Philadelphia, PA

The oldest continuously run tavern in Philly is still going strong

Nick Fiorellini

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Exterior of McGillin's Olde Ale House in Center City, PhiladelphiaThomas Robert Clarke

They opened the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president. They’ve survived two pandemics and prohibition. They’ve stayed open longer than some of Philadelphia’s most iconic institutions.

McGillin’s Olde Ale House in Center City is Philadelphia’s oldest continuously operating tavern. The bar was opened as The Bell in Hand Tavern by Irish immigrants Catherine and William McGillin, who raised their 13 children upstairs, in 1860. Catherine and William became known as “Ma” and “Pa”; the laborers who frequented the bar called it “McGillin’s” — and the name stuck, becoming the official moniker in 1910.

The bar remained in the McGillin family until 1958, when brothers Henry Spaniak & Joe Shepaniak (who use different spellings of their last name) bought the bar from Mercedes McGillin Hooper, Ma and Pa McGillin’s daughter. Three generations later, McGillin’s is still in the family, co-owned by Mary Ellen, Chris Mullins, Sr., and Chris Mullins, Jr. — and is brimming with Philadelphia history, from a catalogue of every Liquor License held by the pub since 1871 to over half a dozen historic signs from some of Philadelphia’s most famous shuttered businesses and restaurants.

But the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into how McGillin’s operated. 

On the day before Saint Patrick’s Day last year, Philadelphia entered lockdown. It was the first time the bar’s tap was actually shut off. (During prohibition, Ma McGillin hired a chef and served food and ice cream downstairs; upstairs, she served “tea”.) And unfortunately, some long-time staff of McGillin’s have passed away due to coronavirus. 

To adapt to restaurant regulations, McGillin’s had outdoor dining for the first time in over 160 years. Events hosted by the tavern, like their 161st Saint Patrick’s Day celebration, were partially held outside and socially distanced.

McGillin’s taught everyone: You can teach an old dog new tricks.

“Every day is like running a new restaurant,” says Chris Mullins, Jr. “It’s pretty remarkable.”

Following Philadelphia lifting its final COVID-19 restrictions last week, McGillin’s is now open for its full hours without reservations. McGillin’s operates Tuesdays from 4 pm to 11 pm and Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 12 pm to 11 pm On Fridays and Saturdays it’s open from 12 pm to 2 am.

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Interior of McGillin's Olde Ale House.J. Fusco/Visit Philly

But as the city and country reopen, McGillin’s is still adapting to the ways the pandemic continues to shape life in the city.

“Now that we’re open with indoor dining, we’ve got everything looking like it’s back to normal,” Chris Mullins, Jr. tells News Break. “But the one thing that just hasn’t quite yet returned to normal is our menu. It’s about 50-60% smaller than it once was. There’s really hardly any lunch business [because] most workers haven’t returned to their offices. With fewer conventions, it’s also slower in the evening.”

The result, he says, is a menu that consists of a few staples, like meatloaf and shepherd's pie, along with sandwiches and appetizers.

And while, as an institution, McGillin’s has made it through the pandemic, the same can’t be said for some of its partners, Chris Mullins, Jr. explains:

“We have been serving, for the last 25 years, Stoudts Brewing Company. It was a family-owned brewery in Adamstown, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the pandemic was the last straw [...] and the family decided to not reopen. They were a huge partner for us; they brewed our house ale, our house lager, and our house IPA.”

Last week, Hershey's Troegs Independent Brewing took over production of McGillin’s three house brews, stepping in for Stoudts.

“When we kind of get back to the real operation [around] October, we are going to be a different place with different beers, different faces,” Chris Mullins, Jr. says.

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Nick Fiorellini is a freelancer writer from the Philadelphia area.

Philadelphia, PA
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