Jack Prince and The Birth of The Citywide Special.
Text and top image by Brendan Menapace.
It’s just after 5 o’clock on a Wednesday. There are 15 people sitting at the bar at Bob & Barbara’s on South Street in Philadelphia. Twelve of them are holding PBR cans with empty shot glasses sitting in front of them. It’s not a coincidence. No one bought the whole bar a round of shots and beers. (At least as far as I know. If they did, it was right before I got there, which would be a bummer.) They all just got the Citywide Special, or, as it’s called here at Bob & Barb’s, the Special.
For the uninitiated, the Special is a shot of Jim Beam and a can of PBR for $3.50. There are variations throughout the city (hence the “Citywide” title), but the regulars could probably tell you that it originated here at Bob & Barb’s. Jack Prince, who’s owned Bob & Barb’s since taking over for the original owners (you can probably guess their names) in 1994, can definitely tell you.
“When I bought this place, we had a house band, Nate Wiley and the Crowd Pleasers,” Prince, 55, says. He’s rocking a PBR T-shirt and flip-flops, and occasionally stops the conversation to smile and say hey to people in the bar. “They played every Friday and Saturday night. We were closed on Sunday. And then, every Monday night, they’d do a jam session. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were dead nights. So I asked a friend who was involved in the music industry if he had any bands that I could book in here for weeknights. And he told me to get in touch with this guy named Rick Dobrowolski, also known as Rick D.”
Rick D was booking music at other Philly bars, like Fergie’s Pub, which, at that point, had only been open for about a year.
“So I met Rick, and we talked about him booking Tuesday and Wednesday nights,” Prince says. “The first week, he got Dr. Ketchup one night and the After Dinner Mints the next night. And Rick says to me, ‘Get a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon. And do you have Jim Beam?’ I said no. And he said, ‘Get a fifth of Jim Beam and make it a shot and beer special for three bucks.’ So, the first night we sold out. So then, the next night, we got two cases. And it just grew organically from then. We never advertised it or anything.”
They didn’t have to advertise it. A couple bucks for a shot and a beer? It’s perfect. So perfect, in fact, that it reached levels that even Prince couldn’t fathom. He says that Bob & Barb’s is the top purchaser of Jim Beam White Label in all of Pennsylvania.
“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “It’s not even close. For Pabst 12 oz. cans retail, I believe we’re number one. We used to be number one in the tri-state area. I don’t know now if that’s true or not. So many places sell it now.”
So now Prince had his bar’s claim to fame in the special. He had the regular musicians for the weekend. Rick D had Tuesdays and Wednesdays covered. Sunday, of course, was closed. But Thursday was wide open.
“We try to keep it, like, to the left, like, not mainstream,” Prince says. “So we were at a friend’s apartment, and we’re talking about what we could do for Thursday night. And he says that his friend does drag and, you know, would we consider that? So we cobbled together a drag show. That was probably ’95. By ‘cobbled together’ I mean we threw up a little curtain, a couple of little lights and put together a DJ system. It was semi-lame, but at the same time it was awesome. And the performers were awesome.”
The Thursday night drag show has become a staple at Bob & Barbara’s. Philly locals take their friends when they visit from out of town. College professors take their grad students when they arrive in Philadelphia. Seven bucks will get you into the show and your first drink.
It’s one of the many things the bar is known for. They’re not only cash only, they use old-school cash registers that Prince calls “tombstones” because of their weight and shape. They’re also the only bar left in the city with their own Hammond B-3 organ.
“There were more than half a dozen when I first started,” Prince says. “And now this is the last one.”
When asked about the legacy of Bob & Barb’s—the divey bar covered in PBR memorabilia dating back to the early 20th century with a mix of music that ranges from Sinatra to Snoop Dogg and a bar full of young people actually talking to each other—Prince says he just wants to keep that real feeling alive.
“I don’t know, it seems so weird, I just keep trying to hold on,” he says. “Somebody else said this, not me. They said we sell nostalgia here at Bob and Barbara’s. I guess that might be kind of true. It’s like I said before. We’re one of the last one’s to use old registers, no credit cards, and Hammond B-3 organs. I think the most important thing, right now, is the tradition of the music on the weekends. And also the Thursday night drag shows, because what you’re getting on those nights is something that you basically can’t get anywhere else.”
What he values the most is the mixed crowd. There’s no single demographic here.
“You can see a drag show somewhere else, but it’ll most likely be in a strictly gay bar, or a fancy female-impersonator-that-comes-with-dinner kind of place, but not in a rollicking, old tappy way with, you know, a super-mixed crowd. So, to a lot of people who come here, it’s a rite of passage to come to a drag show. When you come here on a Friday or Saturday night there’s no cover. You come in here and there’s this band just wailing. You’re getting the Special for $3.50. Maybe this place might still be here, and we’ll still have that, but as this place is here longer and longer, then more generations will be like, ‘Oh, my mom and dad used to come here.’ It becomes a part of history. I see that happening now. I think it’s a good thing.”
I thought it was the Specials that I had during this conversation that made me feel nostalgic for a place I was sitting in. But ask me stone sober about it, and I’ll still tell you that Bob & Barb’s is the friendliest, most authentic, fun, laid-back and out of control all at once place in Philadelphia.