Les & Doreen’s Happy Tap: Bar mixes old and new Fishtown

Doreen Thompson bought the century-old Fishtown corner bar in 1986.

Doreen Thompson (center), the owner of Les and Doreen’s Happy Tap on Susquehanna Avenue near Thompson Street in Fishtown, laughs with a customer at the bar. This year’s bar guide, on pages B1 through B4, is about how Philadelphia bars are finding ways to mix their old and new clientele. | SYDNEY SCHAEFER / THE TEMPLE NEWS

With her distinguishable Northeast Philadelphia accent, Doreen Thompson reminds her customers of Fishtown’s blue-collar roots.

Thompson, 57, is the owner of Les and Doreen’s Happy Tap on Susquehanna Avenue near Thompson Street in Fishtown. She started working there at 13 years old when her mother was a barmaid and lived two minutes away from the bar.

On March 4, she’ll have owned the bar for 32 years.

“I just love it here,” Thompson said. “I just always wanted to be here. I never wanted to be anywhere else.”

She still lives in walking distance of the bar today. Thompson estimates the bar has been open for at least a century.

Despite changes in ownership and a neighborhood under rapid development, Thompson maintains the old-school feel that attracts both new and longtime Fishtown residents to the bar. It still has a coin-operated cigarette machine and a jukebox.

Thompson said while she grew up in the neighborhood, many people would hang out at Happy Tap.

“Back then…there was a bar on every corner just about, that have now been replaced by houses or bigger apartments,” Thompson said.

Thompson even met her late husband Les, who was a Happy Tap regular, while she was working there in the late 1970s. A couple years after they married, the two bought the bar from former owners John and Mary Brandau.

It felt natural for the couple to take ownership of the corner bar. Thompson has kept the bar a family-run business by employing her two older sisters and niece.

About 10 years ago, Happy Tap introduced a new draft system and popular local beers like Kenzinger and Walt Wit, a Belgian-style white ale, from the Philadelphia Brewing Company.

“Newer people ask for that, so I try to get whatever I can for everybody,” Thompson said.

But she still makes sure to carry old Philly classics like Schmidt’s.

In addition to the drink options, Thompson said her cheesesteaks are popular among visitors.

“If they don’t like the ones from South Philly, with the big thick meat, ours are finely chopped,” Thompson said. “So they [sometimes] like those better.”

Weekly events at the bar include bingo on Wednesdays and karaoke on Saturdays. But because it’s a neighborhood spot, the bar holds parties and anniversary celebrations regularly. A few years ago, Thompson said a couple who had met at the bar held their reception at Happy Tap.

With St. Patrick’s Day coming up, Thompson, who is Irish, and her 82-year-old mother will cook a ham, cabbage and potato platter to celebrate the holiday, which will be free for customers to eat in the bar. To-go platters will cost $5.

Thompson said the bar has attracted a diverse group of people in recent years. But when she first started working there, she said the bar was an early morning destination for people working overnight shifts, like nurses or gas and electric workers, because of the bar’s early 7 a.m. opening time.

“Twenty years ago, you’d come in and it would be mostly men just getting done work from truck driving. … Now, it’s just all kinds of people from different walks of life from everywhere,” Thompson said.

With the neighborhood’s changing demographics, Thompson said she welcomes “the new people.”

Marg Maines has been bartending at Happy Tap since 1983. She refers to people who recently moved to Fishtown as “newbies.”

She said they’re often surprised by the cheap drink prices, like $3 for their domestic pints.

“When they come in, they do know that the prices aren’t like every other place,” Maines said. “When I first came here, a seven-ounce bottle of beer was 35 cents. And now they come in and go, ‘Are you kidding? That’s all it is?’”

Thompson isn’t concerned about competition from nearby and more recently established destinations like the SugarHouse Casino or Frankford Hall. She thinks Happy Tap brings a more homey experience, as well as cheaper drinks.

“It’s been here a long time and everybody knows it from the neighborhood,” Thompson added. “Even if they aren’t from the neighborhood, once they get here, I think they feel it. They feel at home and comfortable.”

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