I'm just wrapping up a phone conversation as I leave behind the golden-hour light of an early-summer evening in South Philadelphia and descend into the subterranean dusk of 12 Steps Down. As the door swings closed behind me, the call abruptly drops.
It figures. After all, 12 Steps Down exists in its own little radio-silence zone, an off-the-grid kind of place where one drink bleeds lazily into three or four, and taking a phone call is not only unnecessary but impossible. Anyone trying to contact you will just have to wait until you surface.
I joined writer Jared Brey, a regular there for close to a decade who admits to occasionally allowing a whole day to be swallowed up by the place.
"Every time I bring someone here, they think it's really lame. But the appeal develops over time," he said. It's in the inertia, the casinolike timelessness of the windowless room, indifferent to the transition from day to evening. "I think it has to do with: You're in a basement. You have to overcome gravity in some way to get out."
So, we stayed and drank more, among the smokers and drinkers, the Italian Market old-timers and neighborhood newcomers. Regulars, if they're loyal enough, spontaneously develop 12 Steps nicknames: "Zones" for Brey, who covered urban development, and "Hit-and-Run" for a Jeweler's Row worker known to stop in for a drink, dash home to appease his wife, and repeat. No one's trying too hard here – not the bearded hipster in a tank top running the pool table while singing along to TLC's "Waterfalls"; not the woman hunched over the copper-covered bar, silently dealing herself game after game of solitaire; not the friendly bartender with a tendency to set your High Life down so vigorously it overflows into a foamy puddle on the bar.
That's probably thanks to owner Danielle Renzulli. Her outlook: "I'd rather people have low expectations and be pleasantly surprised than the opposite."
Renzulli opened 12 Steps Down in 2002, but there has been a bar in the space for as long as she can remember. One predecessor was known colloquially as "the hole." The current name, which describes precise directions to the bar's front door, as well as a recovery regimen that would not tend to boost Renzulli's business, came from a suggestion box.
Since then, she's made incremental upgrades, adding four televisions for sports (or, on my visit, B horror films), and a mural of a SEPTA train barreling along one wall. She has expanded the drink menu to include a range of craft beers and cocktails, like the Off-Broadway ($9), a Manhattan topped with champagne, and upgraded the food, too. It's a scratch kitchen, supplied mostly from the Ninth Street Italian Market just upstairs, with a few menu holdovers from back when Michael Solomonov redid the menu while the opening of his award-winning restaurant Zahav was delayed.
There's not much Renzulli can do about the phone reception, though, except make the best of it. But, she added, "We do offer free WiFi."
12 Steps Down
831 Christian St., 215-238-0379, 12stepsdown.com
When to go: Those days when you're trying to dodge unpleasant phone calls (debt collectors, difficult relatives, editors). Otherwise, it's open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, and best visited during happy hour, weekdays 5 to 7 p.m., when draft beer is half-price. For those who can't stand the smoke, go when the weather's nice: Sidewalk seating is available.
Bring: Your out-of-town guest with a Rocky fixation: a stroll past evening trashcan fires in the Italian Market, followed by a lager at 12 Steps Down, is an offbeat alternative to the Art Museum steps.
What to order: The veggie burger that has to be one of Philly's best, or Solomonov's recipe for PBR-battered chicken and fries. For drinks, consider a local beer like Baby Face, a pale ale from Royersford's Stickman Brews — or read the vibe in the room and opt for a $3 Coors Light.
Bathroom situation: Lots of graffiti. Scavenger hunt suggestion: Can you find the #menses hashtag in the ladies' room?