23-ounce pours and a bonus overtime sandwich, hard to beat.
There is something about a shingled awning in a dense, urban setting that makes for a great dive bar presentation, Oscar’s Tavern one such example in Philadelphia’s downtown Center City district. Though it feels like restaurants and bars in Philadelphia feel obligated to throw a cheesesteak on the menu, Oscar’s Tavern offers maybe the best dive bar cheesesteak in the city, a combination very much at home in a space that dates back to 1972.
Rittenhouse Square sits only a couple of blocks away, the neighborhood that surrounds Oscar’s Tavern filled with upscale drinking and dining options. Oscar’s Tavern breaks that mold immediately, the exterior more reminiscent of the vintage downtown of a small city rather than Philadelphia’s urban core. The faux roof-covered front wall is shared with the Bluebond guitar school and repair shop that occupies the building’s second floor, the color palette nicely harmonious with Oscar’s Tavern.
The origin of the Philadelphia dive bar’s name is a bit hazy, research suggesting that Oscar Weiner purchased the bar in 1972, threw his name on the wall and promptly sold it in 1974 to Harry Chodak, who bought both the business and the building. The decorations and architectural elements found inside Oscar’s Tavern largely date to the space’s 1972 opening, including the ornate, vintage lamps that hang over the space and bathe everything in a dim, red glow.
Red is very much the color of choice here, first seen painted halfway up the Philadelphia dive bar’s front wall and replicated across nearly every surface, light source and decoration inside. Even the placements found on each red vinyl-lined booth are red, depicting a retro-style cheat sheet on cocktails and their appropriate drinking vessels. The lamps overhead are matched by fixtures that jut out from the Oscar’s Tavern walls, the red light coming from them paired well with the wood paneling found through the space.
The red bar is backed by a red wall lined with intense shelving that display’s the bar’s liquor and beer options. String lights hang over the bar and from the air ducts overhead, adding to the dive bar glow felt throughout Oscar’s Tavern. Faded and stained drop ceiling tiles hang overhead, presiding over walls filled with posters and the occasional burst of beer sign neon. Spindle-style wooden partitions separate some of the booths in back, breaking up what is otherwise a single room into slightly secluded drinking snugs.
The Oscar’s Tavern menu hits on classic dive bar options (the wings come highly recommended) but of course the cheesesteak is the item most often cited in reviews of the food here. One unique dive bar quirk is the cheesesteak-and-a-half special available after 4 PM, a single cheesesteak order beefed up so to speak with an extra half of a sandwich. Though evening hours are well trafficked at Oscar’s Tavern today, the cheesesteak deal dates to a time when cajoling the crowd to stick around and eat dinner took a bit more convincing, the extra half sandwich used to sweeten the pot.
Oscar’s Tavern is cash only, important to keep in mind for food orders and to-go beer is available in the form of six-packs sold from the bar. On Friday and Saturday the Oscar’s Tavern kitchen stays open late, stretching its hours to 1 AM, providing one of the better late-night food environments in Center City / Rittenhouse Square. And if the Philadelphia staple needed any extra dive bar credibility, it was provided in the form of a one-time visit by Bill Murray at or around 2 AM.