12 Steps Down finds own place by Italian Market

This bar is famous for its wide selection of bottled beers and den-like atmosphere.

12 Steps Down is found in South Philly by the Italian Market.| Charles Frenette TTN
12 Steps Down is found in South Philly by the Italian Market.| Charles Frenette TTN

The “12 steps” of 12 Steps Down in South Philadelphia includes two important rules: The bartender is always right, and if the bartender is wrong, see No. 1. 

Labels peeled off of beer bottles line the ceiling and the upper interior of the oval-shaped bar.

Mismatched green stools crowd around the copper bar, which stands at the center of the room, as it has since the bar’s origin 11 years ago. A skeleton wearing a Santa hat leans next to a retro jukebox in a corner that glows neon through the smoky air.

Naked, golden light bulbs hang from the ceiling, casting a filtered glow over the room, and the music changes from ‘80s hip-hip to contemporary alternative music, finally landing on the theme song from “Wayne’s World” which plays on the television near the bar’s entrance.

The interior, like 12 Steps Down’s themed events, is varied but fits the role this bar holds, as well as the people it draws in.

Behind the bar are rows of liquor, but draft and bottled beers seem to be the popular choice, with more than 50 choices categorized into groups like blondes, Belgians and Dogfish Head’s Pumpkin Ale. Dan King, a bartender, said a beer from Bell’s Brewery Inc. is the most popular.

The name of the bar comes from the 12 steps that lead to the basement bar, but Jonathan Conaway, bartender at 12 Steps Down for the past two years, said there is also a little “tongue-in-cheek humor” at play, regarding Alchoholics Anonymous’ 12 Step Program.

The themed nights offer activities for the varied ages of patrons who frequent the bar.

Monday nights feature free pool and the occasional “Motown Monday,” while Tuesday karaoke draws in the youngest crowd, bringing people from all over the city. Wednesday attracts the “Quizzo” crowd, people skilled in trivia for gift cards and other prizes.

On Thursdays, visitors can treat themselves to $2 tacos, made by cook James Gaffield, who has worked at 12 Steps Down for two years.

The bar hosts “Walking Dead” viewing parties on Sunday nights since the show’s return on Feb. 9, which typically draws a large crowd.

“It’s usually fans of the show and some of the people in the neighborhood that don’t have cable,” Conaway said. “It’s a fun night.”

“At some point, there was pizza made here,” Gaffield said, mentioning the old-school setup in the kitchen. “There’s still an oven back there, but we couldn’t get it out.”

The kitchen opens at 4 p.m. with rotating food specials, using ingredients from the nearby Italian Market, America’s oldest and largest outdoor market.

“Every once in a while for an event or something we will roast a whole pig,” Gaffield said.

A standout for 12 Steps Down is its “Liquid Brunch,” referring to the $3 mimosas and Bloody Marys served from the bar’s opening at 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and happy hours Monday through Friday from 5-7 p.m., featuring half-priced drafts.

Both play in 12 Steps Down’s self-titled house band, with Conaway on bass and Gaffield on guitar. The band played a second time for an audience on Feb. 28 after it considered the first performance a success.

The bar fits in with the surrounding neighborhood, which has several family-owned businesses that hold true to their roots.

“I try and buy as much as possible from the market upstairs,” Gaffield said, motioning to the street-level store that shares the same address.

Other businesses on the block include Isgro Pastries, Anthony’s Chocolate House, Michael Anastasio Produce Inc. and Grassia’s Italian Market Spice Company.

Conaway and Gaffield said while they both come from outside of Philadelphia and have lived in many other places, they consider this area of the city their home.

“South Philly really has the neighborhood niche,” Conaway said. “Sometimes when I leave, I think, ‘Wait, there are other people outside of here?’”

Paige Gross can be reached at paige.gross1@temple.edu.

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