"We’ve got ‘cheap’ and we’ve got ‘smoking.’ That’s why people come here," said the owner of McGlinchey's Bar in Center City Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Friendly Lounge has seen a lot of history across its three-quarters of a century at 8th and Washington, but not much change.

The wood-paneled walls are covered in photos of Joe DiMaggio and Louis Prima, and there’s a nude pinup by the extremely analog register. Besides a corner-mounted flatscreen, one of the few recent additions is the ‘Smoking Permitted’ sign.

It’s been hanging there since 2008, when Philadelphia enacted a citywide ban on indoor smoking.

Owner Dominick DiTullio remembers immediately applying for an exemption when the ban came down. It wasn’t so much for his customers as his chain-smoking brother, who frequently tended bar at the family-owned spot. “I knew if I didn’t get the waiver,” he said, “we’d get fined left and right.”

The smoking exemption his establishment enjoys has attracted and repelled customers in equal measure over the years, he said, with new regulars joining the scene after other bars went smoke-free during the pandemic.

Inside Ray’s Happy Birthday bar in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Now in his sixties, DiTullio himself quit smoking at 36. He’s never considered prohibiting smoking, not even after a double bypass he blames on “bad genes” rather than his position behind the bar, which he casually likens to “working in a coal mine.”

“It’s been this tradition, we’ve been doing it since ’54,” DiTullio said. “Why change?”

The answer may lie in the shrinking size of the smoking population nationwide. With cigarette sales on the decline — the number of adult smokers in the U.S. hit a new all-time low last year — and Philadelphia laws now prohibiting the issuing or transfer of exemptions against the ban, smoking bars are facing a hazy future in the largest U.S. city that still allows them.

The downward trend was news to DiTullio, who shrugged. “At one time, a smoke-filled room was ambiance,” he said. “Now, it’s a health hazard.”

Like Friendly Lounge, McGlinchey’s has been in business since the 50’s, well before Henry Sokol bought it in 1968. The Center City dive has carved out a unique reputation and a loyal following. When it brought back smoking after a misunderstanding with the city, it was news (as it was when the bar finally threw out the bathroom’s decades-old hand towel.)

Ask current owner Sheldon Sokol, Henry’s son, why regulars keep returning to McGlinchey’s and he’ll likely count off on two fingers.

“We’ve got ‘cheap’ and we’ve got ‘smoking,’” the 74-year-old said. “That’s why people come here.” 

‘People were so incredibly upset’ 

In Philadelphia, the smoking rate has historically remained higher than the national average, sometimes significantly so: 2008’s rate of 27% put the city seven points above the rest of the country.

Since that peak, there have been signs of Philly joining national efforts to kick the habit. By 2015, the smoking rate had dropped to 22% vs. a national average of 17% — still enough to make it the highest for a large U.S. city. Today, that dubious honor has been lost to Detroit. A 2020 estimate from the Philadelphia Department of Health placed the smoking rate between 18% and 19%.

The decline comes after several city-led initiatives to curb tobacco consumption. Launched in 2010, the Get Healthy Philly initiative provided free nicotine patches and cessation counseling alongside a lengthy mass media campaign. Two years later, the Philadelphia Housing Authority rolled out its first smoke-free housing units, and also began offering cessation classes for public housing residents as well as its own employees.

Equally instrumental was the city’s Clean Indoor Air Worker Protection Law, passed in 2006 and put into effect in 2008, which effectively banned indoor smoking in Philadelphia bars and restaurants. 

Drinking establishments that could prove over 90% of revenue came from alcohol sales could apply for an exemption, and were given 90 days to do so.

Dirty Franks in Center City Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Jody Sweitzer recalled feeling “ecstatic” when the owners of Dirty Franks, the smoky Center City dive where she had been bartending for years, decided not to pursue an exemption. She also remembered her relief not being widely shared. 

“People were so incredibly upset,” Sweitzer said of the regulars’ response at the time.

There was an immediate slump in business, she said. Some regulars “went to McGlinchey’s and never came back.” Some of those who stayed complained at the “second-class citizen” indignity of being forced to step outside for a smoke.

While she understood the frustration, Sweitzer said, “if you ever had to suffer a health issue because of it, you have a different view.” She became asthmatic working behind the bar, and her doctor at the time repeatedly suggested she find another job.

But she didn’t — “I needed to pay my bills” — instead toughing it out long enough to become one of Dirty Franks current owners. Today, she tries to accommodate smokers by allowing them to puff away at outdoor tables, set up during the pandemic.

“Not everybody is a considerate smoker,” said Kristie Pagliaro Noel, who has been bartending for years at Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar and recoiled at the memory of customers carelessly blowing smoke in her face as she served them. 

She was extremely relieved when Ray’s snuffed out indoor smoking shortly after the pandemic, despite any effect on clientele.

“Smoking was a big attractor,” Pagliaro, who kicked the habit 14 years ago, said of the South Philly tavern known for its rowdy Friday night karaoke sessions and free birthday shots. “But I’m happy we stopped here.”

South Philly dive Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar, long known as a smokers’ haven, went smoke-free during the pandemic — and isn’t going back. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Though the bar lost some customers in the transition, she believes it would have been worse were it not for regulars’ respect for owner Lou Capozzoli, whose COPD was ultimately the reason Ray’s decided to put an end to lighting up indoors

“I think it’s better, to be honest,” said Ray’s regular Mike Ford, who estimated he’s been smoking for at least 20 years. He’s tried to quit, but “life and work are preventing that.”

Ford said he steps outside to smoke at home and doesn’t mind doing the same at Ray’s, likening the outdoor huddles to a “smoker’s club kind of thing.” An added bonus: “Now if I go out on a Friday or Saturday, I can wear the same t-shirt two days in a row.”

‘You’re not gonna see any more bars like this come up’

Mike Sullivan’s family bought the Candy Cane, a smoking bar on 6th and Oregon Ave, sometime in the 1960’s, remodeling the space and renaming it Fireside Tavern after the newly added fire pit.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes over the years,” said Sullivan, including an increasing stigma toward smokers. It’s why he installed an improved ventilation system a few years ago; an effort to appease a broader clientele while retaining his regulars, largely members of operating engineers union Local 542, which Sullivan’s family has been a part of for five generations and who are now working on restoring the recently collapsed portion of I-95.

Should most of his customers suddenly get vocal about it, Sullivan, now in his fifties, said he would prohibit smoking. But he doesn’t see that happening. Nor does he see sense in not allowing establishments like his to accommodate smokers.

“Sure, the smoking community is dwindling,” Sullivan reasoned. “But in our type of establishment, where you got working-class, blue-collar people, they still smoke. So why take that away?”

Nationally, Philadelphia is one of 10 major cities where indoor smoking is still permitted in any capacity, and the largest in population. 

Ray’s Happy Birthday bar in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

With the 90-day window for exemptions after the Clean Indoor Air Act long sealed shut, no new venues will be joining the ranks, confirmed Health Department spokesperson Jim Garrow. “It is now not possible for a new restaurant or bar that is not a private club to operate while permitting smoking indoors,” Garrow said. “No more waivers being granted.”

Current smoking exemptions are not transferable to new proprietors, even within the same family. Which means Philly’s smoking bars are essentially being left to run out the clock.

“I think this,” Sullivan said, standing outside Fireside and nodding towards the entrance where Local 542 members slowly streamed in for a meeting, “is going to be the end of it.”

At Grumpy’s Tavern on 9th and Cross streets, owner Joe DeSimone agreed cigarette-smoking bars might soon “be a thing of the past.”

Like Sullivan, he’s taken steps to attract non-smokers by setting up shaded outdoor seating. “You lose customers, but you gain some,” Desimone explained.

Forcing customers to step outside to light up comes with problems too, he said, exposing a bar’s neighbors to smoke and crowding the sidewalks. “Even a simple conversation sounds loud at night.” He would know. DeSimone lives right above Grumpy’s, which he bought in 2002. It had previously been Pinto’s, a neighborhood bar that had opened in 1934.

“It just seems like the way everything is turning,” he sighed from his spot at one of Grumpy’s Pennsylvania Skill machines. “You’re not gonna see any more bars like this come up.”

Dirty Frank’s Jody Sweitzer is less nostalgic. “I miss none of it,” she said, before quickly reversing herself.

“One of our bartenders, crazy as a loon, at the end of the night would wipe down the bar, wring it into an ashtray, and he’d drink it. I think it was called a Jersey Turnpike,” Sweitzer recalled. “Stupid crap like that, I miss.”

McGlinchey’s in Center City Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Smoker’s delight

What bars in Philadelphia still allow patrons to smoke inside? We’re not condoning the practice, but if you’re looking, here are a few options. 

Friendly Lounge

There’s a lot of lore attached to this sleepy corner spot, where time seems to lose all meaning and conversations span the length of the laminated bar. Dimly lit, heavily wood-paneled, and soundtracked by the low hum of local news and doses of jazz and classic rock from the CD-spinning jukebox, this 8th and Washington spot is a warm, smoky comfort blanket for a certain type of bar-goer. With limited options on tap, it’s more a testament to the vibe (and the changing times) that Esquire named Friendly’s one of 2007’s best bars in America.

1039 S. 8th St. | 11 to 2 a.m. everyday

Fireside Tavern

Like Cheers if the cast was mostly members of Local 542. Beer options may be limited here — it’s currently PBR, Stella, and Stacy’s Mom on tap — but nobody’s coming to Fireside for the craft brews. It’s the deep communal atmosphere and attentive bartenders that give this spot its character, and of course the roaring fire pit. The sparse space comes especially alive for the holidays: stop by during Christmas when you can “toast s’mores and flick your ashes into the flames,” per owner Mike Sullivan.

2701 S. Marshall St. | 7 to 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday, 9 to 2 a.m. Sunday

Grumpy’s Tavern

Hesitancy is understandable with a name like Grumpy’s and a clientele of mostly neighborhood residents, but the vibes are warm and the beers — PBR, Yards Pale Ale, Yuengling, Miller Lite, and Victory’s Brotherly Love on tap — are ice cold. Touchtunes sets the mood here: top plays include Todd Rundgren, Aerosmith, and plenty of country. It’s also a major spot for pool players, just don’t disrespect the table.

1525 S. 9th St. | 10 to 2 a.m. everyday

Paddy’s Pub

No rat sticks in sight here — this Old City spot is (disappointingly) nowhere near as dingy as its TV portrayal, but the staff is thankfully far friendlier and highly competent. Paddy’s offers six drafts on tap and a wide selection of bottled beers. Expect groups of tourists seeking out “Always Sunny” t-shirts during the day, replaced by neighborhood regulars at night.

228 Race St. | 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. everyday 

McGlinchey’s Bar

The granddaddy of Philly smoking bars, it’s easy to list the reasons this Center City dive has become iconic over the years, from its eclectic cast of regulars and penny-precise pricing structure, to its duck-hunting-in-the-apocalypse mural and stained-glass parallelogram windows, unchanged since the 60s except for that one broken panel. Smokey and bring-a-book serene during the weekdays, Friday nights bring a younger, rowdier crowd as well as the bar’s weekly “beer of the world” (mostly the U.S.). Upstairs sister venue Tops is also smoking-friendly and a good place to shoot some pool when the tables are free.

259 S. 15th St. | 10:30 to 2 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 12 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday

The Dive Bar

Citywide special is the order of the day (and night) in this East Passyunk spot, where it feels like there’s always a party going on somewhere in the heavily-graffitied, three-story building. The staff is pleasantly laidback and beer options are abundant. Spend a late night munching on microwavable snacks in front of whatever’s playing on Syfy, or head upstairs to shoot some pool. It may look like a frat house but The Dive Bar feels as cozy as your grandparents’ living room.

947 E. Passyunk Ave. | 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. everyday | Smoking not permitted on the first floor.

Ali Mohsen is Billy Penn's food and drink reporter.