Leaving without a "Special" is poor form (if you need an excuse).
South Street’s marquee dive bar is undoubtedly Bob & Barbara’s, the Philadelphia staple’s crisscrossed stained-glass window as iconic as any bar exterior in the city. There are dive bars with names of mysterious origin and then there is Bob & Barbara’s named after original owners Robert Porter and Barbara Carter. Ownership has passed through a few hands over the years, ultimately resting with Jack Prince, who purchased the bar in 1994.
Though there are many reasons to visit and love Bob & Barbara’s, one claim to fame is the Philadelphia dive bar’s gift to the city, the notorious Citywide beer and shot copied by almost every bar in Philadelphia. The affordable, $4 combination of a Jim Beam shot and PBR can originated in the mind of Rick Dobrowolski, a talent booker for Bob & Barbara’s during the early 1990s. Originally priced at $3, the price has risen with time to the staggering total of $4, making it perhaps the best drink deal in Philadelphia.
Maybe the second best deal among Philadelphia dive bars is the $8 cover charge for the longest running drag show in the city, performances hosted by Miss Lisa Lisa every Thursday. The show is, of course, highly participatory, the combined cast of the show sparking crowd-wide dancing and singing. Two shows take place every Thursday, the first starting at 7 PM (doors at 6 PM) and the late show commencing at 9:30 PM (doors at 9 PM). Bob & Barbara’s is cleared out between the two shows and tickets are reserved at the time of purchase, so come with a full group already assembled.
South Street once boasted a number of bars that regularly featured organ music as backing to live performances but Bob & Barbara’s stands as the last bastion of the classic Hammond B3 Organ in Philadelphia. House bands every Friday and Saturday have long made use of the organ as critical component to their sound, that tradition very much alive though band members have come and gone over the decades. Bands typically run 9 PM to close and no cover charge is required to experience the unique sound. One-off performances, many of them also accompanied by the Hammond B3, also take place on most Wednesdays.
The fact that Bob & Barbara’s has no paid agreement with Pabst Blue Ribbon makes the Philadelphia dive bar’s devotion to the affordable beer brand all the more impressive. Inside and out, PBR iconography cakes the Bob & Barbara’s space, from the pair of logos above the front door to the countless, often vintage PBR signs throughout the bar’s interior. Picking out must-see pieces of PBR memorabilia it tough due to the sheer quantity of choices, but the old-timey boxer behind the bar and the non-functional beer tap topped with a dusty PBR handle both deserve mention.
Beyond a dazzling array of PBR knickknacks, the space is marked by the red-padded linoleum bar that sits in the middle of the bar’s main room. The oval-shaped bar provides a classic neighborhood, conversational vibe to Bob & Barbara’s, punctuated of course by the disco ball that hangs behind the bar. Multi-colored lights hang from the ceiling and, of course, string lights provide an extra dose of dive bar-friendly ambiance. Vintage cash registers can be found on both sides of the bar, embedded into the white counters, everything under blue ceiling tiles.
Live performances make use of Bob & Barbara’s secondary space, a long room separated only by a handful of columns between the two halves of the Philadelphia dive bar. A small bar can be found in the corner of this back room, active only when live performances require additional bar coverage. Bands set up in a taped-off portion of the room, making for slender spacing when high-top tables are introduced into the mix. Professional lighting gives music performances an elevated feel, everything take place beneath, of course, a PBR stained-glass lamp.
Given its contribution of the Citywide special to the city of Philadelphia, safe to say that few dive bars are as intertwined with the bar culture of their city as Bob & Barbara’s. The PBR-laden interior is reason enough to visit even before accounting for near-nightly live performances, Bob & Barbara’s packing a tremendous dive bar punch into its intimate South Street location.