It’s roughly 11:30 p.m. on a Friday, and the neon squares that line the rear end of the Dolphin Tavern are throbbing and pulsating around an empty dance floor. The first DJ act of the evening – the tag-team of Brooklynite JDH and native Philadelphian Dave P. – is nearing the end of its set, and there has yet to be a single soul at the South Philadelphia bar to wander within 12 feet of their elevated booth at the very rear of the establishment.
Granted, the clientele that surround the bar – a double-sided behemoth topped with cheap-looking, cream-colored granite that takes up half the room – are beginning to run out of space, packing together against the front edge of the dance floor like bubbles in a well-shaken soda can.
“Well, the go-go dancers don’t usually start until 12,” Kevin Campbell, a bearded patron from Kennett Square, Pa., said, taking a swig of some sort of brown liquor from a clear plastic cup. “But I think we’re going to get up soon and get out there.”
Campbell is here with a group of three other patrons, each casually dressed and seated around a brown wooden table.
“It’s just a great dive where you can actually dance,” Campbell said. “It’s my second time here. We really dig The Twelves, the band playing later tonight.”
Minutes later, one of Campbell’s friends – a denim-shirted man with flowing blonde locks – drags a woman out under the disco ball and the floor bubbles over.
A staple on the corner of Broad and Tasker Streets since the 1950s, the tavern stood for the better part of six decades as a grimy institution where South Philadelphia’s most calloused drunkards could throw back shots of rye surrounded by semi-nude go-go dancers and inexpensive wooden paneling.
Teetering on the brink of foreclosure in 2012, a management team led by R5 Productions founder and Union Transfer owner Sean Agnew purchased the bar, renovating the place in time for a reopening a year ago on March 20, 2013.
Agnew’s team added a state-of-the-art DJ booth and dance floor, as well as an updated list of custom cocktails courtesy of local distillery Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. From there, the group leveraged the booking power of R5 Productions to bring in DJ sets from acts like Animal Collective, Neon Indian and Seth Troxler in an attempt to appeal to a younger set of patrons.
General Manager K. “Murph” Murphy, has made cocktails behind the bar since the tavern’s reopening and has witnessed the clientele’s demographic shift firsthand.
“In the year that I’ve been here, not a week has gone by where someone hasn’t walked in and said to me, ‘I used to come here 20 years ago!’ and proceed to tell me some wacky story about what an insane dive it used to be,” Murphy said. “It’s sort of charming, really.”
For traveling DJs like JDH – known legally as Josh Houtkin – the Dolphin is a sanctuary where Philadelphians can dance without coating themselves in glitter beforehand.
“I really like the spot,” Houtkin, 37, said. “It’ a great alternative to a gigantic club where you have to pay $20 to get in and you’re in crowds the whole time. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of that.”
Houtkin, a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident, has been a DJ for more than 20 years, and runs the FIXED dance party – a touring series of DJ events based in New York City for the last nine years – with friend and Philadelphia native Dave P. His Feb. 28 appearance opening for Brazilian act The Twelves marked his second appearance at The Dolphin.
“It’s exactly the right size,” Houtkin said. “You walk in and it feels like a totally normal dive bar at first. Then you cross a few feet and you’re in an old-school disco. The people are great, because Philly crowds are typically pretty unpretentious and just want to dance all night.”
Houtkin said his only issue with the tavern is that the parties don’t extend long enough into the night.
“The only bad thing is that the place closes at [2 a.m.], which is sort of early,” he added. “But it’s pretty much full-on until that point.”
For now, it’s half past midnight and the pulsating throng of dancers blocks Houtkin’s view to the bar.
Jerry Iannelli can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jerryiannelli.