Rye and garnished with orange peel and cherry (a good, almost-black Luxardo cherry, not one of those glowing, Red #40-flavored ones), a wash of blue light, then red, then blue again, illuminated the cozy interior of Burg's Hideaway Lounge.
A few feet outside the door, police approached a pickup truck to question its driver. Inside the bar, necks craned. One of a handful of African American customers, a man seated at the bar, half-joked, "I'm feeling very nervous suddenly."
That friction -- the daily struggles of urban life rubbing up against the suspended reality of a Friday night out -- is a familiar feeling in the city's evolving neighborhoods, and few are changing faster than Point Breeze.
And the owner of Burg's, Ori Feibush, is as responsible as anyone for that change.
Real-estate-developer-owned bars are a familiar trope in the Breeze: John Longacre perfected it with the neighborhood-anchoring South Philly Tap Room and American Sardine Bar. But Feibush is something of a polarizing figure in the neighborhood, where he ran for City Council (and lost) and where he organized more than 100 outsiders to run for the Democratic City Committee (with mixed results) in a bold attempt to overturn the party machine. He's built a couple of hundred new houses and a string of coffee shops; he's also faced several instances of vandalism, and, according to a jury, political retribution from City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.
So I worried that Burg's -- named for the institution that held down this corner for 35 years before closing in 2012, when owner Ralph Burger retired -- might be controversial in some way. A gentrifier's bar, with gentrifier prices.
But it is trying very hard not to be. Budget beers range from local Neshaminy Creek Croydon Cream Ale ($3) to brews that were probably also on the menu at old Burg's, like Coors Banquet (also $3). The burger, part of a brief, snack-forward menu, costs $7.50. And if you don't want your Manhattan with the good kind of cherry, don't worry. "We do have the bright-red cherries, too," said Jonathan Makar, who developed the menu.
Midweek, there were 20-somethings on a first date, a few folks on the far side of middle age in a booth, and a man drinking alone at the bar, watching sports. Of course, you're never really alone at a good neighborhood bar. The bartenders will chat about almost anything. One educated me recently about recycling (beer cans are easily recycled, green glass bottles, not so much); another declared his love for the Erin Express. ("I'm a millennial!" he explained. "I'm a bro!")
Burg's is meant, in short, to be common ground in this sometimes starkly divided part of the city.
That explains some quirks in the design, including a vast, ungainly "communal table" my friends sprawled around one recent night, contemplating its potential alternative uses (air hockey, shuffleboard, beer pong, or perhaps the site of a whispering bench).
Tables and benches so high my feet didn't touch the floor.
Feibush offered a simple explanation: "The more people on eye level with each other, the better off we thought it would be."
Burg's Hideaway Lounge
1200 S. 21st St., 215-271-6627
When to go: It's open daily, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Weekend nights, it's lively but not too crowded to get a seat. Or, if you're on a budget, go during the brief but ambitious happy hour: $3 draft beers from 5 to 6 p.m.
Bring: Your neighbors. Let's all try to get along.
What to order: Keep it under $10 with 2SP's Delco Lager and Old Bay-seasoned fries. Or live it up and order Italian-made Povero Arneis white wine on draft and the glazed pacu fish ribs with avocado and pineapple.
Bathroom situation: Clean, single-stall deals. Push the lock hard or you may be surprised by company. Not that I'm speaking from experience.