During Center City Sips, the area around 13th and Sansom streets is bustling. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

It’s Sips season, bro! But also, Canadian wildfire season, and last week brought another round of unexpected apocalyptic haze — right at the time Billy Penn has scheduled a field investigation into Center City’s summerlong happy hour.

Nonetheless, we set out as a team — reporters Jordan Levy, Asha Prihar, Meir Rinde, and this writer, development manager Jess deRivera, deputy editor Heather Chin, director Danya Henninger, and intern Deesarine Ballayan — to find out what goes on during the happy hour promotion that draws bar-goers every Wednesday of the season.

There was some debate on destination; the options are numerous. There are over 70 venues participating in this year’s Sips. Several are clustered around 13th and Sansom, where we decided to head.

First stop, Drury Beer Garden, where the team squeezed past the DJ by the entrance and pushed through a packed bar, into an even more crowded back patio, and out the back exit, where we agreed on finding somewhere else to go.

Drury Beer Garden’s sidewalk promo for Center City Sips (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Center City Sips, it turns out, is not so much for people who don’t like crowds. And why would it be?

Sponsored by Center City District as a way to generate revenue for bars and restaurants during the traditionally low summer seasons, the promotion — now in its 18th year —  has recently been attempting to compensate for the hit the pandemic brought to the neighborhood’s establishments by appealing to as many types of patrons as possible, even waving the usual $300 participation fee for venues. 

The result is a wide range of happy hour options, from pubs and beer gardens, to cocktail lounges and sushi bars, making Sips all about finding the right type of crowd for you.

So the search continued for our team, all the way across the street and into Bru Craft & Wurst where the music felt less concussive and the crowd a more manageable size, just tipping into standing-room-only with our arrival.

First round of selections from the Sips special menu ($5 beers, $7 cocktails): pilsners for Jordan, Jess, and Asha, Love City IPAs for Meir, Deesarine and Danya, a pineapple ginger ale for Heather and a Hofbrau fur mich

Center City Sips at Bru Craft & Wurst (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Conversation turned to what one might expect from a team of intrepid reporters out on the town: the best ways to slice a sausage sandwich eight ways (there are none), personal drink preferences, spotify vs. tidal vs. wait-is-tidal-still-a-thing, and whether or not Sips was busier last year.

“It was definitely busier last year,” confirmed server Ivana B., still sour over a recent 88-cent tip on a $140 bill (seriously, folks?).

So far there’s been a larger turnout of younger college kids compared to the previous year, Ivana told Billy Penn, but she still sees a fair number of older Center City office employees coming in for a drink after work. Although happy hour runs from 5 to 7, it’s later in the evening when people start to get “really hammered.” For the most part, though, the crowd is laid back and tips decently.

“If it was really bad, I wouldn’t be here,” she said, and brought us another round of drinks.

A poetry reading? A poetry reading

What had been learned by this stage? Drury Beer Garden might be the place to go if your desire from Sips is to obliterate any notion of a work week, which to be clear, is completely acceptable. 

For groups seeking somewhere to converse, or anyone wanting to sling back a few quick after-work drinks, Bru might be a better option with its more spacious layout, ample bar seating, and slightly lower decibel level. Outside of beers and cocktails, Sips specials also include bar snacks. 

(L to R) BP deputy editor Heather Chin, intern Deesarine Ballayan, and reporter Jordan Levy at Bru for Center City Sips. (Meir Rinde/Billy Penn)

The fries at Bru were pretty good, their crispness holding up throughout our conversation. The cheese curds were what you’d expect, albeit mostly congealed into larger lumps. The sausage sandwich looked fine but probably not meant for sharing. The beers were cold, and the service was friendly. Deesarine did not much enjoy her spicy paloma, or her Love City IPA, but that’s no one’s fault. 

Where to next, then? We wandered back along Sansom Street, seeking our next destination from the many Sips participants. Some bars had hosts out on the sidewalk, calling out to passersby they thought would make good patrons. We didn’t get invited in.

During Center City Sips, the area around 13th and Sansom streets is bustling. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Then Fergie’s Pub caught our eye — conveniently across the street but inconveniently not on the list of venues participating in Sips. We ducked inside. The first-floor space was cool, calm, and completely detached from any of the surrounding shenanigans, despite being fully occupied. To find a table, we marched up to the second floor.

There was still no Sips on the second floor, but there was stronger air conditioning, a large open table, and what appeared to be a poetry reading about to take place. Would it be Sips related?

It would not. Instead, Adrian “Justthepen” Toombs Bautista gave a rousing recital, weaving familial struggles, declarations of love, and personal pain with the city’s broader history in a stirring, sobering performance that easily overshadowed any thoughts of Sips, or the drink in hand at the moment. Checking notes, it was a Yards Philly Standard. 

Poetry reading at Fergie’s Pub (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Stumbling out into the Code Red sunset, we agreed our Sips investigation had come to its very non-Sips end, and that it was time to hand it over to our food and drink reporter to figure out what to make of it all.

So, what was learned? Jordan is, happily, a fellow Peanuts fan. Meir’s new beard was given unanimous approval. Fergie’s does poetry readings on Wednesdays. And surprise poetry readings don’t have to be a bad thing.

Walking back to the office, the question was raised of whether or not we succeeded in our goal.

True, we had only visited one venue on our planned multi-stop trip before straying completely off course and calling it a day. But drinks had been had, snacks shared, hazardous air quality braved together, and at the end of it, we all left knowing a little more about each other, and the city. After all, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the sips you have along the way.

Center City Sips runs through August 30. Fergie’s poetry readings are every Wednesday at 7, and streamed live on Zoom.

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