One Night at the Dawson Street Pub

by Jack Curtin

I am sitting on the windowsill just inside the entrance to the Dawson Street Pub at about 9 PM of a pleasant Saturday evening in July. Up front, past the bar and back in the second room where the pool table generally stands, singer songwriter Ben Arnold, a Nashville refugee who has found a regular musical outlet here in Manayunk, is midway through his gig. He's very good and is the seventh or eighth performer in the ten-act extravaganza that began at 2 PM and will continue long after I drag my weary bones home to bed. My view is obscured frequently by the constant visitors to the table groaning with the ribs, chicken, chili, rice, corn and salad that are included in the $7 cover charge, but I can live with that.

Two blonde cuties sit down at the table in front of me to join a young man, who responds to their traditional "how are you?" query with a long and detailed description of his bad case of poison ivy. I figure he is definitely going home alone.

Out the window behind me, the corner streetlight shines down on the faded blue 1966 Dodge Dart convertible that Dawson Street owner Dave Wilby recently drove on a 7400 mile cross country trip sponsored by Hot Rod magazine. Across from that is the "War Wagon," a battered '74 Dodge pickup that has been wildly decorated by the same artist responsible for the bar's rear (and last) room, an enticing enclave with overstuffed couches where the door to the rest room is so well hidden amidst all the psychedelic artwork that newcomers invariably have to wander back out to the bar to ask additional directions.

Wilby himself suddenly appears at my side, beaming happily. The crowd hasn't been overwhelming for this "Austin in Philly" special event, but it's been steady and will get larger as the night progresses. Wilby is hardly your traditional maitre d' in his tee shirt and cut off blue jeans, long, shoulder length-plus dark hair, usually contained in a ponytail, flowing free as he rushes from one spot to another, but this is his perfect party. Good beer. Good food. Good music. What more could a man want?

"I gotta tell you, Wilby," I finally say, "there so damned much local color in this place I can hardly figure out where to start."

Confession time. The Dawson Street Pub, at the corner of Dawson and Cresson Streets on the east side of Manayunk, is, if not my favorite watering hole in the whole wide world, certainly--as they say--close enough for gummint work. The place keeps popping up in the stories I write about the local scene, not, I hope, because of favoritism either intended or unintentional, but because it often seems to have a relevant place in the ongoing saga. Truth to tell, I am here this very evening to do a Dawson Street story for a regional beer magazine, so I'm really doing this because I have to.

Nice work if you can get it.

Seven years ago, this place a biker bar that did not attract your highly desirable clientele. When Wilby and his father bought it, they slowly transformed it into its present state, arguably one of the best beer bars in the area and increasingly a showcase for new musical performers at its Thursday Open Mike nights and for weekend gigs. The place is decidedly not high tech in decor, nor is the crowd the flash and dash upscale sorts who crowd Main Street. This is a friendly, easy-going, younger group that seems to appreciates the beer and the ambiance. I am encouraged to see a scant three baseball caps worn backwards in the whole place.

Beer is what Dawson Street is all about, when you cut to the quick. "Life is too short to drink bad beer" is the bar's official slogan and Wilby just recently completed his stated intention of banning the "big boys" from the premises. Neither Budweiser nor Coors nor Miller are available any longer in any form. There are 12 taps, three of them hand pumps, the largest number in any local bar, to my knowledge. These feature one, sometimes three, brews from local favorite, Yards, as well as such goodies as Victory Pils or HopDevil Ale out of Downingtown, Stoudt's new keg conditioned ale or similar products from Rogue, Oliver's or other national brands. Guinness is always on tap, as is New Castle Brown, among a rotating selection that is generally strong on the best of the locals and other quality micros. As do an increasing number of bars which pride themselves on their beer selection, Dawson Street features Yuengling Lager and Porter as base brews and that brand is the top seller by far. "Good beer at a good price," says Wilby.

It's moving up on midnight now. They've even managed to drag chief cook, ace bartender and all-round jack of all trades Jake Carlin up to sit in for a few sessions, a rare treat highly approved by the crowd. Wilby and sound man Lee Schusterman have also taken a turn with the performers here and there. Bartender Blythe Lowry has seemingly not stopped moving all night, filling glasses from the taps or, more often, the quarter of Yards IPA which has been gravity tapped on top of the bar. The guy with the poison ivy has left, accompanied only by the friend he came in with.

The acoustical acts are eventually replaced by Tin Men, a Dawson Street favorite, but inclined toward a bit louder and stronger rock sound than I'm up to at the moment. Time to leave, something I can do with only the tiniest tinge of regret, secure in the knowledge that I'll be back again soon.

Copyright (c) 2008 Jack Curtin

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