Before 74-year-old Lou Capozzoli became the owner of Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar, he was sitting at the bar eating cornflakes and milk.
“I was about 4 years old,” Capozzoli said. “I remember waking up and I was afraid because I was by myself on the third floor. I ran down and my mother was minding the bar.”
Living a few floors above Ray’s as a child, Capozzoli said he was born and raised at the bar. He made himself comfortable by hoisting himself onto the bar to eat his breakfast – the same spot where customers used to, and still do, pull up their stools and drink.
Capozzoli’s father, Anthony “Ray” Capozzoli, bought the South Philadelphia establishment in 1938 and when Ray was drafted into the army in World War II, his wife Rose ran the bar.
It was formerly known solely as “Ray’s,” but when Capozzoli took over after his father’s passing in 1997, he decided to add the “Happy Birthday” tag in his honor.
“When his father used to greet people, instead of saying ‘Hello,’ he’d say, ‘Hey! Happy birthday!” said Tony Coccerino, longtime friend of Lou Capozzoli and a full-time bartender since 1994.
To Ray Capozzoli, any day could be a customer’s birthday and birthdays are still celebrated almost every day at the bar. It is up the street from two of Philadelphia’s most well-known tourist attractions, Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks.
Now, decades later, instead of Lou Capozzoli sitting on the bar to eat breakfast, newcomers and tourists sometimes come in and sit back with a cheesesteak. But like any beloved dive bar, it has its regulars.
“The area has become more and more gentrified,” said Jeffrey Tull, a South Philadelphia local and a patron at Ray’s since Ray Capozzoli was alive. “You’ll see the gelato place and the place that sells handcrafted single-malt scotch from the isle of wherever. It’s nice that there are still places like this, because this is a part of what neighborhood character is about. If there weren’t places like this, South Philly would be a strip mall.”
Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar houses a crowd for comedy nights, open mic nights and karaoke with DJ Lars.
Or even at the crack of dawn, considering the bar opens at 7 a.m., Monday through Saturday, almost making Sunday’s opening time of 9 a.m. sound like happy hour.
“One time it was 7:30 a.m., I had 25 people – it was a birthday party,” Capozzoli said. “I thought my neighbors were going to kill me.”
Capozzoli and Coccerino said the early birds are usually local nurses that are unwinding after an all-night shift, when a Monday morning may feel more like a Friday night.
Tull said he remembers how packed the place was several years ago on New Year’s Day while performers in the Mummers Parade crowded in right as the doors opened at 7 a.m.
But regardless of the hour, those celebrating their special day at Ray’s get a free birthday cake-flavored shot with a candle attached, their photograph taken in a birthday hat and a shout-out posted on a sign outside of the bar.
Once a birthday is known at Ray’s, Coccerino will transfer it to the new calendar each passing year. Coccerino said he writes all birthdays on the calendar, whether it’s a regular’s or first-timer’s special day.
But for the regulars, the bar is like home.
“You can smoke, you can have a few laughs,” Tull said. “You come in and it’s like a South Philly ‘Cheers’ in a kind of dive-y environment.”
Of course, with the establishment’s smoking permit in mind, the place has the pungent smell of cigarettes. The “Cheers” reference is inevitable, as some friendships within the establishment span decades. Capozzoli and Coccerino have been friends since they were 7 years old, when Coccerino lived half of a block away from Ray’s on Passyunk Avenue and the two would play stickball.
Through it all, Capozzoli said he no longer has any qualms over the “dive bar” title. His wife is quick to mention that it recently was mentioned on the “12 Dives You Must Visit Before You Die” list on BuzzFeed.
“I used to be so ashamed when people would say it’s a dive bar – to me, it was an insult,” Capozzoli said. “Now it’s such a compliment.”
Kerri Ann Raimo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.