Nothing says South Philly dive bar like formica and reclaimed seats from the Vet.
Though the stereotype of a rough, “South Philly” bar may not totally apply to McCusker’s Tavern, the Philadelphia dive bar is no less a part of the winding, largely residential South Philly district populated by back-in-only parking spaces and the occasional corner pub. McCusker’s Tavern makes a case for best bar of any kind within a multi-block radius, the vintage, fluorescently-lit sign a beacon hanging out over the intersection of 17th and Shunk.
On this reviewer’s visit, John McCusker was fortuitously manning the bar, patriarch of the McCusker family that owns and operates the bar. John purchased the space in 1968 from a client at the time who chose to relinquish the bar in favor of a business to deliver just-in-time ice. A bar of some variety has existed in some form in the McCusker’s Tavern structure since before Prohibition, operating under a number of names including Gannon’s and Reardon’s.
Ownership and operational duties are today shared with John’s twin sons Ryan and Doug McCusker, the blend of two generations apparent in the decorations that surround the space. Anything music-related is a safe bet to come from brothers Ryan & Doug, anything more vintage and sports-related likely part of John’s permanent collection. The combined contents across family members are found in a fairly nondescript building covered in white paint and brown trim.
Though there are windows here, the front door can look a bit foreboding when closed, little suggestion readily apparent on whether McCusker’s is open that day or not. The vintage sign is marked by large green letters spelling out the name of the bar on a corrugated, white plastic background. The exterior is an exercise in radical dive bar simplicity to be sure, the interior a bit of contrast in its dense array of signage and memorabilia.
The formica bar sits in the center of the bar’s lone room, wooden spindle-style chairs lining the ridged bar rail. An ancient-looking beer tap sits in the middle of the counter, a handful of beers on tap mirroring the overall beer selection of McClusker’s Tavern in the availability of domestic standards and a handful of craft beer varieties. In keeping with time-honored dive bar tradition, an illuminated Spuds Mackenzie can be found perched atop the beer cooler.
The wood-paneled walls are well covered with beer signs, framed photos, sports memorabilia and the occasional neon sign. Noteworthy is the glass display case in the corner of McClusker’s Tavern where some of the more interesting pieces of sports memorabilia can be found, many of the selections bobbleheads depicting members of Philadelphia sports teams through the years. The blue stadium-style seats that sit along this front wall are remnants of the old Veterans Memorial Stadium, home of the Philadelphia Eagles before it was replaced.
The rest of the space is filled with short square tables atop tiny tile flooring with the exception of room carved out for a foosball table in the rear of the space. Bursts of stickers can be found along the beer refrigerator behind the bar and atop the vintage-looking air conditioner that juts out into the main space over a modern, Goonies-themed painting. The pitched, drop ceiling roof creates the vibe of hanging out a friend’s house rather than a squat, dive bar-occupied building, adding to the communal vibe created by this kind of classic, corner spot.
From its simple exterior to its warm, wood-paneled interior, McCusker’s Tavern is perhaps Philadelphia’s perfect corner dive bar. Two generations of family ownership have combined here to create authenticity that comes with age augmented with a modern touch here and there. The overall effect here is a locals-friendly but all-inclusive atmosphere that makes it pretty impossible to pass by without ducking in for a shot and a beer.