Is the Citywide Special one drink or two? A Billy Penn investigation

There’s an argument that Philly’s shot-and-beer combo should be its own unit of measurement.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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At Bob and Barbara’s, the progenitor of Philly’s infamous and glorious shot-and-beer combo, it’s just “The Special.” At other local dive bars, you say “gimme a Citywide” — or use its full legal title, “The Citywide Special.”

But put the name issue aside.

And lay to rest your quibbles over which bar has the best deal.

And don’t get started on which of the many shot-beer pairings constitutes the one true version.

These are the timeless, provincial disputes of Philadelphia’s budget-drinking masses. But there’s a lesser-known argument about the combo that’s quietly raged across barstools for years, with no resolution in sight.

Is a Citywide Special one drink…or two?

A shot of cheap bourbon and a can of cheap beer, sold separately, would constitute “two” separate drinks, but as a discount package, the Special has divided bartenders and bar rats alike. The argument runs as much semantics as it does science — and best practices for servers trying to do right by their regulars.

“Everyone knows that it’s one drink,” said Allison Steele, a former food chronicler at the Philadelphia Inquirer and recovering Specialhead. “What are we, doctors?”

Medical professionals will tell you, of course, that it is two drinks. The 4.6% ABV alcohol can of Pabst Blue Ribbon is the first; the 1.5-oz. shot of whiskey is another. Federal dietary guidelines define moderate alcohol consumption as one drink a day for women and two for men. So if you’re going by the U.S. government, one Special is pretty much the limit.

But in Philly, even a doctor couldn’t dispute that the cheap drink combo has taken on a unique status. The Special has become its own unit of measurement, separate containers for the disparate styles of booze be damned.

‘I’d like to have two alcohols, please’

Bob Dix, a 16-year veteran bartender at Bob and Barbara’s, said the birthplace of the Special has always considered it one drink — in spirit.

“Specials are a good measurement,” Dix said.

Dix makes an argument that, combined, the Special really amounts to no more than a strong cocktail — which you’d never hear somebody consider “two drinks.” He says the PBR isn’t “a very high octane beer,” and that the shot that comes with the Bob and Barbara’s Special is typically a little smaller than most standalone pours.

The “special” at Dirty Franks (a lean 7-oz. beer plus a kamikaze shot for $2.50) is also considered one drink, confirmed bar owner Jody Sweitzer.

RAMP certification courses that bartenders take generally instruct them to watch for a number of different intoxication signs — and most people don’t count things in the medical units of alcohol.

“We don’t have people saying ‘I’d like to have two alcohols, please'” Dix said. “We go by how many drinks, but also how much alcohol is being consumed.”

Other bartenders noted that the Special sometimes gets classified as a single drink because that’s how it’s rung up.

That’s the case at classic Center City hideaway Locust Rendezvous.

Michele Recupido, the general manager there, stands firmly in camp one when it comes to the bar’s $7 pairing. She said it’s more than an issue of tallying the Coors Banquet and bourbon or rye shot — which their system rings as a single charge. It’s a culture thing.

“To us a ‘citywide’ is one drink,” she wrote in an email. “And that’s how we do it at the VOUS.”

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Max Marin / Billy Penn

Semantics of the shot-beer combo

Many of the debates you might overhear in the “one drink or two” debate break down to simple linguistic arguments.

See the following text exchange between this reporter and a dear friend who tends bar at one of the city’s fair saloons:

Reporter: I’m doing the Citywide article I keep telling you I’m going to do

Bartender: Ok. It’s 2 drinks

Reporter: My sources disagree with you

Bartender: [Mutual friend who drinks too many specials] is not a source

Reporter: How many drinks is a Bloody Mary

Bartender: One. But it’s a double

Reporter: How many drinks is a double

Bartender: One. Well no, it’s a double.

In some places, the traditional boilermaker — basically the genus in which the Special family resides — is consumed by mixing the shot with the beer. That’d be no different than a cocktail or a mixed drink.

At the same time, bartenders feel some compulsion to remind their patrons of the actual amount of alcohol they are consuming. In Philly, that’s statistically likely to be a lot. The Pew Charitable Trusts found the city ranked eighth highest in the nation for binge drinking, which medical professionals define as five or more drinks on one occasion — or two and a half Specials, for anyone counting.

As the Inquirer noted last year, during an unrelated legal saga around Pabst Blue Ribbon, bartenders occasionally hear customers pull the “three drinks” card after downing their third round of Citywides.

Do bar professional have a duty to correct the record — to say, “No, it’s six drinks”?

A Special is a Special is a Special

Drew Lazor, a freelance food and drink writer and inveterate beer-and-shot drinker, said he has pondered this great Philly mystery often over the years, and arrived firmly in the “one drink” camp.

Consider the pants, he argues.

“Yes, pants have two legs, so I get why they’re conversationally referred to as a ‘pair,’ but you can’t wear just one leg out and about (unless you’re Rita Ora),” Lazor wrote in an email. “It’s a package deal.”

Illogical? Yes, he admits. A loophole to avoid assessing his actual alcohol consumption? Yes number two.

Some Citywide Specialists privately admit the singular conception helps mitigate shame around drinking habits. But Lazor and others said they can’t help but feel the argument (and its professed contradictions) are a proud cultural quirk of a bibulous city.

In his travels, Lazor has come upon bars in other cities that have picked up the Special in a bizarre display of Philly exociticism. The lure even carries overseas to London, where he profiled that Philly-themed dive bar Passyunk Avenue last year. The Special there will set you back £6 — and it’s popular, he reported.

“The Brits were enamored with it too, I think because drinking there is done in rounds, and the prospect of downing two drinks in one round is just so novel,” Lazor said.

In Philly, realists who can’t stomach the “one drink” argument have another option: call it by the unit of measurement that it is.

Someone asks: How many did you throw back last night?

Just one Citywide. Just one Special.

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