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The Franklin Bar: cocktailing in Philly

Franklin bar cocktail flamed orange peel

Are they transitioning the name from "Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co." to "The Franklin Bar?" Let's bloody well hope so. I am into the brevity thing. "The Franklin Bar" suits me just fine.

And The Franklin Bar suits me just fine. A speakeasy-style cocktail bar set in a candle-lit basement, you sure wouldn't know anything of note is behind that nondescript black door unless someone told you (or you read about it). Luckily for me, during a dinner at Village Whiskey, the bartender suggested I give the place a try. For some reason he must have gotten the impression that I like cocktails. And since it was on the way back to the hotel, stumbling distance even, well you just know I had to check it out. A good piece of advice from this bartender to be sure.

Franklin Bar (the downstairs bar, not the new, upstairs bar) lets only a certain number of people in the place at a time. This isn't due to an occupancy limit set by the city, but rather because they don't allow people to stand. You will sit, you will enjoy your cocktails, and you will behave. I think you have to ring the doorbell when you get there, although on a recent visit two gentlemen were minding the door. "Have you been here before?" "Yes" is always the correct response.

Franklin bar cocktail4
Franklin bar cocktail4

Perhaps I'm exaggerating the rigidness of the experience at Franklin Bar.  Compared to some newcomers like Hop Sing Laundromat, which by all reports is known for being a bit over-the-top with its rulebook--No sneakers? No shorts? A "screening process" to get in?--getting into and enjoying Franklin Bar is a relatively relaxed affair.

Don't go in expecting to sit at a proper bar. The bar (downstairs) seats about 4 people IIRC. You'll be at tables or perhaps the bar rail. It turned out I was alone during my first visit, so they were able to seat me at that tiny bar. I bellied up and dug right into the cocktail list.

Franklin bar cocktail1
Franklin bar cocktail1

I was hoping to get into some light discussion on cocktails with the bartenders, given my ideal position at the end of the bar. But, alas, they were way too busy. At least two bartenders that night, making their craft cocktails non-stop. These are not simple cocktails. They're messing with the right ice, flaming peels, splashing bitters and tinctures, garnishing with foods, frothing with egg whites, shaking aggressively, tattoos rendering to nothing more than a fleshy blur.

At The Franklin Bar you'll find cocktails made with hard-to-find spirits. This, to me, is what can differentiate a good bar from a great bar. Access to some of these spirits can be difficult. Not to mention there are always a few ingredients at the great places that I've not so much as heard of. On top of that, their concoctions fall well out of the sphere of my creativity. I can mix a base liquor, a sweet element, and citrus, maybe throw some bitters in, but I know the limitations of my imagination. These folks suffer from no such limitation.

Franklin bar upstairsThe Upstairs Bar at Franklin

Everyone was pretty chill in the downstairs bar. The Upstairs Bar, which opened recently (perhaps going through a soft opening as I type), is a slightly different gig. By design, I'm told. None of the "no standing" rule. In fact, you are free to stand at the bar, and the bar is quite large, seating perhaps 12-15 people. The cocktails cost less upstairs ($10 each), and are somewhat less complex overall (less ingredients, more straight-forward to make). However, they are crafted and executed very well by people who know their shit.

Several cocktails were ordered from the smallish upstairs list, including a twist on a Manhattan which included some jelly. Or jam. Or preserves. Can't say what they're called and I'm not sure I know the difference.

I was even able to engage the bartender (Sara Justice in this case, the head bartender if the internet doesn't lie) in some spirits discussion, albeit only briefly. She was also nice enough to flame the orange peel in my cocktail right on the bar so I could get a better shot of it (at the top of this post). Contrasted with some places that won't let you pull out your cell phone. I'll take hospitality over douchebaggery any day. 

Franklin bar cocktail3

This visit was quite early on a Saturday evening, and I sensed that the crowd was a bit different upstairs. More of a young, loud vibe going. The music was loud, and quite raucous--including a live version of a Pixies song when I walked in (they must have been expecting me).  I can tolerate and quite like loud music if it's good music (as long as I can talk to the person next to me). But loud people annoy me. So I was slightly annoyed. But the cocktails and some friendly conversation with a woman next to me made it all better.

Perhaps these were anomalies and the clientele is usually very reserved and respectful. But I doubt it, and might skip the upstairs bar and try to hit the downstairs bar during my next visit.  Either way, there are no TVs at these two bars, which cuts back on a certain element, and the cocktails are as serious as a heart attack.

In the five years since Franklin Bar opened, the cocktail field has expanded considerably in Philly. Cocktail bars are everywhere, and restaurants are opening with excellent cocktail programs in their own right (check out Crow and the Pitcher for starters). Franklin Bar is doing some top-notch work. More importantly, they do it while being warm and welcoming, rather than standoffish and with some sort of contrived exclusivity. It remains tops in my book.

The Franklin Bar : 112 S 18th Street : Philadelphia, PA : 267.467.3277