Firefighters assess the damage to the Bar(n) at 4901 Catharine St. in West Philadelphia. (Chris White/The Bar(n))

Staff members at the Bar(n) in West Philly have organized a GoFundMe following a fire that has put the popular dive bar out of business for the foreseeable future. 

The fire broke out in the wee hours of Sept. 25, following a busy Sunday night that saw the bar close at 12:30 a.m., much earlier than usual. Patrons had pretty much dispersed after the last football game ended, general manager Chris White said, and with expectations for an even busier Monday game night, “it was great to get out of there kind of early.”

Sometime between 2:30 and 3 a.m., White received a call from a neighborhood resident informing him of a fire. He rushed back to 49th and Catherine to find the two-story building in flames.

Bar(n) proprietor Noel Karasanyi showed up shortly after, he told Billy Penn, arriving on scene just before 3 a.m after being alerted by a different neighbor.

“My first instinct was, are the fire people going to be able to save the place?” said Karasanyi, 77. He described the building and the business it housed as “almost like a child to me,” explaining that he’s owned it since 1981.

The fire was put out in 30 minutes, with no injuries reported. The building’s second floor apartment space had not too long ago been converted into storage and a kitchen extension for the Bar(n), and was unoccupied at the time of the incident. 

Damage throughout the property, however, was extensive.

A review of security footage by the team and shared with Billy Penn has since led Karasanyi and White to believe the fire was caused by the combustion of either a wi-fi router or a phone tower connected to the same power strip.

Records from the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections show a history of safety violations connected to the address, including one as recently as Sept. 21, a few days before the fire broke out.

Karasanyi believes “it’s just a coincidence. Those violations have nothing to do with the fire at all.”

An L&I official, he said, showed up to the Bar(n) on Sept. 21 to survey the bar’s outdoor seating after a complaint from a neighborhood resident, and then proceeded to investigate the rest of the building. Karasanyi said the issues pointed out during the inspection — a faulty extension cord on the second floor, an obstructive cluster of empty kegs — were addressed and fixed on the spot.

“The fire,” Karasanyi insisted, “started from one of those gadgets,” plugged into a power supply on the first floor. He said the claim has since been corroborated by the city’s fire inspectors.

Fire damage at the Bar(n) in West Philadelphia was extensive. (Chris White/Bar(n))

The complaint against outdoor seating isn’t the first time Karasanyi found himself at odds with the neighborhood. As owner of West Philly’s Watusi and, previously, Watusi II lounge, as well as the Bar(n)’s previous incarnation, Third World Bar, Karasanyi has a track record of violations, ordinance complaints, and lawsuits attached to his previous establishments. He brushed them off as misunderstandings, or baseless accusations.

“People can make allegations,” he said, adding that the longevity of his establishments proves “I must have been doing something right.”

The blow of watching The Bar(n) burn hit extra hard, he said, given he considers the bar “the best thing I’ve ever done.” He believes it’s a temporary loss that’ll be felt by the immediate community as well, citing the neighborhood residents he said he saw helping put out the flames. 

Others, Karasanyi said, have since reached out to share their grief at losing a go-to spot. “It’s going to be a while before they can come and enjoy the atmosphere.” Some patrons posted about the situation on social media, lamenting the loss and pushing for support for the staff.

Karasanyi said the renovation process started this past Monday, beginning with clearing out the space. He estimates that’ll take the better part of three weeks before moving on to the remodeling phase, but doesn’t see the bar reopening until late this year or early 2024. He’s unsure of the projected cost, guessing somewhere between $200k-$300k, and is working with a claims adjuster to review the damage. “It’s a big place and it’s going to take a while to put everything together,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s employed a few of the Bar(n)’s staff to help with the clearout as a way of offering work.

The Bar(n) counted 14 employees at the time of the incident, including White, who’d been there for six years, moving up from dishwasher to GM. Businesses with connections to the bar, like nearby Eri-Ethiopian restaurant and bar Dahlak, or Cantina dos Segundos, whose current manager used to work with White, have “supported us tremendously,” the general manager said, offering jobs to some of his staffers, although he’s “not sure if everyone took those jobs.”

The GoFundMe page and its $10,000 goal were set up by White to ensure “all my employees and everybody that worked at the Bar(n) and everything like that are well off,” until the bar can reopen, White explained. In the weeks since the fire, he’s been busying himself coaching basketball to help “keep the troubled youth out of trouble,” and picking up occasional bartending work when available. 

“We’re good people. We just need a little help right now,” he said. “Whatever helps, helps.” As of this writing, the page had raised nearly $5,000.

Opening in 2015, the Bar(n) quickly developed a reputation as a reliably no-frills neighborhood bar, inclusive to all and a hangout for those seeking cheap citywides or a game of pool. Dubbed the city’s best dive bar in 2018 by Philly Mag, it had, in White’s words, a real “Cheers feeling.”

“I’d slide beers down the bar and know everybody’s name, and everybody knows everybody’s name,” White said. He hopes that despite post-fire renovations, that vibe will survive.

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