There will be no more Center City Sips in the plaza outside the Comcast Center this year.
The al fresco bar, which is an extension of the Chops steakhouse in the ground floor of the tower, had become one of the most popular spots for the Wednesday night happy hour, drawing crowds of more than 1,000 people each week.
But it was also the location of the July 26 bar fight involving multiple patrons that was captured on video and went viral.
Chops has not participated in the promotion since that melee. In fact, the outdoor bar has been closed entirely each subsequent Wednesday. Proprietor Alex Plotkin isn’t sure if it will be open this week or not — but he definitely won’t be offering Sips specials.
“We have ended our Sips season for 2017 and hope to do it next year,” Plotkin told Billy Penn.
That’s not by choice. Ceasing participation until further notice was a directive handed down by Liberty Property Trust, which is landlord for the restaurant and the rest of the building. The goal of the temporary injunction, per LPT Senior Vice President John Gattuso, is to restore an environment that’s welcoming to all kinds of people, from the after-work crowd to families to visitors from out of town.
“We want to make sure that the original intent of the dining area on the plaza is maintained,” Gattuso said. “There’s nothing wrong with happy hour or incentivized specials for people to come enjoy food and drink,” he added, “but we wanted to move away from something that has more of a ‘fraternity’ feel to it.”
According to Gattuso, the brawl caught on camera was the last straw. Throughout the summer, LPT had noticed not only larger and larger crowds at Sips — for which they engaged additional Wednesday night security guards — but also younger people in them.
“We had expressed some concerns for several weeks in advance,” Gattuso said. “Given the size of the crowd and the age of the crowd, it was time for us to reassert the focus on after-hours dining.”
That Sips attracts lots of underage people has become a citywide joke.
But the Center City District and the Pa. Liquor Control Board are taking it seriously.
“The CCD has retained additional police to patrol on Wednesday evenings through the balance of the month,” said CCD Vice President of Marketing and Communications Michelle Shannon in an emailed statement. “The PA LCB has also deployed additional personnel to address any underage drinking.”
Some venues are better at checking IDs than others. “When one [underage] person gets served, then they text all their friends and it’s a swarm,” a Chops bartender explained, asking to remain anonymous. “When we were closed last week, you should have seen the line at Uptown. It wrapped all the way around the corner across the street.”
Uptown Beer Garden, which has an entrance across the street from the Comcast plaza (though the address lists it as a block away), has a very strict 21+ policy, said proprietor Teddy Sourias, who also runs Bru, U-Bahn and Cinder. His security guards turn away five or six people on a normal Sips night, he said. But the week after the fight, when Chops was closed, they denied entry because of fake IDs to many more people than usual, to the tune of several dozen.
“The LCB checked on us, did a surprise visit, and we were 100 percent fine,” Sourias said. “Thing is, you can’t let in more people and think you’re gonna make more money. It just doesn’t work that way. That’s how fights happen.”
After this Sips season ends on Aug. 30, the Center City District plans to meet with participants in September “to discuss a course of action for next year.”
Potential changes to the promotion have not yet been revealed. A Center City bartender and a proprietor indicated to Billy Penn they’d heard rumors the CCD might institute a cover charge for Sips attendees, but the District did not confirm (or deny) that idea.
Sourias was skeptical about whether a cover charge would have any effect, anyway. “I think they should raise the prices by $1, that would keep away the people we don’t want to come in,” he said, referring to people who load up on cheap drinks and then have the potential to become sloppy or violent.
Gattuso said Liberty Property Trust is interested in changes to the promotion that would encourage people to eat more. “I think a rebalancing so it moves to embrace good food along with happy hour [is what’s needed],” he said.
He indicated great respect for the Center City District’s success in helping revitalize downtown and making it attractive — especially to “that millennial workforce, the best and brightest, who are going to fuel successful companies for the next 10 or 20 years. We’re open to collaboratively working with our tenants and also the CCD and other vendors to make [Sips] even more successful in a way that’s supportive.”
Gattuso added that he believes Chops to be one of the premier steakhouses in the city: “Part of the development team for the new tower is from Europe, and they rave about the food and steaks there. And the service is exquisite.”
Plotkin also hopes the promotion returns to his restaurant in 2018. “We were doing great,” he said. “Sips was a tremendous success. We’re looking forward to doing it next year.”