Savor one of the last remaining slices of affectionately-named South Kensington.
Located a few feet away from Philadelphia’s Market-Frankford elevated train line, El Bar’s naming inspiration is clear, the divey outpost in what is quickly becoming a trendy Fishtown neighborhood a welcome area holdout that dates back to 1965. Rather than embrace the Fishtown association, El Bar instead bills itself as a South Kensington dive bar, connecting the business to the area’s pre-Fishtown, decidedly less trendy roots.
Once a pair of rowhouses, one half used as a luncheonette as recently as the 1950s, the combined space occupied by El Bar checks all of the dive bar boxes, starting with the simple sign painted on the exterior of the building and the opaque glass block windows that flank either side of the front door. The presence of a sign at all is a relatively new phenomenon, the Philadelphia dive bar long content to operate as a bar for neighborhood locals in the know. In a nod to the age of the building, air conditioning is another relatively new phenomenon, the El Bar’s unit installed in 2017.
Today, the blue building is punctuated by a massive mural over the front door, running the full height of the structure’s second story. Multi-color lights bring a bit of the classic dive bar interior vibe to the sidewalk just outside the front door, a strand or two of holiday lights wrapped around the pole on the corner of the structure. Inside, a pair of slender spaces flank either side of a centrally positioned bar area, exposed brick walls bisecting the area, marking off the once separated floorplan. Colorful lights of all variety surround this central area, adding a nice dive bar hue to the El Bar interior, especially at night.
Stool seating lines the bar counter, a pool table the predominant feature in one half of the space, a long wooden bench the marquee attraction on the opposite side. The bench provides the backdrop for the classic dive bar sticker collage, all of it under a small collection of odds and ends indicative of the décor throughout El Bar ranging from current live music posters for upcoming acts to old 40-ounce beer bottles and tin signs. An ancient piano can be found in the rear of the space, used here as another ledge to display random knickknacks and another string of holiday lights.
Because of the layout of El Bar’s space, the Philadelphia dive bar can get crowded quickly on busy evenings, making navigating the two skinny rooms a challenge. Such is the crowd drawn to El Bar that the bar has reported itself as one of the top outlets of PBR in the country. Thankfully, the back patio offers overflow seating when the weather allows, the large space populated with a non-trivial amount of plastic mannequin body parts to extend the divey El Bar appeal outside. Metal patio furniture and umbrellas dot the outdoor area that can also get crowded on nice Philadelphia days.
Live events pack into the tight floorplan on occasion, including karaoke Mondays, live jazz music on Tuesdays and an open mic night on Wednesdays. El Bar is cash only and has been known to offer $2 hot dogs, an ode to one of the great dive bar specials of all time, the now defunct El Bar Kensington Happy Meal that included two hot dogs, a tallboy PBR, chips and a toy. And to cap it all off, the rear of the building is dominated by a massive bald eagle mural that spans the full structure, painted by Glossblack and Evan Lovett. The eagle-themed piece comes as a companion to a nearby tribute to the pigeon, 30-foot tall mural on the side of a nearby residential building.
El Bar refers to itself as the last real bar in the area, a difficult assertion to argue as Fishtown’s star has risen over the past handful of years. And though there is no doubt care in the presentation of the bar, the haphazard collection of knickknacks inside, the use of original structural elements, the simple nature of the bar’s sign (now that one even exists), all of it adds up to the authenticity that makes dive bars worth seeking out, El Bar an excellent Philadelphia example.