Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood is now buzzing with new businesses and residents. It's even been compared to Brooklyn. But a decade ago, when a bar opened at the corner of Frankford and Girard Avenues, it wasn't the same. This month the watering hole is celebrating 10 years of business -- and changes to the neighborhood.
It all started with William Reed, his business partner Paul Kimport, and a risk. Tha pair did what others did not: They opened a bar at the corner of Frankford and Girard avenues.
"Northern Liberties was accepted as sort of a trendy, cool spot, but Fishtown was definitely not on peoples' maps as far as businesses go," said Reed recently, sitting in a booth at Johnny Brenda's, the bar in question, with a beer in hand
Not to take too much credit, but "we do think Johnny Brenda's did sort of kick off some revitalization," Reed says.
Since then, the bar and restaurant has become more than a neighborhood anchor. It's credited with helping Fishtown become the popular spot it is today with a flurry of new businesses and residents. There are still empty storefronts, but Reed says not as many.
"The guys down at Barcade they came to Johnny Brenda's years ago and were like: 'This really reminds us of our neighborhood in Brooklyn. I think we're going to do a bar down here.'"
"The changing face of Fishtown"
A decade ago Reed and Kimport had just finished renovating their other place, The Standard Tap, a Northern Liberties bar and restaurant. They worried that, with that work behind them, they'd grow bored. Reed says they knew a lot of people who'd bought homes in Fishtown -- lured by good deals -- after first looking in Mt. Airy and South Philly. He says he and Kimport thought it was funny that so many new people were moving to Fishtown and buying houses, "yet all the bars are pretty much the same as they'd been for 30, 40 years. There wasn't a bar that we thought really represented the changing face of Fishtown."
The pair decided to be part of that change. And they wanted their bar to serve something more than the Budweisers and Millers of the world. They made a commitment to serve local food and beer, but Reed says, "we didn't want to, like, turn it into the yuppie bar of Fishtown."
To keep it authentic, they kept the pool table and the name.
"Johnny Brenda's, itself -- it's been the name of the bar since 1967," said Reed. It's named for boxer John Imbrenda, whose ringside name was Johnny Brenda. "We loved the bar. It sort of had that old VFW feel."
A treasure no longer hidden
On a recent afternoon Lisa Saunders sat eating french fries in a booth at the popular bar. She now lives in Columbus, Ohio, but still owns a house nearby. Saunders says she misses this bar and is amazed by how the neighborhood has changed. She said, "I remember, when we first moved, in you could park anytime of the day, weekends, and now there's so much going on here."
Of course all that growth can cause longtime residents to grumble, especially when they have to circle, around and around, to find a parking space.
Sous-chef Ben Dickey says the bar relishes being a neighborhood catalyst.
"It's grown, there's more business here," Dickey said. "There's more people living here, and property values, I imagine, are going up. People have seen the success that Johnny Brenda's has had and wanted to emulate it."
The space is pretty big now, and large windows open out to let in the busy sounds from Girard Avenue. Over the years Reed and Kimport have expanded the place and added a music venue upstairs, but they've maintained their commitment to local food and beer. What was once the neighborhood's hidden treasure now draws many outsiders -- including Myrl Brut, who came in from Langhorne for a doctor's appointment in the city.
He says simply: "It's a good place to hang out, for sure. Good beer. Good food."
Co-owner William Reed says he's even seen apartments advertising their proximity to Johnny Brenda's as an amenity. He hopes this place shows the power a good bar can have in revitalizing a neighborhood.