The birthday shot is worth experiencing the custom drinking vessel alone.
Visits to Pat’s King of Steaks or Geno’s Steaks are often met with a groan and an eye roll from Philadelphia natives, the tourist destinations frowned upon as lesser sandwich shops buoyed by manufactured conflict between the two restaurants (the cheesesteak at John’s Roast Pork would be our recommendation if asked). But for those who press on to grab a bucket list cheesesteak or who might want to repurpose a trip to the area, one of the city’s best dive bars sits in the shadow of the two cheesesteak tourist icons in the form of Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar.
The tale of Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar and its origin is impossible to avoid among research into Philadelphia dive bars, the story of founder and original owner Ray Capozzoli’s insistence on replacing “Hello” with “Happy Birthday” a piece of well-loved Philadelphia dive bar lore. Opened in 1938, the bar honors its birthday-themed tradition multiple times a night when the ringing of a bell behind the bar sparks a mass “Happy Birthday” response from the assembled crowd. In keeping with the theme, a sandwich board out front depicts the names of celebrities born on a given day.
And just like Chuck E Cheese as a kid, there are perks for the birthday boys and girls, in this case a free Birthday Cake shot in a custom contraption complete with lit candle. Ray sadly passed away in 1997, son Lou the new owner of the bar, today operating it with daughter Lou (not a typo). Photos of past regulars can be found on the walls throughout the space and maybe best of all, Ray’s opens at 7 AM most days (9 AM Sundays), making for an easy selection when the urge for a morning dive bar beer hits.
Cut into the corner of the building, the Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar front door sits under a pale green awning and one of a number of sings attached to the structure proclaiming the name of the Philadelphia dive bar. Appropriately, the aged sign directly above the door features the name of the bar, a beer mug, a shot glass and a birthday cake, as literal a piece of symbolism as can be found in the city. One symptom of operating in a post-pandemic world is the small, latticed patio area that juts into the sidewalk, a handful of folding chairs distributed around the building for informal outdoor seating.
Contrary to some dive bar layouts, Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar shuns an over abundance of beer signs and neon to rather almost entirely cover the bar’s interior walls with pictures of regulars and music acts that at one time stopped into the bar. Handmade photo collages provide the most specific view of the decades of drinkers who have called Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar home, the use of these posters a bit like dive bar yearbook pages displayed for posterity.
A small bar sits in the center of the Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar main space, a large illuminated marquee above it inscribed with, you guessed it, “Happy Birthday.” A handful of stools surround the bar, the rest of the space filled in with short, round tables and the occasional bench built into the wall. To-go beer is available here, the menu and associated pricing displayed along the large mirrored back wall.
As hinted at by the neon guitars in the grate-covered front window to the bar, Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar hosts a karaoke night every Friday, making use of an elevated secondary space inside. This more secluded piece of Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar is given a bit more room to breathe, the tables spaced out a bit and the décor more minimalist by the standards set in the main room. Other rotating events that make use of this dedicated space include a comedy showcase and a pair of open mic nights each month.
For those that stick to their tourist guns and visit either Pat’s or Geno’s down the street, Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar offers a bit of a city authenticity ‘cleanse.’ With the purchase of a drink, visitors are welcome to bring in their sacrilegious cheesesteaks for consumption at the bar, a means of balancing Philadelphia hole-in-the-wall karma. Better still, few ways to start a birthday match the prospect of a free shot at 7 AM on a Tuesday, a one-of-a-kind concept made possible by Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar.