Stewards of Tradition Keep the Holiday Spirit Alive at Philly's Oldest Tavern

Just steps from the hustle of Midtown Village is Drury Street — home to McGillin's Olde Ale House, Philadelphia's oldest continuously operating tavern, and the family charged with keeping its history alive.

For general manager Chris Mullins, Jr., a third-generation owner, family and tradition keep the holiday spirits high.

"Hanging up the holiday decorations is just the icing on the cake," said Mullins. "For us it's all about the people and the family tradition. We compliment that also with our winter drinks, the holiday drinks ... and a lot of our food specials as well."

Throughout the holidays, McGillin's offers a special menu of festive favorites for loyal customers and first-timers alike. This year includes an egg nog martini; a poinsettia, which is champagne, cranberry juice and Cointreau; cider; and the Drury sleigh ride, an adult hot chocolate beverage.

Getting into the spirit

Decorating the triple-wide property requires 1,000 ft. of garland, 1,000 ft. of lights, 200 ornaments and 150 red bows. It takes more than a dozen employees two days to decorate both floors and the exterior.

"People want nostalgia," said Mullins, Jr. "And they want to feel cozy."

"So many places now — you open, and it's cold or it's not too cool to hang up a lot of Christmas lights, but we're not cool, you know? We're fun. We want to be where people go to have a nice time, renew family traditions. And that's a lot of our Christmas business. Families come in year after year after year."

And while the decorations this time of year are by far their most elaborate, the spirit continues all year long.

"We celebrate any holiday that comes up," said Chris Mullins, Sr. "We decorate for Presidents' Day, Martin Luther King Day — they have a patriotic theme. Then we go into Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Valentine's Day ... then of course we go into St. Patrick's Day. Then there's Cinco de Mayo and Octoberfest. So whatever it is, we try to celebrate."

"It keeps our staff and customers excited," he said.

Family values, a recipe for success

"We're a family business," said Mullins, Jr. "That has defined McGillin's since 1860, and it's really important to us to keep that going. It's what makes us unique."

Mullins, Jr., says his family has an approach that keeps the employees happy and the customers loyal.

"I'm here 38 years," said Cass Gaffney, McGillin's longest-working employee. "I started with [Chris Sr.'s] father-in-law. I seen a lot of changes. And I seen a lot of pubs and bars open and closing around here, but McGillian's stays strong."

Chris Mullins, Sr., who purchased McGillin's from his wife's father and uncle in 1993 has some theories about why that is.

"We're always true to who we are," he said. "In other words, this place is 'McGillin's Olde Ale House,' so this is about beer. We sell a lot of beer here, and that's our No. 1 focus in terms of product.

"The other thing that keeps it going so well is we're hands on. My wife and I are here. My son's here. We make sure that every customer is satisfied.

"And three: We own the real estate. So we know we're not working for a landlord. We're working for ourselves. At the end of the day, this business will continue operating."

If these walls could talk

There's nothing quite like the nostalgia at McGillin's. And as the stewards of the property's history, the Mullins family keeps the story alive.

"Pretty much anything that anyone knows of McGillin's, in terms of the visuals and architecture, is from 1909," explained Mullins, Jr.

The tables are communal, as they've always been, and the walls are covered with photos and articles dating back over a century.

"You never know who you'll sit next to, and you never know what kind of friends you'll make," he said.

The original sign is in place above the bar. And tucked up in the rafters are the original liquor licenses dating back to 1860.

Originally called The Bell in Hand, the tavern opened 153 years ago in what was a small rowhome. Over time, the McGillin family acquired the properties on the adjoining sides — delineated by the columns still seen on the first floor — and in 1909 expanded into its current space.

In 1958 the McGillin family sold the property and the business to the grandfather of Mullins, Jr., leaving their legacy to a new lineage.

"Of the next generation, the eldest is five," said Mullins, Jr., "so, we haven't yet tested his knowledge of beers." But the family tradition is sure to continue, he says.

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