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McGillin’s Olde Ale House – Philadelphia’s Oldest Continually Running Tavern Philadelphia, PA Historic Tavern

Posted on: January 23, 2010

Spying McGillin’s Olde Ale House tucked away on a narrow alley just off the main streets in Center City is like catching a 3D glimpse into Philadelphia’s historic past.

Down The Alley

Defiantly standing its ground next to a new parking garage on this teeny strip of road just 2 blocks from City Hall, the warm glow from their vintage looking neon sign beckoned us to step back in time on a chilly December evening.

McGillan's Neon Sign

I didn’t know what to expect from the Oldest Continually Operating Pub in Philadelphia (150 years, this year!) and was crossing my fingers that the place had retained some of its authentic charm and not succumbed to the faux historical look popular with businesses in touristy areas, or turned completely into a sporty frat bar.

When we saw the care that was taken with their neon sign and the cheery holiday window decorations we hoped for the best, opened the narrow swinging doors, and ventured inside.

We were greeted with a dark cozy room, bar on one side, tables running down the center, and best of all on this frigid night – a roaring fireplace with a table for two, as if it was waiting just for us!

Fireside Dining

(Retro Roadhusband deciding between a McGillin’s Real Ale and McGillin’s Genuine Lager both of which are brewed in locally in Adamstown PA by Stoudt’s)

McGillin’s is owned and operated by the same family since 1958 (current owners are Mary Ellen Spaniak Mullins and her husband Chris Mullins) and only the 2nd family to own it since it opened in 1860. All of their food is made from scratch, and in 2008 it was named by Gourmet Magazine “one of the 14 coolest bars in the U.S.”

We loved the low key charm of the place and noted foreign tourists and local alike warming up with good conversation and food on this cold winter night. There are all sorts of  vintage signs ‘n’ things up on the walls, giving a feeling of the age of the place  and you’re seeing token of each decade’s passing here. Lest you think it might be a stuffy museum, it also has a relaxed feel and energy of a current business.

McGillin's Ale House Philadelphia PA

If you like to roam around places like I do, to check things out, going to the “small room” is a good excuse to do so here, as it’s on the 2nd floor. One of the unexpected treats when you return to the 1st floor is this  over-sized black and white photograph of the streetscape nearby- just a block away in real life, but decades away in history.

Historic McGillan's Photo Philadelphia

(if you’ve never seen it in real life, to this day Philadelphia’s City Hall rises in the center of the city like a giant whipped cream confection- all lit up in the evening it’s a gorgeous landmark- check it out some time!)

As I sat back down at our table an older gentleman made his way from the bar to the juke box and played  “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole. There may not have been chestnuts roasting on that open fire, but listening to that wonderful song in such a historic place is a memory I will keep with me for a long time.

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  • Oooh, that looks lovely! One thing I miss from Britain is bars/pubs that have been there for centuries, so this looks right up my alley!

  • Great post!

  • ep

    Great post indeed! One of the great ‘intelligent meatmarkets’ (aka pick up joints) my girlfriends and I enjoyed during our clubbing days of the ’60s. You needed your PLCB card to visit McGillin’s…they were strict! Glad you enjoyed it.

    • EP! Love the personal history you’ve now included on the thread for McGillin’s- now I dig it even more!

  • I think the sign at the Center for Architecture is the original:

    What’s at the bar now must be a replica, right?

    • Hello DJS- I’m doing some digging to find out when exactly the current sign was installed, and will post when I found out. Len Davidson of Davidson Neon says the sign he has at the Center for Architecture is from the 40’s or 50’s, but isn’t sure how new/old the current one is. Sure is lovely, regardless! Thanks for swinging by the Retro Roadmap, your site is an inspiration and a wonderful resource!

      • Here’s the official word about the current sign hanging at McGillin’s from none other than Chris Mullins himself:

        “Thank you Beth for writing such a nice piece on McGillin’s! Our current sign is approximately 7-8 years old – it is an exact replica of the prior sign. Unfortunately the replacement was necessary as it was having trouble handling the wear and tear of the city – we are so happy though that it made it into Len’s collection – I hope you had a chance to see all his signs – they are really awesome!

        If you have any other questions, we are always willing to help out!
        All the best, and thanks again!”

        Now that that has been clarified for me I’ll change the wording on the post, thanks for picking up on that Agility Nut! I just realized that some of the confusion on my part came from the fact that the post cards of their sign are of the older sign from Len Davidson’s collection, and not of the sign hanging outside the building.

  • Thanks for getting to the bottom of this. Thiw seems to be a trend lately: businesses replacing their original signs with replicas. Thankfully, this is a very nice one. And even better that the original has been preserved and is on public display.

    • I can indeed see the wear and tear on the original sign, glad they liked it so much the replicated it, as opposed to getting something generic and modern.