It’s Not For Everyone: Philly’s Most Idiosyncratic Cocktail Bar

Welcome to "About a Bar," a column that explores America's newest and most notable bars and cocktail programs. This week, Southwark, Philadelphia's first classic cocktail bar.

It’s not for everyone. This is Southwark’s unofficial motto—one the staff would probably stick on a T-shirt, if it were that type of place. It’s not.

In today’s hospitality climate, proclaiming that you’re not all things to all people seems like a surefire way to screw with the numbers. But compromise—whether rooted in wanton trend chasing or some vague concept of evolution—has never been a consideration at Kip and Sheri Waide’s decade-old Philadelphia establishment. Through an eye-measured mix of skill and stubbornness, it’s managed to sidestep the cocktail hype machine, while becoming one of the most distinctive bars in Philly along the way.

Impressive, considering it’s not actually a bar.

“We opened a restaurant. We didn’t open a bar,” says native Californian Kip. After meeting in San Francisco, the couple moved back to Sheri’s home state and worked at a number of Philadelphia establishments before securing the keys to a sleepy French restaurant in Queen Village in 2004.

Adopting the neighborhood’s antiquated name (Southwark—now Queen Village—is the oldest district in the county, established in 1762) the Waides made their intentions clear early on. Sheri would focus on local and seasonal ingredients, while Kip would satisfy his self-diagnosed fetish for cocktails along the mirrored dark-wood perch that greets wanderers coming in off the street. While Sheri’s cooking earned its own stripes, Kip’s handiness with the shakers begat a separate reputation: If you wanted a proper Aviation, Sazerac or Hemingway Daiquiri, this was the bar to haunt.

And what a bar it is. Tall orchids grace big windows that overlook Bainbridge Street. Bartenders wear crisp white button-downs, their silk ties fastened with antique clips kept behind the bar in a red velvet box. Cabana-like ceiling fans whirl overhead. Drinks are free-poured, always shaken and always served fast. Upside-down shot glasses indicate when a customer has earned a freebie. Checks are handwritten. In a time when so many bars either exhaust themselves in the minutiae or make every effort to appear effortless, Southwark just serves drinks.

“It was never the intention to have a classic cocktail bar,” says former bartender and manager George Costa, who opened the place with the Waides. “But that’s kinda how the whole scene went.”

Attribute it to timing. Southwark opened at point when New York was just beginning to familiarize itself with the idea of the cocktail bar as we know it, and the concept was nearly non-existent in Philly. In 2004, your average whistle wetter couldn’t ID a bottle of bitters. In 2015, bartenders are making their own and aging them in barrels from Spain.

Novelty notwithstanding (“real rye whiskey for the Manhattans!” proclaimed an early Philadelphia Inquirer review), Southwark’s dualistic approach earned attention, especially from industry peers. Sure, you could plop down for that Manhattan—they’ll stick the shaker on the side for top-offs—but you could also ask for a High Life and a heavy slug of Powers without feeling judged.

This high-low attitude, tightly braiding shot-and-beer everyman appeal with more esoteric meanderings, has endeared it to restaurant workers from day one. But it’s a second wave of patrons that have tested Southwark’s mettle in its prime.

Beginning around 2007, when more cocktail bars began popping up locally, Southwark experienced an influx of what former bartender Paul Dellevigne gently describes as “cocktail geeks, twiddling ’staches and quizzing you over vermouths.” Most people were just curious about how it all worked, especially since everyone at Southwark mixed from muscle memory rather than strict recipes. Others viewed a visit as an opportunity to fling around newfound knowledge—nerdy téte-a-tétes in which the staff has never been interested.

“There have been people who have turned up their noses when we shake our Manhattans,” says bartender Molly O’Rourke. Yes, Southwark’s bartenders know that stirring all-spirit drinks is de rigueur. But shaking is just how Kip does it. And his menu, a sincere list of classics compiled with your grandpa in mind, will never relinquish real estate to new-school drinks, of his design or otherwise. 

Jiggers are for pussies. This is another of Southwark’s proposed T-shirt mottos. From a bookkeeping perspective, a jigger’s practical application is to minimize waste. And for today’s cocktail bartenders—“people who take drinks far more seriously than I do,” according to Kip—they’re imperative because, to most, consistency is king. The feeling around Southwark, meanwhile, is that exacting precision is pedantic—and not synonymous with taste.

“Who gives a shit if it has half an ounce more vermouth than it did last time?” says Costa. “It’s a little inconsistent. That’s the charm.” There’s formula and there’s feeling, and though they’re not mutually exclusive where making drinks is concerned, Southwark bartenders view this poetic license as their own brand of efficient expression.

“The problem with the scene these days is you’re getting the same drink from 10 different bartenders,” adds Costa. “There’s no fucking personality anymore.”

In comparison to the didactic approach employed by other cocktail operations, it might appear that the Southwark crew is cranky or exclusionary. But drink at the bar enough and it becomes clear this isn’t the case. They just seem to click best with a specific kind of customer: Those who know what they want and trust their bartender to execute without fussing or flexing. Simple as that.

Broad as that may sound, it doesn’t describe everyone. And that’s okay with Southwark. “You can’t be for everybody,” says Kip.

You won’t see that on a T-shirt, but maybe you should.