In summer 2003, Johnny Brenda’s was much the same bar it was when the boxer John Imbrenda opened it in 1967—a shot and a Bud bar, much like its fists-up Fishtown brethren: the 15th Round, Anthony’s, Fishtown Tavern. With an elderly Imbrenda ailing, the bar was quietly for sale when William Reed and Paul Kimport—owners of Northern Liberties’ Standard Tap—stopped in for a drink and a chat with the manager, who let them take a look around the upstairs that hadn’t been used since the 1980s. “We went in thinking we were kicking the tires,” says Reed, “but we came out with a bar.” They bought the name Johnny Brenda’s as part of the purchase, leaving the sign intact and building a new brand.
Ten years later, with guidance Reed and Kimport learned from the Tap and a simple kindness expected of themselves and their staff, the dukes are mostly down, the real estate is mostly up, and Johnny Brenda’s has welcomed new bar brethren by the load: Kraftwork, East Girard Gastropub, Fishtown Tavern. And Frankford Hall.
As (new) Johnny Brenda’s turns ten years old this week, it’s impossible to deny the influence it’s had on the growth of (new) Fishtown over that time. I speak from experience: it was absolutely the x-factor in the decision my ex-wife and I made to buy our home there in 2007. And while witnessing new places take root from Memphis Taproom to the Barbary was exciting, the opening of Stephen Starr’s Frankford Hall and Fette Sau rolled out a red carpet for the next era—the one with valet parking, constant cabs, and long lines at the velvet rope on Saturday night.
Regina Mandell, who pens the aesthete’s dream blog The Peregrine Papers, watched that transformation from behind the bar, a post she held from JB’s opening in September 2003 until just last month. “[There were] bad fights at the pool table with the old locals causing all sorts of grief, breaking sticks, throwing glasses, and scaring the new regulars enough that a few of them jumped over the bar to my side,” Mandell remembers.
“The big thing for us was finding a way of getting old neighbors and new neighbors together,” Kimport says, “because Fishtown’s a tight neighborhood.” One of the first challenges in doing that was going through the process of getting neighborhood approval for outdoor café seating. At first there was pushback, simply because nothing like it existed there at the time, but after going door to door meeting neighbors and explaining JB’s plans, he was happy with the turnout at the Fishtown Neighborhood Association meeting which voted to recommend approval to the ZBA. “In some ways, our problems helped make a more cohesive process,” he says.
At that time, Johnny Brenda’s only inhabited the curving corner property; they later bought the lot on Frankford Avenue, and in 2004, the property next door on Girard Avenue, which initially they rented out to the Fishtown Spirit, but which eventually became the dining room. “It took us a while to figure out what we were doing,” Kimport acknowledges, “but convenience was always part of the equation. Lots of transit stops nearby, it’s easy to meet here, have dinner, and stick around for a show.”
It’s the latter of these—live music—that really raised JB’s profile. Echoing Kimport’s sentiments, JB’s longtime concert booker and promoter Brandy Hartley recalls of opening the venue in 2006, “it was really important that we hear the concerns of our neighbors. As a Fishtown resident, I understand how a change like opening a music venue could seem drastic. We really had to canvas the neighborhood and rally the people who enjoyed the food and and fun at JB’s, both longtime and new residents, to get them to become involved in the neighborhood association and make this dream a reality. And it worked!”
On top of the neighborhood’s support, some early assists in getting the venue off the ground came in from Philly’s music community. Micah Danges, an accomplished artist who mixes photography, paint, metals, and other materials, started as a bar back when JB’s opened and eventually took a Monday night bartending shift. “Most of the regulars were people who lived in the neighborhood, but friends would visit from all over town,” Danges recalls. “Definitely some record heads in that mix, so it was natural that we started a rotating DJ on Monday nights.”
Urban Outfitters music director Dryw Scully, who grew up in Mayfair, was among them. He shakes his head remembering the Fishtown his friends inhabited in the 90s when thinking of his DJ nights. “I had a friend Brian who lived about four blocks down from the Girard El stop; I remember running (sprint speed) from the el to my friend’s house,” Scully recalls. “And it wasn’t to stay fit.”
As the venue neared readiness and the opening weekend card featuring Philly powerhouses Mazarin and The Capitol Years approached, Danges suffered a leg injury that kept him out of work for nine months, piling a mountain of debt in the process. Seizing an opportunity to preview the stage and aid his friend, Scully organized a lineup that included The War On Drugs, Meg Baird, the late Jack Rose, and Bardo Pond.
David Hartley, whose musical endeavors have put him on JB’s stage with Nightlands, BC Camplight, Silver Ages, and loads of others including this past weekend with The Lindsey Buckingham Appreciation Society, was there that first night in his roll as The War On Drugs’ bass player. Hartley, whose Fishtown experience shined in a photo essay on Spin.com, credits Johnny Brenda’s for shifting Philadelphia’s musical landscape.
“Finally there was a place that bands loved to play and audiences loved to go and congregate,” he says. “Previously, touring indie rock bands had to choose between the desolation of the North Star or the Old City chaos of The Khyber; Johnny Brenda’s was for music fans, by music fans and they had a policy of booking quality music on the regular.”
Shai Halperin, frontman of the erstwhile Capitol Years and more recently Sweet Lights, agrees. “Johnny Brenda’s arrived and immediately reset the standard for venues in Philadelphia. It was an oasis for touring bands, treating them with a level of respect and hospitality that was, and remains, rare,” he explains. “JB’s extended this grace to local bands as well, regardless of whether they sold 2 or 200 advance tickets.”
Sean Agnew, owner and operator of R5 Productions, cites this hospitality as a reason for still booking shows at Johnny Brenda’s despite operating his own venues at Union Transfer, Morgan’s Pier, and what could really be seen as a direct competitor with JB’s, the recently opened Boot & Saddle in South Philly. “It was and still is great to work with the folks at Johnny Brendas,” Agnew observes. “They treat the bands so well over there… The bands leave quite happy, which makes everyone’s job so much easier. With the opening of Boot & Saddle we hope to mirror the artists experiences. I think with both rooms now open, Philly’s music scene should grow to be a lot stronger.”
The attention to detail even extends to the tickets themselves. Brandy Hartley, after helping establish the venue’s presence, left Johnny Brenda’s after six years to work in San Francisco for Ticketfly. In a sense, they rewarded her for taking a chance on the upstart ticket seller: Johnny Brenda’s signed on as Ticketfly’s client #5 in 2008 to use their tools for streamlining ticketing and marketing, a process that continues today with Hartley’s successors Chris Ward and Greg Mungan.
The talent farm extends behind the bar, too. Kema Fortunato, who with his brother moved from the Poconos to Fishtown in 2004, ate his first meal in Philadelphia at Johnny Brenda’s after reading about it. “I’m used to the Yuengling bars of the Northeast, and here’s this bar with local beers on draught and hummus—hummus—on the menu,” he remembers. “I stumbled out of there saying ‘I’m going to work here’.” After two years at Standard Tap, where he was made a bar manager, he did just that, moving to Johnny Brenda’s to be an assistant manager. After two years there and four at Bar Ferdinand, Fortunato is now the general manager at Stateside, the 2012 Best of Philly restaurant of the year.
Matt McFerron, a renowned barman in his own right, joined a young Johnny Brenda’s in 2004 and stayed until 2008, when he departed Philly for New Orleans to sling drinks for chef Susan Spicer, the inspiration for the Janette Desautel character on HBO’s Treme, and later Empire State South, a Best of Atlanta restaurant. “Over the course of my four years there, I was fortunate to be a part of the gradual expansion of JB’s and witness the direct correlation between the growth and success of the bar with the overall improvement of the neighborhood,” McFerron says from Athens, Georgia, where this week he’ll open his own bar, The Old Pal.
It’s the overall improvement of the neighborhood that, at least from this writer’s point of view from three years living in Fishtown and spending money both downstairs and upstairs at Johnny Brenda’s, makes it stand out the way it does. Laura Semmelroth, economic development assistant at New Kensington Community Development Corporation, agrees too. “Ten years ago the neighborhood was in its infancy in terms of redevelopment,” she says. “One of the things that I always appreciated about them buying that bar was that they respected its long time place in the community and kept the name and its general appearance. It made the changes feel a little less obtrusive and made it a bridge between what the neighborhood was and what it could become.”
And what it became is a dinner-and-drinks destination where Stephen Starr, Peter McAndrews, and Adam Ritter have established outposts; Brendan Hartranft’s first outpost, Memphis Taproom, has grown into a mini-empire of bars he operates with his wife Leigh Maida in West Philly, G-Ho, and Center City. Loco Pez. Barcade. Bottle Bar East. Lloyd Whiskey Bar. Interstate Draft House. Pizza Brain and Little Baby’s. Pizzeria Beddia. And next?
“Having worked all but a handful of Friday nights over the last 5+ years, it’s been amazing to see the neighborhood change,” says Maggie Good, who lives in the neighborhood with her boyfriend, the venue manager Ward. “At first we were very much a neighborhood bar and also kind of a destination for people that were feeling brave enough to come to crazy Fishtown. Now if you look at the corner of Girard and Frankford on a weekend night, there are dozens of people just wandering around going from bar to bar, walking by what used to be unlit, abandoned houses and empty lots.”
It’s the same impression for Ben Dickey, an original staffer who left to become the chef at a friend’s restaurant in Prescott, Arizona in 2006, returning to Philly and JB’s in 2009. “When I came back, it was a totally different restaurant,” Dickey says. “In the beginning, we had the grill and fryer outside, and sometimes I’d get locked out,” he says looking across the now spacious kitchen. “It was… rustic,” he laughs.
With free firkins planned for tonight, tomorrow, and Thursday, Johnny Brenda’s will celebrate its first ten years in a place they helped evolve. And yet, it does retain a rustic feel, like a place that’s been there for decades, including the concert venue upstairs. Much like Standard Tap, really.
While William Reed and Paul Kimport have built the flagship bars in two neighborhoods—”expanding, reinventing, and adapting their two neighborhood bars into centers of a swirling polity,” as Hidden City Daily senior editor Nathaniel Popkin put it in his 2008 book The Possible City (whose book launch, incidentally, I hosted at Johnny Brenda’s)—that’s as far as they’ve flown their flag. For now. “They really could be a Stephen Starr thing,” sees Stateside’s Fortunato. “Their approach is just so different. They look at how the product affects everyone around them, not at the bottom line.”
“William and Paul just know how to build ambiance,” Dryw Scully says. “They built and added to JB’s and Standard Tap with care and craftsmanship. Just a non cookie cutter approach on the interior architecture and overall environment, great food, and amazing staff—this is what I feel will always differentiate them from the others.”
Praise for their product seems pretty easy to come by, but one review stands out among them to Reed. “When John Imbrenda died [in 2007], his family came in from Chicago and they were psyched to see it packed and people having fun,” Reed recounts. “That was pretty awesome.”
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Johnny Brenda’s is at 1201 Frankford Avenue, on the corner of Girard, in Fishtown. They’re celebrating their tenth anniversary this week with free firkins of beer: Sly Fox Phoenix Pale Ale at 6 tonight, Dock Street Man Full of Trouble Porter tomorrow at 6, and a double shot on Thursday featuring a pin of Yards Smoked .45 malt liquor at 8pm and a firkin of Victory Hop Devil at 10. A cast of former bartenders will take turns DJing, during which time drinks of their choice will be half off.
Great article – I remember what the landscape looked like in the late 90’s. Kudos to a crew that had great vision and the determination to stick to it to impact change.
Just curious – I remember an old bar called W&J’s but can’t seem to find record of it. I think it was in the NoLibs/Fishtown. Any idea if that’s correct or what became of it? Would love to find out.
The W & J at 5th and Poplar in Northern Liberties became The Ministry of Information in the early ’00s. It then became a wine bar named Wine-O in ’08 that just closed earlier this year. Currently the owner of The P.O.P.E. has taken it over. http://philadelphia.foobooz.com/2013/09/13/pope-owner-to-open-bardot-in-northern-liberties/
Awesome, thanks for the update!
Funny how The EL Bar is never mentioned in these articles. Love it or not, it’s more authentic then any of the aforementioned establishments, since 1970 or so.
Thanks for remembering the Barbary and the Keno Lounge..it was really rough when we opened..The El Bar was the only other place a non local would dare enter..I actually miss the gritty old Fishtown.