Luck of the Irish

Thanks to a Narberth couple, McGillin’s is still pouring at 150.

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McGillin’s shepherd’s pieHistorians blame undrinkable water for touching off Philadelphians’ 300-plus-year fascination with beer and ale. At one time, our forefathers enjoyed imbibing at the Blue Anchor, a pub actually shipped here from Ireland in pieces and re-assembled on a local dock.

Soon enough, homegrown Irish watering holes were a fixture in Philadelphia. One of the most revered, Bell in Hand, opened in 1860. That same year, Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann fell dead at 13th and Vine streets; the Public Building Commission held its first meeting; 28 horses burned to death in a fire at Tattersall’s Stables; and the Prince of Wales paid a visit to the city. So clearly, there was plenty to talk about while sipping suds.

Over time, “Bell in Hand” was swapped for the owner’s surname, McGillin, and the tavern grew to encompass the oyster house next door, the back alley and washroom, and the McGillins’ own home (all while 13 children were raised upstairs). When the proprietor passed away in 1901, his wife took over, earning a reputation for weeding out the troublemakers.

“Ma” McGillin remained in charge until 1937, when she passed the business to her daughter. The McGillins’ reign ended in 1958, when two barkeeps, Villanova’s Henry Spaniak and his brother, Joe Shepaniak, took over. That Main Line connection continues today with Henry’s daughter, Mary Ellen Spaniak Mullins, and her husband, Chris, who live in Narberth.

Located just blocks from City Hall on a tiny side street, this Philly icon isn’t especially easy to find. But once you make it there, your efforts will be rewarded with satisfying pub grub, an impressive beer selection and reasonable prices. Irish in name but not in theme, McGillin’s allure has more to do with what it isn’t than what it is (or even what it was). It’s a place untainted by Irish kitsch and a false sense of importance, with a friendly staff that knows it’s not only your good fortune to stumble into this place, but theirs as well.

When the current owners took over in 1993, McGillin’s reputation was intact, but its insides were more than a little worn. Restoration and renovation work included opening up the eyebrow windows that had been boarded up, and redoing the bar and ladies’ room. The latter’s gorgeous, old-style tiling is new, but the look is a decided nod to the pub’s architectural roots.

The dining room is a treasure trove of Philly memorabilia, including discarded signs from much-loved but now-defunct businesses.While the bar has also been updated, the wainscoting on its front is original, as is the terra-cotta tile floor—an unusual design element for its time—that dates back to 1907. Walls are covered with quirky Philly memorabilia, including discarded signs from much-loved but now-defunct businesses like Gimbels and Lit Brothers.

The furniture at McGillin’s is as simple and practical as it comes—sturdy wooden tables and chairs that can withstand just about any sort of punishment. And that should come as no surprise considering McGillin’s hardscrabble history and infamous popularity on New Year’s, St. Patrick’s Day and during Oktoberfest, when lines of revelers stretch around the block and nearby streets are closed.

The rest of the year, the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed. There’s usually plenty of room at the bar, and a seat by the cozy fireplace is the best spot in the house during winter.

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