Spirit Quest
In search of the best bars for enjoying a well-made tipple
by Bill Donahue

Whether you’re celebrating a special occasion or just needing to put a long day behind you, there are few sanctuaries as welcoming as a favorite watering hole—the stylish cocktail bar where the drinks are not only words on a menu but also an experience to be savored, or the nearby tavern where you and the bartender are on a first-name basis. In an effort to place a bull’s-eye on the best bars in the Philadelphia area, we sipped everything from amaretto to Yeungling, apple brandy to zinfandel, and made sure to pair our cocktails with something from the food menu. Here’s what we found: We’ve got some truly exceptional places to bend an elbow in our neck of the woods, staffed by bartenders, mixologists and other professionals who truly love what they do. We’ll drink to that.

Photograph by Rob Hall. Pictured (left to right): Specialty cocktails at Buona Via Italian Seafood & Grille -- "Snow Angel" (Angel's Envy Kentucky bourbon, honey syrup, fresh basil, cherry and a dash of orange bitters served over ice); "Candied Grapefruit Martini" (Belvedere Pink Grapefruit Vodka, fresh grapefruit juice, a sprinkle of cayenne pepper and simple syrup, served chilled); and "Winter Solstace" (Silver tequila, elderflower liqueur, fresh lime, splash of grapefruit juice and sugar rim, served over ice)


The Alchemist and Barrister

As Princeton’s landmark pub, the “A&B” offers a traditional public house experience—properly poured draught beers and hearty food that’s as comforting as it is flavorful, all served at a richly wooded counter with plenty of character—and interesting characters. No wonder it’s become a staple for Princeton’s theater goers, business owners and the of-age university set. 28 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, N.J. | 609-924-5555 | alchemistandbarrister.com

Bowman’s Tavern
Location: over the river and through the woods, an off-the-beaten-path oasis. Vibe: laidback, friendly and familiar. Bar: It’s got two, both of which are comfortable and stylish. Food: unexpectedly fabulous. Whether you’re from just down the road or another county over, you’ll want to make Bowman’s Tavern your place. 1600 River Road, New Hope | 215-862-2972 | bowmanstavernrestaurant.com

The bones of this Montgomery County hot spot date back to the 1740s. Many locals remember its turn as an old-school Irish bar, but today’s Brittingham’s is an elegant yet casual dining and drinking spot, with multiple roosts—both indoors and out. In addition to an excellent drinks menu, one can indulge in a distinctive food menu with the likes of pub pretzels, veggie curry and Black & Tan chili. Be sure to try one of the adult milkshakes and the sweet-and-spicy house pickles … just maybe not at the same time. 640 E. Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill | 484-344-5162 | brittinghams.com

Buona Via Italian Seafood & Grill

Home to some of the finest Italian cuisine (not to mention other cuisine throughout the Mediterranean, thanks to the influence of chef David Marques, whose family hails from Portugal), Buona Via also has a stunning bar area. The wait staff is helpful, knowledgeable and friendly, but you’re not here just to make friends. Wine lovers are especially in luck; owner Sal Carratta has a more impressive wine collection than anyone you’ve ever met, and he’s not shy about introducing his favorites—he prefers reds from Tuscany and Puglia, Italy, as well as California—to the Buona Via faithful. Craft beers from local brewers also take center stage, while general manager Aprile Marques has a gift for crafting memorable seasonally inspired specialty cocktails. 426 Horsham Road, Horsham | 215-672-5595 | buonavia.com

Charlie was a sinner.
This 2014 addition from Nicole Marquis, the owner of HipCityVeg, gets points for name alone. You’ll stop in out of sheer curiosity. (“Who’s Charlie and what’s his story?” you’ll ask. “We don’t talk about Charlie,” they’ll inevitably respond.) You’ll stay a while—and come back—for more reasons than one: the strong classic cocktails and signature vegan (fruit- and plant-based) drinks; the excellent menu of small-plate goodies; and the coolly designed space. Regardless of what you’re drinking, you can’t go wrong with an order of the roasted Brussels sprouts. 131 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia | 267-758-5372 | charliewasasinner.com

Conshohocken Brewing Company
Less a bar and more a tasting room, Conshohocken Brewing Co. is a welcome addition in a part of the world that appreciates the value of a hard day’s work. The effort that goes into each of the small-batch brews is apparent. On evenings when the weather’s not quite sure what it wants to do, hang out on the string-lit deck in the comforting warmth of the heat lamps. Even if well-balanced, handcrafted beer is not your thing, you’ll appreciate the atmosphere and the small but well-crafted food menu; we opt for the hummus and pita, though the slow-cooked pulled pork sandwich is tempting. 739 E. Elm Street, Conshohocken | 610-897-8962 | conshohockenbrewing.com

Craft Ale House
You might not expect much pulling up to this place on an unremarkable stretch of Ridge Pike on the dividing line between Chester County and Montgomery County, which makes it all the more remarkable when you walk through the door to see the embarrassment of riches here—from the exhaustive brew list to the hearty fare. (The leek soup draws rave reviews from regulars.) Beer lovers will rejoice, as the Craft Ale House has 16 draughts on tap and an insanely copious bottle list. For a toe-tapping—and firkin-tapping—good time, head to Limerick. 708 W. Ridge Pike, Limerick | 484-932-8180 | craftalehouse.com

Ambler has come a long way in a short time, and it’s got places such as Dettera to thank. Whether you’re celebrating a special occasion or just stopping in to share a cheese plate and a glass of wine, Dettera is a necessary indulgence. The second-floor wine display, not to mention the elegant bar, lets you know, rather quickly, how serious these folks are about making sure every hour you spend here is a happy one. 129 E. Butler Ave., Ambler | 215-643-0111 | dettera.com

Devil’s Pocket Food & Spirits
This newly opened spot in Philly’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood comes from the hands, minds and hearts of Andrew Wagner, former executive chef at Stephen Starr’s Jones, and Marcus Versace, longtime bartender at Coco’s in Washington Square. Since its October 2014 debut, Devil’s Pocket has been packing in fans of craft beer, classic American comfort food and a chill-out vibe that says, “Settle in.” Whether you opt for one of the 12 beers on tap or something from the selection of 16 bottles and cans or Versace’s maple rye old-fashioned—“a new take on a classic cocktail,” he calls it—be sure to pair it with an order of Wagner’s special-recipe jerk chicken wings, cooked up in the smoker right out back. 2425 Grays Ferry Ave., Philadelphia | 215-735-2202

Earth Bread + Brewery

This Mt. Airy hot spot has it all: lovingly crafted house brews (including ginger ale and sarsaparilla), excellent light fare (including some wonderful soups and inventive flatbreads), and a laidback atmosphere that makes you want to stay a while. The only thing it’s missing is a TV, but that’s by design so you can focus on something more important—namely, the people with whom you’re sitting, eating and drinking. Despite its namesake, it’s also got a decent wine list. 7136 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia | 215-242-6666 | earthbreadbrewery.com

Frankford Hall
Whether it’s sunny and summery or wickedly wintry, this Stephen Starr joint in Fishtown will suit you well—provided you’re fond of Bavarian delights such as Wiener schnitzel and potato pancakes, paired with a pint or two of Paulaner and Weihenstephan. Although half the place is an open courtyard, the heat lamps, blankets and roaring fire pit mean you’ll be feeling fine even in February. Here, the focus is all on congregating with old friends and making new ones. 1210 Frankford Ave., Philadelphia | 215-634-3338 | frankfordhall.com

The Good King Tavern
In Bella Vista, this tavern puts a smile on patrons’ faces with a menu of French-inspired libations, as well as soulful cuisine far removed from the beer-and-hot-wings sort. The Sunday brunch crowd will swoon over the house Bloody Marys and mimosas to go with their Brioche French toast or eggs Benedict. 614 S. 7th Street, Philadelphia | 215-625-3700 | thegoodkingtavern.com

The Industry
This place, in Philly’s Pennsport neighborhood, is cool—so cool you realize it even before you step through the front door; the door handle is cleverly designed as the shaft of a cleaver. No matter what you’re drinking—craft beer, wine or an imaginative cocktail bearing an esoteric name that tells a story—the bartenders will deliver with aplomb. Oh, the burgers are ridiculous. 1401 E. Moyamensing Ave., Philadelphia | 215-271-9500 | theindustrybar.com

Iron Abbey
Montgomery County needs more places like “the Abbey.” Beer is treated deadly serious here. The draught list features dozens of beers on tap, including some housemade brews. And what do beer lovers love almost as much as they love beer? If you said “soccer,” cheers to you. Iron Abbey opens its doors to sweep in the faithful as early as 6 a.m. to air live games. A relatively new addition is The Loft, a second-story sanctuary featuring a ridiculous assortment of exotic canned and bottled beers (and assorted accoutrements), perfect for stocking up for take-home enjoyment. The Loft also features a café that dishes out the likes of charcuterie, cheese plates and coffee-based beverages—plus, you guessed it, complimentary beer tastings. 680 N. Easton Road, Horsham | 215-956-9600 | ironabbey.com

Jet Wine Bar
One might be tempted to call this South Street gem “small,” but we prefer “intimate.” And it’s just that: an intimate place with a coolly designed space where you can share some very good small plates—cheeses, deviled eggs, a lentil-based veggie burger, etc.—designed to pair well with the international cast of characters found on Jet’s United Nations-worthy wine list. Of course, beers and other cocktails are available, too, but you wouldn’t go to a brewery and ask for a glass of Pinot Noir, would you? In fairer weather, the windowed façade opens wide to offer roosts for prime alfresco people watching. 1525 South Street, Philadelphia | 215-735-1116 | jetwinebar.com

Khyber Pass Pub
The beer selection here rocks, and the food—Southern-influenced selections, mainly, geared toward meeting the gustatory needs of carnivores and vegetarians alike—gets an A+. In other words, this 2nd Street mainstay is one of the best reasons to be in Old City right now. 56 S. 2nd Street, Philadelphia | 215-238-5888 | khyberpasspub.com

L’Angolo Blue
This ristorante in Blue Bell also has one of the most elegant bars in all of Montgomery County, backed by a bartending staff that knows its way around a cocktail. Enjoy the complimentary hors d’oeuvres at happy hour, but considering the menu of Italian delights on the menu—the recently enjoyed ravioli di portobello gets our vote—you will probably want to stay for dinner. 602 Skippack Pike, Blue Bell | 215-641-6789 | angoloblue.com

Manatawny Still Works
Although not a bar, per se, this Pottstown newcomer is well worth a visit. Manatawny Creek, after all, was “the place where we drank” in the tongue spoken by the native Lenape Indians. The Still Works is pouring some high-quality, handcrafted spirits—J. Potts Whiskey, Three Bitches Wheat Vodka, T. Rutter Rum, etc.—to be enjoyed just fine by themselves or as the foundation of some truly timeless cocktails. 320 Circle of Progress Drive, Pottstown | 484-624-8271 | manatawnystillworks.com

The Peacock Inn
Stepping through the door of the Peacock Inn is an exercise in luxury, whether one decides to stay overnight, dine at the restaurant or simply head into the bar. Here, the staff pours fine wines, craft beers and handcrafted specialty cocktails courtesy of resident mixologist Josean Rosado. It’s an elegant experience, even a romantic one, that you’ll want to savor. 20 Bayard Lane, Princeton, N.J. | 609-924-1707 | peacockinn.com

Plumsteadville Inn
In Pipersville, the newly renovated “Plum” is advertised as the home of “burgers, beer, lobster and cheer.” What’s not to love? The historic Plumsteadville Inn includes a gorgeously designed tavern that will likely make you want to stay longer than you had initially planned. Whether you’re there to watch the game, share beers with pals or have a meal within eyeshot of the log-burning stone fireplace, the Plumsteadville Inn has the panacea to cure what ails you. 5902 Easton Road, Pipersville | 215-766-7500 | plumsteadvilleinn.com

Tattooed Mom
You’ve got to love a bar with a sense of humor. Case in point: “The Sleigher,” a holiday-themed cocktail named after a certain similar-sounding heavy metal band, dreamed up by the good folks at Tattooed Mom. The drinks are strong and creative, the décor is punk-rock playful, and the atmosphere is one of good old-fashioned fun—especially on Sundays, where you can make your own sock puppet and partake in the complimentary coloring books. Do you really need another reason to stop in? 530 South Street, Philadelphia | 215-238-9880 | tattooedmomphilly.com

Play Time
Are they bars with great entertainment, or are they entertainment venues with great bars? No matter how you describe the joints named on the following list, you’ll discover the best of both worlds when you punch one of their addresses into your GPS.

Ardmore Music Hall
23 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore | 610-649-8389 | ardmoremusic.com

Boot & Saddle
1131 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia | 267-639-4528 | bootandsaddlephilly.com

105 S. Main Street, New Hope | 215-862-5501 | havananewhope.com

Johnny Brenda’s
1201 N. Frankford Ave., Philadelphia | 215-739-9684 | johnnybrendas.com

MilkBoy Philly
1100 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia | 215-925-6455 | milkboyphilly.com

North Star Bar
2639 Poplar Street, Philadelphia | 215-787-0488 | northstarbar.com

Paris Bistro & Jazz Café
8229 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia | 215-242-6200 | parisbistro.net

Ron’s Original Bar & Grille
74 Uwchlan Ave, Exton | 610-594-9900 | ronsoriginal.com

Union Transfer
1026 Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia | 215-232-2100 | utphilly.com

World Café Live
3025 Walnut Street, Philadelphia | 215-222-1400 | philly.worldcafelive.com

Toasting the ‘Water of Life’
Philadelphia’s Aqua Vitae Institute celebrates the art of making cocktails

Alcohol, like Rodney Dangerfield, simply gets no respect. So says Ariela Yankelewitz, a woman who is doing everything in her power to reverse that trend.

At the Aqua Vitae Institute (aquavitaeinstitute.com), which Yankelewitz founded at 17th and Race streets in Philadelphia, she and her staff of professional mixologists teach bartenders how to master both sides of the bar. In addition, the team educates casual alcohol enthusiasts on how to, say, make “sexy and healthy” cocktails of their own and also create a proper home bar on even a modest budget, with just 12 bottles.

“Our center is a celebration of alcohol,” Yankelewitz says, adding that the Latin words aqua vitae translate to “water of life.” “We train professionals in the art of making cocktails. … We also want to educate the public, to know they can do amazing things with fresh ingredients—herbs, fruits, vegetables—because I really want to bring more respect to the drinking of alcohol. If you drink with joy, there can never be any kind of abuse; that’s why it’s called spirits.”

Yankelewitz has a long, proud history with alcohol. A native of Israel, she came to the United States in need of a job and found an outlet in the hospitality industry, working as a bartender. She enrolled in a bartending school and was so enthralled with the experience that she wanted to open one of her own—and that’s exactly what she did.

She didn’t stop at one. For several years she was the chief executive behind the Mixology Wine Institute, which to this day has several locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Now all her energy is behind the Aqua Vitae Institute.

Here, professional bartenders can enroll in two-day classes to hone their skills in areas such as ice carving, molecular mixology and “bar psychology,” through which students learn how to connect with their customers on a more intimate level, ultimately improving their job security by becoming better at what they do. Casual enthusiasts, meanwhile, can enjoy classes such as “Sexy and Healthy Cocktails,” wherein students get behind the bar and learn, with guidance from a professional mixologist, how to mix, shake, strain, muddle and serve a number of cocktails.

“What I like to promote are drinks like vodka and whiskey,” Yankelewitz says. “When people drink in moderation, they are healthier—the body is healthier—and nobody knows exactly why. Thousands of years of history cannot lie. Years ago, if you didn’t drink, it was considered unhealthy and you were considered antisocial. In the days of the Founding Fathers, some say there would have been no contribution without alcohol; back then there was a judgment against water, which was thought to be very bad for you, so they drank [alcohol] from morning till night.”

Her drink of choice is the classic old-fashioned because “whiskey opens all the chakras,” she says, “like a spiritual experience.” She’s also a proponent of Fernet-Branca, a brand of bitters from Italy, usually sold as a digestif, which settles the stomach and “makes you feel a lot better after eating.”

“The way I grew up, my mother had a [liquor cabinet] in the living room; it was a beautiful piece of furniture, but nobody touched it,” she says. “We drank wine sometimes, but there was no drinking habit. What I saw in a bar, I saw a window to the world, to freedom, and there is no bad association for me. In a bar I see people connecting with others. … Before I die, I want to see people treating alcohol like they would treat great food—with joy and respect.”   —Bill Donahue