"Last year, I blacked out at one of these," the man in line behind me, a 24-year-old in a crisp oxford shirt and khaki pants, tells his friend. "I don't think I went to work the next day."
I ask him to explain the allure. He shrugs: "It's kind of frowned-upon to be drunk on a Tuesday." But this is Wednesday, in Philly, in the summer. It is, in short, Center City Sips – and that, to a certain subset of students and young professionals, means pretty much anything goes.
It's in search of this supposedly fun thing that I've ventured here, to the 1700 block of JFK Boulevard. It's a bland and uninviting stretch of the city's banking district most days of the year. But on nights like this, the juxtaposition of Uptown Beer Garden on one side of the street and the Chops at the Comcast Center plaza on the other have conspired to create a midweek, Sipsian vortex of pulsing bass and tipsy young professionals, a nightmare in pastel and khaki.
I was born too old for this, I think as I join the Uptown line, already 50 people deep. Fifteen minutes later, my wrist wrapped in an orange paper bracelet, I'm permitted entry into a courtyard shaded by trees strung with twinkle lights. It would be an enchanting transformation of the corporate plaza outside the BNY Mellon Center were it not for the endless surge of people pushing past, beer-first, as they chase the illusory notion that there might, somehow, be more space to stand just over there — no? Maybe in that back corner?
There is no more space, though. There are only more 22-year-olds, the women in minimalist rompers and backless tops, the men in whatever they wore to work that day.
Uptown Beer Garden, from the owners of BRU and Cinder, is in its third season. The team makes a real effort, with custom beers from local brewers Pizza Boy and 2SP, and a menu of gussied-up bar food, like porter-glazed pork belly and grilled peach skewers ($9) and burgers with tasso ham and grilled long hots ($14). On a typical evening, there are wicker couches and picnic tables, couples with strollers and dogs.
But, during Sips, they make you work for it. You wait to get in, you fight your way to the bar, and then, if you're me, you pay $6 for a can of Miller Lite, (while wondering what happened to that $3 promotion). My friend got the blueberry lemonade ($5), which tasted very little like either blueberries or lemonade, and very much like blue raspberry Gatorade and melting ice.
Alex Bokulich, director of operations, said they get a thousand or more customers on a typical Sips night; their record is 3,500. "A good Wednesday will be half our sales for the week," he said. "Every year, we hold our breath before the first Sips. We hope people still think it's a cool place." He also clarified that if you go to one of the four actual bars (apparently, I was at a mobile kiosk), you can get the promised $3 draft.
He said that, despite any appearance to the contrary, they put a lot of work into crowd control. "Some Sips crowds can be kind of unseemly. We try to keep it civilized."
Even so, there's the eternal Sips quandary. It's too light out and too early to dance, and way too noisy to talk. So, we do as the Sipsers do: Finish our drinks and move along to the next bar. On my way out, I ask one attendee what he thought of the scene. He assured me, "It was pretty hype."
Uptown Beer Garden
1735 John F. Kennedy Blvd.
When to go: Depending on your preference, either 5-7 p.m. on Wednesdays or absolutely any other time. It's open 5-10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 2 p.m.-midnight Wednesday through Saturday.
Bring: Your bros. Your colleagues. Your patience.
What to order: The 2SP Solar Baby, a blond IPA brewed with local wildflower honey and lots of hops.
Bathroom situation: Mobile bathroom trailers that are an improvement over an outhouse, if not exactly luxurious.