Friday, January 23, 2009

Hogan's

My gadfly, The British Cowboy, has been haranguing me for ages to write a little something on this place. And I have been holding off from doing so chiefly to instil some discipline into him, to teach him that he cannot expect all of his whims to be indulged immediately. Also, I thought this might be a fittingly 'special' subject for Post No. 1,000 here on The Barstool. (Gosh, yes, it is, you know.)


Hogan's - or more properly, T. Hogan's, I believe, to give it its full name - is one of the pantheon of favourite bars that have won an enduring place in my affections, places that have in fact approached shockingly close to bar perfection. There was The Temple, my regular refuge during the end of my undergraduate days, and still my Platonic ideal of a pool venue. There was the Traveller's Rest, a second home to me during my teacher training year in Durham. There was The Black Swan, which, despite its army drill-hall ambience, somewhat displaced The Temple as my favourite Oxford pub during the early '90s, mainly thanks to its wonderful landlady, Eileen Doyle (Eric at The Temple really was a bit of a curmudgeonly old git, although his pub was marvellous). There is Mulligan's, for many years my favourite hangout in Dublin. And these days, of course, there is the Pool Bar, which is a far friendlier local than I would ever have expected to find in Beijing.

And then, during my 18-month sojourn in North America at the end of the '90s, there was Hogan's - the archetypal American corner bar. Now, during this period, I was mostly working as a legal intern in Canada; and Hogan's is in Philadelphia. However, my working schedule was very flexible. In fact, it was almost infinitely so. I had been sent there on a scholarship, but was just too old to qualify for the conventional student visa which was typically issued to scholars on this programme. After a week or two of embarrassed impasse, the immigration officials at Canada House eventually improvised a solution that involved them issuing me a regular work visa stamped with a proviso that I should not actually do any work while in Canada. Whenever the Toronto law firm I'd been placed with tried to extract too much value from me, I would take cover behind the terms of my visa and 'disappear' for a long weekend, or a week, or..... And, almost invariably, I'd nip down to Philly - since my old Oxford drinking buddy, The British Cowboy, was living there (and since there are no decent bars in Canada).

Indeed, The Cowboy maintains that he bought his house on Kalos Street because of its proximity to Hogan's - can there be any higher accolade accorded to a bar? (He probably won his wife over to the idea by emphasising the nearness of a large country park, the picturesque canal, the fast-becoming-trendy Manayunk district, and a commuter rail station...... but we know the real reason for his choice!)

Interestingly enough, I have met a couple of people here in Beijing (and one or two in DC as well) who claim to know Hogan's. And they weren't Philly people. It would appear that perhaps the place is quietly famous amongst American bar connoisseurs.

Why so? Well, it has just about all of the elements that I look for in a proper bar. It is dark; no unwelcome daylight intruding to lift your spirts unnecessarily or remind you of the time of day. It is well-proportioned and a unitary space (although the large games area in the bigger half of the L-shaped space is non-ideal for me, a bit unnecessary). It has a great bar: almost an island bar, it is a long U-shape with - a unique design feature? - occasional diamond crenellations around it to boost its effective length and seating space; and it's a perfect height for either barstool-slumping or the standing lean. It has good draught beer (this is where I first learned to love Yuengling, one of the more characterful American brews, and a local PA product). It has flexible opening hours (old man Hogan, the founder of the place, had been in the local Fire Department for many years; so it became a favoured hangout of all the emergency services, and the police are never likely to make a fuss about enforcing whatever restrictions on the opening hours are supposedly in place). And they had great staff back then when I was visiting: Dave, the genial giant who was usually running the place, was the old man's son, and he had a good crew of - mostly female - bartenders (though, as I recall, they were mostly feistily attractive, 30-something working mums rather than heart-breaking bimbos - another good thing, in my book). There was also an interesting gaggle of regulars: three or four times I found myself idling away an afternoon in there on my own, getting mildly toasted while I waited for The Cowboy to get off work - and there were always one or two diverting 'characters' around to talk to. It was a real neighbourhood place. I love bars like that.

Yes, there was also a fairly good pool table (although I disapprove of the American style of table with its rock-hard cushion rails and gaping pockets), but I could have done without that: it was responsible for engendering some lingering grudges between the Cowboy and myself whenever one of us pulled off a tactlessly long succession of victories over the other. I could have done without the gaming machines and the silly 'sticky darts', as well; but our American friends seem to crave these distractions.

The other great attraction of the place was - and, I hope, still is (I keep on promising myself that I must make a pilgrimage back there the next time I visit the States) - the food. There was a proper restaurant upstairs; I never tried that, but it was well spoken of. However, the bar snacks downstairs were just awesome (lovingly prepared according to "old family recipes" by a mountainous coloured guy called Carl, who you'd think would hardly have been able to fit into the compact little kitchen - indeed, he did usually come and hang at the bar as much as possible, whenever things went a little quiet). I think the spicy chicken wings were about the best I've ever had anywhere: a spot-on balance of sweet and hot; and a subtle kind of hot that would just slowly and relentlessly keep coming at you; it didn't overwhelm and injure with a furious initial onslaught, but it would keep your tongue and lips singing for some minutes afterwards. Heaven!

Ah, and then, the crowning glory...... I mentioned in my famous What Makes A GREAT Bar? post the appeal of a creatively timed Happy Hour, and cited Hogan's as the premier example. During that year-and-a-bit when I was visiting quite regularly, they had a Jerry Springer Happy Hour: half-price drinks (and food, I think; or 'specials', anyway) at lunchtime, while we watched the great man's wonderfully over-the-top talk show on TV. There was a week or so - when the Cowboy found himself briefly 'between jobs' - that he and I were hitting the place up every lunchtime. There are few more decadent pleasures than getting pleasantly pie-eyed in the middle of the day, while most of the rest of the world has to work...... and while mocking the inadequacies of Redneck society.... and baying, "JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!" A slightly guilty pleasure, but a thoroughly cathartic one, I assure you. Ah, happy days!

4 comments:

Jeremiah said...

Goodness, I've never even heard of it and the description makes ME miss the place. Pity there is no peer in Beijing.

The British Cowboy said...

Hogan's was a paradise. A place of beauty. An Eden. I will comment at much greater length on this wonderful homage, but work calls.

I will give one quick anecdote. Hogan's saved my sanity when I was unemployed. Only so many times can one watch daytime TV alone, and occasionally slipping down to the aforementioned Springer Happy Hour was a treat that kept me from despondency.

There was one particular afternoon, where the episode of Springer was a classic - "Viewers Battle the Klan." They invited a black family on the show, and then brought in a bunch of Klan folk. Fight ensued (unspurprisingly). I will always remember a close up of the patriarch of the black family, after his elderly mother had ripped the hood off the Grand Wizard, taking this readnecks head and repeatedly bashing it on the step, each time saying "Who's the fucking master race now?"

I was even more impressed that the Springer production company was prepared to bleep the swearing, yet oddly not prepared to intervene to prevent the asskicking. Happy times.

The British Cowboy said...

And it is certainly the case I bought my house because of Hogan's. I had never been to the bar, or really the neighborhood, but it is important to me that I have a watering hole within walking distance.

I was looking at houses, and we found this very delapidated, but potentially restorable little rowhome that was well within our budget. It being 7 pm by this stage, I suggested to my wife that we walk the neighborhood, because if there was not a bar I could walk to that I liked, I didn't want to buy it. We walked the half block down the hill, and to the left, about 50 yards away, was Hogan's. We went in, and had a couple of drinks. The bartender was welcoming, but not ingratiating. The regulars were friendly, but not dangerously close to recruiting me to the Moonies. I paid the tab, left, and the rest is history.

Froog said...

Well, the Pool Bar is actually pretty damn close, J. I mean, if it had wings and draft beer, we would have realise that we'd died and gone to heaven.