How familiar faces shaped our beer scene.
They were friends. Some were mentors. The elders were teaching the youngsters the ropes. The youngsters were teaching the elders not to be so jaded.
The barkeeps of the late 90s are the foundation of the great pub culture we have today. There’s a group now spread throughout the city running their own bars— but reflect back on a time when they were all working under one roof at Philly’s original beer bar. Khyber’s alumni include Marc Sonstein, Meghan Wright, Kurt Wunder, Casey Parker, Brendan Hartranft, Chris Morris and many more. On the other side of town, there were a few guys — Tom Peters, Fergie Carey and James Fernandez — keeping 15th Street lively.
I attempted to start a beer family tree and got so jumbled I had to get a beer. Here’s a brief history on the roots of some of Philly’s favorite barmen (and maid).
Meghan and Marc
Marc Sonstein was bar backing at Khyber for a couple of years while working with now- biz partner, Meghan Wright. Wright started at the Khyber in 1992. She worked there about 6 years amongst all the guys. “They were all like my big brothers,” Wright says, “They taught me all about beer.” Sonstein would move on to open The Griffin, a funky cafe where people would hang out as though it was a bar — but with no alcohol. Meghan moved on to become the first Shangy’s rep. She was then the manager for years at Bridgid’s. During her tenure there, Marc approached her to open a bar together. Marc, a former art director, created the bottle capped logo with his friend. They opened The Abbaye just one month later.
If you walk into The Abbaye at 3rd and Fairmount, you’re likely notice the local band, Black Landlord, playing on the iPod. Marc is the all-star collective’s percussion. The respectable beer selection is the expected handiwork of Wright and Sonstein combined.
“I wanted it to be a place filled with things that I would want to do; deejays, live music,” she even jokes — “maybe one day roller skating.” Years spent answering to others helped shape the kind of “boss” that Wright would be. She never wanted her staff to think of it as her place, or Marc’s place, but rather their place.
A block away sits 700 Club, the pioneering craft-centric pub of the Northern Liberties area dating back to 1997 when master carpenter/DJ/bartende/dreamboat Kurt Wunder opened it with music buddy Tracy Stanton. To the unaware they might think it’s odd you can find them hopping in and out of each others’ bars, but it’s definitely not.
“We’ve all been friends forever. We care about each other. We grew up together,” says Wright.
Tom and Fergie
Fergus Carey arrived in the states in 1986 to write plays and act. He started at McGlinchey’s in 1988 and worked there for five years next door to a crew that consisted of Tom Peters, James Fernandez, whom now is managing partner of Grace Tavern, and Chris Markham (who now owns Misconduct Tavern) before opening Fergie’s with Wajih Abed. They opened the door on Dec. 1, 1994. It was to be a bar with traditional Irish music sessions, live music, plays, spoken word and personality—lots of personality. It became an institution and an academy where Philly’s finest bar and restaurant owners, like Kip Wade (Southwark), would learn from the master.
Just three years later Carey and Peters would open Monk’s Café. Tom got his start at Café Nola on Headhouse Square, but put his name on the national map when he poured the first specialty Belgian draft in the states at Copa Too in 1995. It wasn’t an easy feat. In the days before cell phones, Peters was ringing Monk’s off the hook trying to get them to export draft beer.
You can tell that the duo manages their employees well. It appears the only time staff leaves is when they’re ready to open up their own. Which brings us to…
Joe and Casey
Casey Parker, co-owner of Jose Pistola’s, had graduated from the University of the Arts and was getting some singing gigs but not enough to keep the landlord happy. He got a job dishwashing at Fergie’s to subsidize. Next, Fergie’s opened the upstairs. Parker was asked to book shows and host open mic. Then became head bartender for 5 years.
“Fergie gave you long enough of a leash that you almost controlled the show, and when you had some success with it you thought ‘I can do that, I can own a bar’ — but it’s way harder than I thought.”
“The crowd always makes it worth it,” Parkers says. His partner Joe Gunn agrees, “Two years into it, the core of our business are people we really didn’t know when we opened which kind of surprised me. It’s a pretty diverse crowd. It’s my favorite part about being in the heart of the city.”
Gunn believes bartending at Fergie’s over the course of five years taught him the importance of a personality in a bar. “The idea of keeping it simple, but focusing on the overall vibe of the place without being cheesy.”“I love the creative part to it all. I feel like it’s the closest I’ll get to being an actual artist. I’ve kind of looked at Pistola’s as our interpretation of what a good time is.”
Bar regulars can always count on Casey to do the entertaining he became famous for at Fergie’s.
You’d think Guns N’ Roses was his favorite but he reveals that the song that makes him shake margies a bit faster is actually “You Make My Dreams Come True,” from Hall and Oates.
His dream of owning a bar has come true. But it took years of clocking in at Fergie’s, the Khyber and Royal Tavern before he was ready. And he still wasn’t ready. People who say, “‘Just make it through your first year — it gets easier’ — well, that’s complete bullshit.”
“Back in the day I would wrap up things at Brownies and sneak Snapple bottles filled with the hoppiest thing on tap for Marc over at the Griffin,” says Curt Decker, co-proprietor of Nodding Head.
Decker tended bar at Brownies on 2nd St. during the 1990s when the adjacent Khyber closed down for a bit. “I saw it as an opportunity to pour more American craft.” He saw them as crossover beers to try and get customers to step out of their comfort zones.
Whereas Parker is the endless entertainer, Decker fits the role of the sarcastic guy that probably scored a 1550 on his SATs. He could have been in any field, but chose the tender bar. “If I didn’t do this? I don’t know — then I would have to do something with ‘real world shit’ and I’m bad at it — I don’t like it.”
Decker had known Tom Peters for almost 15 years at the time Sam Adams Brewpub was shutting down. They had talked about joining up for a while until it came into fruition in December of 1999.
Independence was around as was Dock Street, but this would have a different feel. Decker’s dry humor and snarkiness pervade the bar literature. Sitting in front of a glass cabinet containing over 100 bobble heads, Decker says, “It’s a bar — you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously.”
As a bartender your job is to entertain, advise, set the scene, know what’s happening in the world to talk about random shit when your least favorite regular comes in, and know how to make up and shake up one hell of a cocktail. Then you get to leave.
“When I was a bartender I could just make my money and go home,” says Lucky 13 owner Clark Newman. “Now I have to get everyone to do what needs to be done.”
Newman started off at “Ribbit,” a bar once located where the Walnut Room is located now. He worked there from 1986 to 1993. “I had just moved out of my house. It was the most fun I had ever had.”
In the 90s he would work at Le Bus during the day and moonlight at Grape Street Pub. His future bar would be a hybrid of the two. Music was very important but he also wanted the good grub component that Le Bus represented.
When he opened Lucky 13 in 2008, he wanted it to be an extension of his living room. Non-stop Encore movies get the bar talking to each other. His all time favorite band, the Clash, plays in the foreground. You know you’re drinking at Clark’s bar when you see posters of the beloved Joe Strummer on the walls, and Buzz Lightyear figurines on the back bar. “These are all my toys; this is what I grew up on.”
I’ve now been in the city just short of nine years. The first two bars I went to no longer exist. Cuvee is now St. Stephens, owned by pub veterans Jeff Keel and James Stevens. And Tavern on the Green has gone to the bar graveyard as Tom Peters and Fergie Carey opened the Belgian Café. I fell in love with the bar in 2001. Some of it is aesthetic — the perfect texture play of chrome and tiger maple wood that my beer might rest on. Many times it’s the beer that’s being poured. But often it’s the person pouring it. There are some rather dynamic individuals around our city doing so. And the bar keep today, might just keep the keys tomorrow.