Donkey’s Place—a third-generation, family-owned bar that serves cheesesteaks, fries, beverages and nothing else in Camden, New Jersey—was packed during a recent lunch rush. Carl Remy, visiting for the first time from Oakland, was in town for his father’s funeral. He sat a couple of barstools down from Tom Walton from Spring Hill, Florida, who sported a Donkey’s T-shirt like a zealous U2 fan who wears the band’s apparel to their own show. Right behind Walton, at a high-top table, was Anthony Mazzella, a local who has never come in before. “You know how people build things up and you go there and it sucks?” he said, in between bites. “This lives up to it.”
Tourists on food pilgrimages are easy to find in places like New York and Los Angeles, but Camden is a tiny South Jersey city in the shadow of Philadelphia, with fewer than 80,000 residents living within nine square miles. It's also ranked among the country’s poorest and most dangerous cities for decades, spawning countless misery journalism visits from national outlets like Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and NBC. Anthony Bourdain, however, did Camden much better: He called Donkey’s his favorite Philly cheesesteak when he stopped by for the 2015 New Jersey episode of his CNN show “Parts Unknown.” Business here has exploded since then. “We don't even need any new customers if we just keep all our old customers. But I like new customers every day,” says proprietor Rob Lucas, who took over the operation from his father, Bob, soon before Bob’s death three years ago. “We ring a bell when they walk in. We're getting so many they don't even ring the bell that much anymore, but we try to.”
This spirit of joyful hospitality defines Donkey’s Place. Newcomers peacefully mix with regulars; the clientele represents an extremely diverse blend of ages, races, vocations, and hometowns. It’s a vibe that’s diametrically opposed to the way some of the most famous cheesesteak spots across the river seem to enjoy making newcomers feel uncomfortable. “Everybody meets here. You have doctors, lawyers, probably drug dealers, shit like that,” says Bill Deuber, 53.
Donkey’s Place is among the few places in Camden that is truly for everybody. The popular aquarium and outdoor concert venue on the Delaware River waterfront, for example, are separated from the rest of the city by huge parking lots that suburbanites use before shooting right back out of town. Donkey’s is rooted in the Parkside neighborhood, surrounded by rowhomes and a few other small restaurants. After the late Bob Lucas sold the bar to the local redevelopment authority, Rob Lucas bought it back a couple years ago, ensuring the family maintains control of the building where Rob peeled onions as a young kid. They’re not going anywhere.
Two frequent visitors to the the bar are Camden residents William Blackmon, 40, and his mother Joyce Blackmon, who is here to celebrate her 64th birthday. Joyce has been coming to Donkey’s since she was a student at Camden High School, a historic, formidable castle of a school that wasn’t far from the bar until it was torn down in July to pave the way for a more modern facility. She, along with hundreds of other alumni, tried to save the building. “I’m upset. That was the place to be,” she says of her alma mater.
Joyce’s frustration with the Camden High teardown and impending replacement is just one example of the type of tension that can bubble up when outside forces try to impose their own vision of progress on a city like this one. A controversial state tax credit plan has led to an explosion of construction around Camden, especially on the city’s Delaware River waterfront across from Philadelphia, with corporations like Subaru, the Philadelphia 76ers, American Water, and nuclear power company Holtec building brand-new headquarters here. Market-rate apartments are going up and there are plans for what would be Camden’s first two hotels.
Whether this Sim City-style development boom will lead to benefits for current city residents and the neighborhoods farther from the waterfront remains to be seen; most of the city’s new jobs have been filled by relocations from the surrounding suburbs. And in the past five years, the state took over the school district and the county disbanded and reformed the police force. There are positive signs—standardized test scores are up and crime is down, due in part to a much-lauded improvement in community policing—but there is also deep-seated skepticism among some Camden residents who have watched other revitalization plans led by outsiders fail before.
As change has swirled around Donkey’s Place since its founding in 1943, the bar has remained stubbornly the same in most ways. Walking in feels like a time warp: old wallpaper, old decor, same old cheesesteak recipe and two-item lunch menu. And about that cheesesteak? The Donkey’s steak comes with beautifully grilled onions, American cheese, and optional hot peppers, piled onto a unique-to-Donkey’s round poppyseed kaiser roll baked a few towns over and delivered every morning. Bourdain’s rave review was not wrong.
To be clear, not everything about Donkey’s is the same as it was 75 years ago, when Camden resident and Olympic boxer Leon “Donkey” Lucas—so-called because he punched with the kick of a mule—opened up the shop. Rob, who owns it now, is a savvy, 21st-century entrepreneur—the perfect person to capitalize on the buzz after Bourdain’s visit. He is constantly navigating between tradition and innovation, deeply committed to history and also open to change. He bought a sparkling food truck, for instance, and shoots out upcoming appearances to thousands of followers on Donkey’s new social media channels.
These efforts have been largely well received. In July, Camden threw a 75th birthday party for Donkey’s Place and Rob parked the truck outside City Hall for the event. The mayor gave Rob a key to the city, the second such honor bestowed upon the bar, and the line stretched 50 people deep through lunchtime. You can get a cheesesteak delivered from UberEats now. And, recognizing the lack of after work options for people who work the night shift, Rob leaned into Donkey’s history of being a day-only bar and started opening up at 7 AM every Friday. Firefighters, corrections officers, and overnight warehouse workers pack the place for steaks and beers, a boisterous happy hour as the sun rises.
“We didn't take anything away, we just added some new stuff,” Rob says. “Everything you could get before, you can still get, but now you can have craft beer, too. That doesn't really hurt.”
Rob’s approach to running Donkey’s Place offers some important lessons for those who are wielding political power in attempt to change Camden. Donkey's is just a bar, of course, and it won’t make the schools better or raise the city’s median household income or fix potholes. But it is a reminder that sharing a delicious, unpretentious meal with friends and strangers has a unique power in the life of a city. It anchors the neighborhood and it is accessible to everyone. It is proof that even though the city needs saving in some respects—like huge huge tax breaks to incentivize an influx of corporate cash—that there is greatness already here, not merely scaffolded on top of the existing Camden, but woven into the existing fabric.