Recently, a radical upgrade was unveiled at McGlinchey's Bar: The infinite towel, that baby-blue loop of fabric and bacteria used to dry the hands of the thousands who were brave enough — or drunk enough — not to care, has been replaced with single-use paper towels. The bathroom, which wouldn't be an incongruous setting for the climactic scene in a horror film, was left otherwise undisturbed.
That is to say, change comes incrementally to McGlinchey's, a cash-only, dirt-cheap dive that has been owned by the same family since 1952 and that processed the arrival of a citywide smoking ban in 2008 with a shrug and a fresh ashtray. (The bar was granted an exemption because such a small portion of its revenue is from food.) McGlinchey's, and its upstairs companion, Tops Bar, remain among the last great bastions for Center City smokers who find puffing outside on a street corner beneath their dignity.
"There's less smokers every year," said Sheldon Sokol, 68, the co-owner. "Eventually, we'll have to go no smoking, because the smokers will all die off."
He doesn't smoke or drink himself. ("It's bad for your innards," he said.)
For now, McGlinchey's remains as smoggy as ever.
"It's going to be a two-shower night," a friend grumbled as we made our way through the haze one recent evening. But it was a loving gripe: For him and others, McGlinchey's is steeped in Philly nostalgia.
"It's sort of been a place of quiet contemplation for depressives and alchies, which I was part of for a while," he said. Maybe it's the churchlike afternoon light filtering softly through the geometric stained-glass windows, or the smoke-darkened duck-hunter mural (an old billboard that was recently, clumsily repainted) looming like some devotional artwork, or the sense of communion provided by the wraparound bar. It's the ideal place for drinking alone together.
We chose a vinyl-upholstered booth, and a waitress with pink hair and a fanny pack for a cash register brought us glass mugs of beer. The idiosyncratic price points, like $2.55 for a Yuengling, always seem to result in a pile of change on the table. (According to Sokol, prices were initially geared so you could easily tip a quarter a drink. They've limited the increases to a small percentage each year, so as not to anger his price-conscious customers.)
The waitress also put in our food order — which meant she had to go into the kitchen and microwave the chili dogs herself. "It tastes like SpaghettiOs on a hot dog," a friend said. This was taken as an endorsement.
McGlinchey's is the kind of place that accumulates tobacco stains. And lore. It provided the backdrop for the haunting series of portraits by photographer Sarah Stolfa that were collected in the 2009 book The Regulars. The jukebox, once heavy on the Cure, Bowie, the Smiths, had its own Facebook page, until it was usurped by TouchTunes.
Then there's the legend, apocryphal according to Sheldon, that the Sokol patriarch mandated in his will that annual price increases could not exceed 15 cents.
This piece of intelligence was conveyed to me by Paul E., the bartender at Tops, which is above McGlinchey's but accessed by a separate entrance. Pauly suggested it ought to be called Top Secret, given how few people know about it. "People walk in by accident," he said. Sometimes, they come in asking for tequila thinking it's Jose Pistola's, to the annoyance of the few regulars shooting pool, smoking cigarettes, and drinking cheap lagers.
They used to host poetry readings, but no more. I asked Paul E. what the busiest night is at Tops. He shrugged: "I'll let you know when it happens."
McGlinchey's Bar and Tops Bar
259 S. 15th St., 215-735-1259, mcglincheys.com.
When to go: When you're too broke to afford drinks anywhere else. When you want to be with other people. When you want to be alone. McGlinchey's is open 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 2 a.m. Sunday. Tops Bar is open 7 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Bring: Beer snobs, smokers, Ms. Pac-Man aficionados, and anyone you don't need to try too hard to impress.
What to order: There's a surprisingly strong selection of craft beers here, including local favorites like Flying Fish IPA and Philadelphia Brewing's Kenzinger. The $3.95 citywide special is a Yuengling and a shot of Heaven Hill. Or go high-end: You can get the Glenlivet 15-year-old for $6.95.
Bathroom situation: Richly graffiitied and dimly lighted. The men's room, I'm told, requires a spotter (or a zeal for exhibitionism) as there is neither a lock nor a stall door. If you can, use the bathroom at Tops.
Sounds like: What have you wrought, TouchTunes? A world in which, on a single evening, the soundtrack ricocheted between No Doubt, Kraftwerk, Talking Heads, and, yes, Enya, at a noisy 98 decibels. Upstairs, at Tops, it was a much calmer 82 decibels, dominated by a rattling air conditioner.