On the corner of 16th and Spruce is a bar. The neon sign in the front window reads “Monk’s Café and Beer Emporium,” and casts a glow on a dusty row of esoteric beer bottles. I hesitantly walked inside, blinking in the unfamiliar darkness fogged by cigarette smoke. Jammed at the bar was a bike messenger whose stuffed bag poked a conservatively-dressed business woman. She was cheek-to-jowl with a scruffy hipster in deadly snug jeans. They were all studying the multi-page “Beer Bible,” making the difficult choices between Belgian, British or domestic craft brews.
All around me was a cacophony of voices, silverware clanking, waiters stacking plates and a happy din of people enjoying themselves. Moving sleekly behind the bar with an order sheet, despite his generous size, was the proprietor of this establishment, Tom Peters. It was his love of Belgian beer that led to the founding of Monk’s 13 years ago. Since then, Monk’s has come to host a great variety of serious, almost religious, beer lovers.
Hops-and-malt people came in a wide variety. The obvious suburbanites toting baby carriers mingled with the aggressive city folk. Cadres of tattooed-artist types huddled over a round table, and I wondered if there was a Hemingway or Hendrix among them. I tried to blend in, listening to the musical Irish lilt of the barmaid, wondering if they imported all the Belgian paraphernalia from Europe. Tables are a hot commodity, and it is common to wait two hours to sit at a plank wooden table on a hard church pew. Hot, twice-fried pommes frites arrived in baskets with a sidecar of addictive garlic bourbon mayonnaise.
There must be something more than perfect frites and rare beers that brings so many diverse people here. A weird alchemy of commerce, hunger and love draws us. Maybe it’s just a bar to others, a place to grab lunch or dinner. The sheer difficulty of Monk’s weeds out many city tourists. It’s small and you always have to wait for a dinner table. It’s smoky and loud and the hostesses do not smile as tremendously as they do in the suburbs. There’s little parking on the street.
However, you don’t become a destination by being convenient. I chatted with a man who left Philadelphia to take a job in the Carolinas. He drove all the way to Monk’s because he craved real beer, which apparently does not exist in South Carolina. When his blonde, “buttery Chardonnay”-sipping girlfriend demanded to leave, he quietly stated, ” I-drove-five-hours-to-have-a-beer-here-and-we-are-NOT-LEAVING.” She marched to the bathroom in a huff while we laughed. Some people just don’t get it. How could a little café and beer emporium inspire such devotion, even to the point of interfering in relationships?
Maybe we don’t want a Disneyland attraction with dinner or instant food. Maybe we want instead to sit at a crowded bar, elbow to elbow with folks we don’t know and might not ever meet otherwise. It could be a silly, vain thing to love a bar. It’s not Cheers. Not everybody knows my name, and I like that. I am just one of many who come for a little solace, darkness and strange alchemy.
Felicia D’Ambrosio can be contacted at Caspian@temple.edu.