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The Best Bar in Philadelphia Is Dirty Frank's If You Love Dives

Dirty Frank's gleaming oasis of weird in a town beset by 21st-century slickening, it’s always made people its primary business, no matter who those people are.

by Drew Lazor; photos by Neal Santos
Oct 9 2018, 6:59pm

In Deep Dive, VICE asks writers around the world to explain how their favorite bar represents their city’s history and culture.

In 2006, when the City of Philadelphia enacted a law banning smoking indoors, Jody Sweitzer was so happy she cried.

The asthmatic non-smoker had spent 14 straight years choking her way through shifts at Dirty Frank's, the Center City bar she ended up buying. Her post-work routine involved peeling her clothes off outside the front door and sprinting into the shower, the best strategy she could muster for minimizing the stench inside her home. “It was on me, like a wool sweater in the summertime,” recalls Sweitzer. “It was disgusting.”

The ordinance, of course, incensed locals fond of sucking down butts with their seven ounce beers, the accepted practice ever since the space on the northeast corner of 13th and Pine opened as a tavern amid the dying gasps of Prohibition. “So many people were so angry about it,” says Sweitzer. But they gradually came around, shifting to the sidewalk to spare adjacent lungs and the nicotine-pummeled ceiling panels, which still offer a distinct gouda-yellow Pall Mall patina today.

Ashtrays, fixtures found on Frank’s riverstone-smooth Formica bar top forever, were finally 86’d. But ashes? Those aren’t going anywhere.

A former employee who came on as Sweitzer’s partner when prior owner Jay McConnell retired to the Jersey Shore in 2011, Brad Pierce wears a wry grin as he brings up Brian and Nan, customers he first met sometime in the 1980s. The couple eventually moved away, and Pierce figured they’d lost touch—until Nan materialized, years later, with a very specific request. Brian, sadly, had passed. But before he did, he stipulated that his remains find eternal repose at his all-time favorite hang.

“Nan asked if it would be OK if she put his ashes in a hole in the wall, over there by the dartboard,” says Pierce, gesturing past a sea of tchotchkes in the direction of the long-since-patched resting place. “I said sure, go ahead. So Brian’s in there, somewhere.”

Even when Dirty Frank's changes, Dirty Frank's doesn’t. Stuck in its ways in the most reverential sense of the phrase, it’s a seam in time, providing safe passage to an older, odder Philadelphia. A gleaming oasis of weird in a town beset by 21st-century slickening, it’s always made people its primary business, no matter who those people are.

In truth, Frank’s has always had a “type,” but the profile was not built using banal criteria like sex, race, religion, education or income. It instead takes a shine to individuals who can’t be neatly filed into the natural order, and don’t wish to be—a “crossroads for errant individualists,” as the Philadelphia Inquirer put it in 1982. Curious conversationalists tend to do well. “It’s definitely a bar that cherishes those that bring something to the table,” says Sweitzer, an artist and teacher who was a regular herself before coming onboard in 1992. “Those who aren’t capable of that get bored and leave.”

It’s been this way since the beginning. The origin’s muddled, but most agree that the bar’s namesake was a Ukrainian immigrant named Frank Vigderman. He was the proprietor of 347 South 13th Street beginning in 1933, though he's not currently found among the collection of "Famous Franks" (Sinatra, Zappa, of Assisi, -enstein etc.) muralist David McShane painted on the building in 2001 and has added to over the years. In old photos, you can make out an exterior sign reading “Frank’s Bar”—no “Dirty” in sight. Some claim that Vigderman had poor hygiene, leading to the pejorative’s common use. Others attribute the adjective to John Segal, who made a habit of covering the floor in sawdust to expedite cleaning after taking over from Vigderman in 1959.

Segal, whose early attempt to rename the bar “347” was swiftly rejected in favor of its colloquial name, ran Dirty Frank's for all of the ‘60s and most of the ‘70s, a pivotal stretch that saw it blossom into a notorious haven for the counterculture. "Dirty Frank's is an American melting pot with drinks,” the Inquirer wrote in 1973. “Its clientele includes sanitation workers, lawyers, students, dropouts from virtually anything, artists, clerks, poets, reporters, straights and occasional gays, blacks and whites, adventurous post-teeny boppers from the Northeast and a beloved old man who always wears a blue beret.”

You still have to pay cash, regardless who you are.

How did Frank’s become so known for inclusion in an era stricken by segregation, racial tension and social unrest? Sweitzer attributes it to the precedent set by the late Segal, a fondly remembered mensch with an unimpeachable reputation. Its central location encourages a diverse crowd, as do traditions like Off the Wall, the gallery within the bar that's showcased local art work since the 70s. Its popularity with whistle-wetting journalists of the period stoked the mythos, too. Writers Clark DeLeon and Pete Dexter, of the Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, were frequent visitors, filing columns from Frank’s (and about Frank’s) throughout their careers. But they were far from the only associates with a penchant for spinning raffish yarns.

“It’s definitely a bar that cherishes those that bring something to the table."

“I’m not saying this is true, but it’s purported to be true,” Pierce masterfully hedges as we talk a few paces in from the street. “But apparently Bob Dylan was once sitting at the corner of the bar over there, and he got drunk and obnoxious. John Segal threw him out. There was another guy in here, and he goes ‘John, do you know what that was? That was Bob Dylan!’ John goes, ‘Who’s Bob Dylan?’”

Pierce doesn’t have any more details—it’s but one card in a Rolodex of legends he inherited when he started tending bar here in 1980, a few years after Segal sold to McConnell. I’m happy that Van Youngman decides to chime in between sips of Irish whiskey. A retired attorney in his 80s who’s drunk and pontificated here so consistently over the past six decades that they instinctively reserve his booth for him, is happy to fill in the blanks.

He was actually there that day, Youngman announces. Dylan was in town to perform, staying at the nearby Bellevue Hotel. “He was blown out of his mind on pot, and John flagged him,” says Youngman, adding it all went down right around the 1963 release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the bard’s second album. Though it’s curiously missing from Dylan’s official concert archive, Dylan did indeed do a show here in October of that year, as a preserved promotional flyer and a Newsweek profile confirm. It certainly doesn’t prove he was booted out of Frank’s—but it’s a hell of a story.

Tall tale or not, I can conclude that Robert Zimmerman has allegedly excellent taste in stools. I’m also partial to sitting in the spot he supposedly got belligerent, all the way to the left along the side of the horseshoe bar that runs parallel to 13th. From this perch, it’s easy to take every little bit of Frank’s in—and it’s also easy for Frank’s to see you.

On one busy happy hour visit, I’d barely started my second beer when a young Latino dude in a tucked-in baby blue polo slid off the stool next to mine, leaving his $2.50 High Life Pony and Kamikaze special and backpack behind as he stepped out to take a call.

“Yo, can you keep an eye on my bag real quick?” he asked me from the doorway. I was happy to, but the urban cynic in me wondered why he’d ever trust a rando he didn’t know from a pickpocket. I guess that’s the Frank’s Effect, which is to say he implicitly knew everyone would be watching me, a stranger in Bob Dylan’s seat, as I watched another stranger’s stuff.

There are touches you assume you’ll see in this ZIP code, like the disembodied cardboard head of former Phillies great Shane Victorino tacked high on the far wall. And there are touches you do not. There's a display of hubcaps that have literally popped off passing vehicles and rolled into the bar, victims of Philly's infamous potholes. The glittery grade-school construction paper snowflakes dangling everywhere are made by regulars at Sweitzer’s encouragement. There’s also the outdated Encyclopedia Britannica set she's trash-picked and brought in to help settle bar debates, the most prominent feature of an ever-fluctuating pile of texts dubbed The Dirty Frank's Resource Center.

“Wikipedia’s awesome...but that’s Britannica!” she proclaims.

Sweitzer knows everyone looks things up on mobiles these days, but it’s cheeky touches like these that serve as analog counter programming to how life works everywhere else but Frank’s. “When people come in, immediately get on their phone and they’re on there for more than 10 or 15 minutes, I know that they are not going to be a longtime regular,” she observes. “I actually feel sorry for those people. They’re losing out.”

Welcoming as they are to all comers, Frank’s employees exceed expectations in celebrating its reliable cast of standby drinkers. Though no one’s quite sure how it’s decided or what the benefits are, there’s a coveted “Customer of the Year” honor doled out on an annual basis. Over by the darts hang “Hall of Fame” plaques bearing the engraved names of all-timers. On another wall lives a memorial gallery featuring framed portraits of patrons who have died.

All of the living winners I meet congregate in their usual positions on the side of the bar closest to the door—it’s the shortest distance between them and a beverage, according to 30-year Frank’s devotee Eric Lavalley, who proudly introduces himself by both name and title (“Customer of the Year, 2011”).

Every establishment has its fixtures, but I’ve rarely come across camaraderie quite so palpable. “It’s created family for a bunch of people that maybe didn’t have quite enough of that,” bartender Abigail Willenborg tells me. “They all keep track of each other so they don’t get lost.” And they find time to dote on her 10-year-old son Skylar, too, who stops in after school to chat and play games on the Megatouch machine.

The regulars give it all right back. In February of this year, Sheila Modglin, a veteran Frank’s bartender well-known in the Philly industry, was struck by a car, sustaining serious physical and neurological damage. Employees and customers came together en masse, contributing time and money to support her rehab and organizing ambitious fundraisers, like the month-long “Dining Out for Sheila,” where dozens of restaurants have agreed to donate a cut of sales to her recovery.

I learn about the latter initiative from Lavalley, who yanks a professionally printed, full-color business card featuring all the pertinent info from his wallet and places it in my palm.

“That’s how we roll in here,” he says, matter-of-factly. “If somebody needs help, we help them.”

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