For most of us, life is not like a sitcom. We don’t meet up with our friends every single day at Central Perk or MacLaren’s or Cheers, but we do have our spots that we prefer over all others. We may not go there all the time, but we feel most comfortable there. It is where we are in our element, where we invite everyone to join us. It is our home field, as it were.
Mine was Memphis Taproom.
So I was quite dismayed a few weeks ago when I read the news that it would be closing its doors for good.
Fifteen years is a long time.
It’s a bit jarring to think about how different life was back in April, 2008. My wife and I were only six years removed from college, not yet engaged and only halfway through graduate school. When I pushed open the door of Memphis Taproom and entered for the first time, I loved it immediately – the cozy, inviting dark wood of the bar in the front and the more open back room full of tables. It had been well worth the wait.
I don’t have any photos because smartphones had only just been created and we were still rocking our Motorola Razrs. Similarly, the complete transformation of that area of the city was in its infancy. Looking back, we never could have predicted that in the near future virtually everyone would be addicted to their phones and that the River Wards would become the hottest area of Philadelphia.
So many things changed, both in my life and in the city, over the ensuing decade-and-a-half, that certain areas were almost unrecognizable to me. I was not able to visit nearly as often as I would have liked, but there was always comfort in knowing, whenever I was in town, Memphis Taproom would always be there to welcome me back with open arms. When people have a connection with a bar, it’s not about the physical structure, of course, but the building itself is still an element. Its location, its ambiance, and its architectural character all play a part.
In the boom years immediately following World War II, my father grew up in the Kensington section of Philadelphia while my mother grew up in neighboring Port Richmond. Their families struggled, but survived. Ultimately, they found each other and, as a result of a lot of hard work and some luck, were able to move away to a better life surrounded by trees and grass as opposed to rowhomes and abandoned factories.
A half-century later, I would also call Port Richmond home. I lived there from 2004 – 2014, a period when I officially advanced into adulthood, experiencing some of life’s major milestones like marriage, parenthood, and home ownership.
It was also the period of time when we tried to visit as many bars and restaurants as possible in every corner of Philly. There were some truly amazing meals and incredible nights, but my favorite spot was always around the way. A full decade before neighboring Fishtown became, according to Forbes, “America’s hottest new neighborhood,” there was Memphis Taproom. Starting in 2008, it “brought the then-burgeoning gastropub experience” and “quickly became a destination in a popular swath of town that local wags had dubbed Port Fishington — a portmanteau of Port Richmond, Fishtown, and Kensington.”
I followed its development closely. I was excited to have a cool, unique space in the neighborhood. I was disappointed we couldn’t make it on the day it opened back in ’08, but we were there on day two – and many, many times after that, enjoying its fantastic beer selection and wonderful menu, which landed it a feature on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
It was my spot.
We were there when the beer garden opened in 2011 with a stellar selection of funky hot dogs and canned beers that weren’t available inside. There were multiple Friday afternoons where I’d get there before the crowd and snag my favorite table in the back corner, waiting for my people to join me.
I once became the mayor on FourSquare (remember that?) and was far too happy about it. I was on a first-name basis with the owners. When friends came to visit for the weekend, we would invariably hit up Memphis. Sometimes it would be our first stop before going elsewhere; other times we went there for last call before heading home; or we’d go the following day for brunch and a bloody mary while recounting the previous night.
In the two years between when my first child was born and we moved away, we took her there many times, first in a baby carrier, then a stroller, her bottles and sippy cups lined up next to my beers, the two of us drinking in synch.
After we moved, I received all sorts of recommendations for great beer bars in the area. I tried them. I liked some more than others, but all of them felt bland and typical. Even the best ones left me wanting for more. When I would express these thoughts, I would say things like, “It doesn’t have any character” or “There’s no charm.” I realized I was comparing these suburban bars to ones located in thriving neighborhoods within a major city, but that’s not entirely true. In reality, I was comparing them to one bar in particular.
Although I was only able to visit a handful of times in the years after we moved away in 2014, I still laid claim to Memphis Taproom. Friends would go there and tag me or send pictures. If it was mentioned on a website or in a news article, they would pass it along to me. So when the announcement came that it was closing, numerous people reached out to offer condolences like a beloved pet had been given a terminal diagnosis.
My wife pretty much pushed me out the door to go for one final visit. I have many regrets in my life and more than a few are because I didn’t go somewhere when I had the chance and later wished I had.
So I went.
I arrived shortly after noon and was hopeful I’d get a table. I was sorely mistaken. Album sales go through the roof when an artist dies and that trend apparently applies to gastropubs because it had been open for less than an hour that day and was already packed – two to three deep at the bar, the lunch crowd filling every table in the back.
I had to shimmy between people to get through. I couldn’t recall the last time I had seen it that crowded. I managed to stake out a spot against the wall across from the far end of the bar, just before the entrance to the back room.
The place always featured great Belgian beer and Orval was the unofficial beer of Memphis Taproom, so much so that there was a permanent chalk mural of the Trappist ale over the right-half of the bar. I had tasted my first Orval near that exact spot more than a decade before and had enjoyed many more over the years. When I was kissing my wife goodbye that morning, she said, “Have an Orval.”
So I did. For old times’ sake.
I had invited two friends to help me say farewell and they both came through. After a while, the couple seated at the final two stools on the left side of the bar asked us if we wanted their seats so we posted up in that corner for the next few hours.
For years, I had always coveted a Memphis Taproom glass, with the logo on one side and the zip code (19125) on the other, but they were never for sale, and while I may have lifted a thing or two from bars in my life, I would never swipe something from my favorite spot. It’s like stealing from your grandmother. So when I saw on Instagram that they had a very limited number available for sale, I asked for them before I even ordered a beer.
“We’re also selling crewneck sweatshirts,” one of the bartenders said.
“What about hoodies?” I asked. Both women behind the bar were wearing hoodies. I live in hoodies eight months a year (when I’m not in the office), so I’m always looking for more.
“They’re only for staff. Sorry.”
Immediately, my friend said, “Well, then do you have an application?”
I saw Julie, a bartender/waitress that had been there since the beginning, someone that had served me countless times and whom I associated with the bar as much as Orval. We hugged and spoke for a few minutes. She said, “It’s been mobbed since he made the announcement.” We then joked that the owners should have said it was closing a year or two ago to see how long it could have lasted and she mentioned how people had been stealing items to keep as mementos.
And so it went. We talked, we drank, we ate, we ventured outside to the beer garden to buy one of those sweatshirts. Through it all, I kept thinking of all the fun times I had enjoyed there.
It had been years since I had whiled away an afternoon inside a bar – the worries and stresses of life put on the shelf for a few hours.
That was especially true considering all that had transpired recently. In the past year, I lost the last true vestiges of my youth. That may seem odd coming from a man in his early 40s with a wife, two kids, and a mortgage, but it’s the truth. Over the course of ten months, I have experienced the loss of my mother, my favorite teacher, and my favorite bar. Those three aren’t comparable, of course, but they all represent portions of my prior lives – my childhood; college; and young adulthood – that now feel like sepia-soaked flashbacks that happened to someone else.
As it approached 4 pm, I knew it was time to leave. I could have stayed there until closing – the Eagles were playing at 8:15 that night and I had my stool, my friends wanted me to spend the night in the city – but it was time to go home. You never want to stay at a party too long, even a party that you pray will never end. Plus, the truth was that I was now an expat, coming for a visit from far away, no longer as a regular that claimed this space as my own.
As I was leaving, I turned back one more time to take it all in. I would miss it and I was sad it was closing, but it also represented the final paragraph in a long chapter of my life that had come to a close.
It was time to turn the page.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or drop him an email.