PHILADELPHIA — If he were alive today, William "Pa" McGillin probably wouldn't recognize the nachos and watermelon martinis being served at his namesake pub. Yet he'd no doubt be heartened to see that its core commitment to beer and camaraderie has remained largely unchanged since he opened it 150 years ago.
McGillin's Olde Ale House began celebrating its sesquicentennial this week, cementing its status as the oldest continuously operated tavern in Philadelphia and one of the oldest in the nation.
Established in 1860, just prior to the Civil War and before City Hall was built, McGillin's sits tucked away in a small alley at the heart of downtown. Even some residents need a map to find it.
"It's an institution, but in many ways it's also sort of a hidden treasure," said Don Russell, a local beer columnist who writes under the name Joe Sixpack. "A lot of people who think they know Philadelphia don't even know that bar exists."
Its 150th year begins on Jan. 1, but the festivities kick off 150 days before that. On Tuesday, the pub started an anniversary countdown clock and invite an Abe Lincoln re-enactor to tap the first batch of McGillin's 1860, an India pale ale created by Stoudt's Brewing. Lincoln was elected president the year McGillin's opened.
Since then, only two families have operated the tavern – a big factor in its longevity, current owner Chris Mullins said. He also attributes the bar's success to its simplicity.
"It's stayed true to its name: It's an ale house," the 61-year-old Mullins said. "It never tried to be too fancy or too different."
McGillin's reputation for being a comfortable place to eat, drink and be merry attracts an eclectic mix of customers. Its earliest years welcomed laborers as well as artist Thomas Eakins and actors John and Ethel Barrymore; today, bartenders also pour pints for office workers, craft brew enthusiasts and the occasional celebrity.
The main barroom in the two-story brick building is a large, dimly lit space filled with rows of small wooden tables and chairs. The tile floor is a century old; the walls, pillars and beams are covered with Philly-oriented memorabilia, beer collectibles, photos and framed liquor licenses dating to 1874. A cozy room upstairs houses a second bar.
The tavern's history, as reported in newspaper clippings hung throughout the building, begins with Irish immigrant William McGillin turning a rowhouse on Drury Street into the Bell in Hand tavern. Regulars couldn't be bothered with the name; they just called it McGillin's.
The ales and stouts served there "were the pride of Mr. McGillin's good old heart," and he took great care selecting them from local breweries, according to his 1901 obituary from The Philadelphia Journal. It described his bar as "a good home-like place" that served free roasted potatoes for lunch.
After McGillin's death, his wife took over. Catherine "Ma" McGillin ran a tight ship, reportedly blacklisting those who overimbibed – including entertainers and community leaders. She kept it going through Prohibition as a restaurant, although Mullins said he's seen Depression-era photos that seem to indicate an upstairs speakeasy.
Catherine McGillin died in 1937 and her daughter – one of 13 children, all raised above the bar – took over for the next 21 years. Mercedes McGillin Hooper then sold it to brothers Joseph and Henry Szczepaniak.
In 1993, Henry Szczepaniak's daughter Mary Ellen and her husband – Mullins – bought the bar. While adding modern touches like karaoke, the couple continues to promote and preserve McGillin's history through research and interviews with Hooper's now elderly son. Some records were lost in a 1971 grease fire that forced the bar to close for a few months.
The Mullinses also added their own quirky footnote to the Irish pub's lore: They don't serve Guinness. McGillin's and a handful of other Philadelphia bars have boycotted the Irish stout since 2000 because of what the owners see as Guinness' support for "chain" pubs.
So McGillin's serves other stouts instead. That's fine with loyal customers like Susan Sullivan, 61, who comes every Monday to have some beer and a few laughs while watching "Jeopardy" with a handful of other regulars.
"It's our modern salon," Sullivan said.
Thought it has a few peers – among them The Bell in Hand in Boston (1795), McSorley's in New York (1854) and the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington (1856) – McGillin's has a character all its own, said Russell, the beer columnist.
"This is a good community bar," he said. "It feels like old Philadelphia in there."
McGillin's Olde Ale House: http://www.mcgillins.com