The following is an interview with Miriam Portney, a bartender at Time, a popular restaurant/bar/live music venue/nightspot on Sansom Street. Sadly, Miriam has since left Time and moved to New York, but her insights into the venue and Philly’s night scene are excellent.
Q: Where do you work?
Q: Why should people go there?
A: We have over one hundred whiskeys, bourbons and scotches, a competitive beer selection and a lively music scene. Overnight it seems Sansom Street has become the new late-night and weekend hot spot. With three bars catering to different needs, it’s hard to leave. Chef Josh McCullough’s classic French training seeps into his dishes and onto the plate; the precision in which each dish is executed, the sweet and savory depth of his demi-glace, pan sauces, and stocks are proof that shortcuts do not have a place in his kitchen. The food is kept to his high standard and he is a master of his craft. He has a love for food and commitment to quality and presentation that can only be taught through a proper French brigade. That being said, my advice is to put your dining experience in his hands and try the tasting menu; he will not lead you astray. You will be introduced to unknown and familiar pleasures, such as bone marrow – perhaps quickly sauteed with wild mushrooms and presented in the bone or on small tea sandwiches with watercress and a fried quail egg. Grilled octopus with a bright citrus salad, homemade chilled ricotta raviolis with heirloom tomatoes… If bar food is calling to you, don’t fear, the tempura-battered onion rings, mysteriously delicious chicken wings, or “The Burger” with jack cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and hand-cut fries may be just what you need.
Q: Do people come for anything in particular? What are they looking for or expecting when they walk in? Is there one special drink?
A: While a lot of people come in wanting to try absinthe, it seems that desire is satisfied by a single sip or glass. What they end up returning for is the selection of whiskey, the atmosphere, the food, but mostly the music. Musicians come out to support their friends, often times with instruments in tow. They inevitably end up on stage and the three-piece band grows to eight or nine of Philly’s most talented jazz musicians. By last call [a little before 2am in Philly], the dance floor is full, the passers-by are crowding around the open windows, and there’s an indescribable excitement in the air.
Q: How would you describe the clientele?
A: It varies; I’ve never seen a more eclectic crowd. The sports fans go straight for the whiskey bar to watch the game, eat wings, and talk whiskey. The young club crowd, dressed to kill, head upstairs for the swanky, dimly lit absinthe lounge, which, depending on the night, will host local deejays or private parties. The fine diners, local regulars, and musicians populate the dining room, which features the live music.
Q: Sum up Philly in a word.
Q: Philly’s drinking character in a word?
Q: What’s your favorite thing about the Philly bar scene? Why is it unique?
A: The Broad Street subway line runs to and from the stadiums, and the three-block radius spanning the route is graced with pre-gamers, celebrators, and mourners alike. There are the staples that never change, the reliable and the constant in the bar world. Three-dollar city-wide specials at Bob and Barbara’s, the characters in McGlinchey’s at noon, the familiar faces at the Pen and Pencil [the ultra-secret members-only after hours club that was once a favorite of local literary types]…Then there are the forever changing trends that no one can control or predict, the things that are fresh and exciting. Once it rested on Old City or Delaware Avenue, but the valuable but fickle good favor of Philly drinkers has shifted and the sun now shines on Sansom Street, and until the undercurrent carries the crowd onward, we will relish this moment and continue to do what we do so well.
Q: What bars do you go to?
A: Jose Pistola’s for a good margarita or convenient sports event pre-game, Devil’s Den for happy hour, offering half-priced drafts (focusing on Belgian, German and micro-brews), McGlinchey’s if I don’t want to be recognized or judged, the Pen and Pencil for all my after-hours needs, and Johnny Brenda’s or Tritone to satisfy my inner hipster.
Q: What restaurants do you go to?
A: Garces Trading Company for lunch (I recommend splitting the tasting menu and a state-store priced bottle of wine). Modo Mio, a tiny BYOB serving fresh rustic Italian. For something cheap and good Nam Phoung serves my favorite bowl of Pho (the best hangover cure I know). Among the ever growing spattering of “tapas” bars, Bar Ferdinand is true to form. Adorned with dried roses and Christmas lights, the bar is where I prefer to sit while enjoying the many culinary delights offered in tapas form alongside a robust Spanish red wine.
Q: Do you have advice for tourists?
A: Park the car and walk the city. While it’s big enough to hold pockets of diverse neighborhoods, you can easily cover all of downtown in an afternoon, going from the Italian Market in South Philly to the Art Museum. For a good meal save the Pat’s and Geno’s madness for late night where it belongs and check out what else we have to offer.
Q: Anything not to do or say?
A: Leave your Yankees gear at home.
Q: If people have only one day in Philly what should they do?
A: Start off at the Mutter Museum and discover the genetic oddities in jars, walk through the Italian Market sipping on an espresso, stop for lunch at Paesano’s (a small gourmet sandwich joint by the same owners as Modo Mio). If it’s Monday through Friday, duck into the Devil’s Den for happy hour; if Saturday or Sunday head over to Northern Liberties to the Piazza [the Piazza at Schmidt's, a large Italian-style open piazza surrounded by restaurants and galleries and frequently featuring live music and other events, especially during the summer]. Peruse the farmers’ market, and, if you’re hungry, dip into Bar Ferdinand for a few tapas. If you like good live music, end your night with us at Time… If you make a few industry friends ask them to take you to the Pen and Pencil, after which you can stumble into a cab headed for Pat’s. Then, and only then, may you have a Philly cheesesteak. From Pat’s.