[Photo from Philadelphia Weekly]
Of the many charms of Philadelphia, and believe me, such things do exist, are the kinds of standards for ordering drinks at the bar. In most bars, simply ordering “lager” will result in a pint, sometimes a bottle, of Yuengling. (My rule of thumb is that if asking for lager returns a quizzical stare, you’ll end up over-paying for that beer.) Ordering a “special”, sometimes called the city-wide special, will yield a can of beer and a shot of whiskey for three bucks.
The special is a Philly institution most commonly found within the most bike messenger-chic bars in town. Purists, and yes, there are purists for this sort of thing, maintain that the special is a Pabst Blue Ribbon paired a shot of Jim Beam. Schlitz and National Bohemian, among other blue-collar pilsners, are common replacements, as well as the Beam being swapped for any other bourbon, sometimes a rotgut-y, nameless whiskey. Brands might change, but the idea stays the same.
A 2010 Philadelphia Weekly article traced the origins of the special to South Street’s Bob and Barbara’s and the Tritone across the street. Since it’s inception, the special has spread North, South, and West throughout the city, hence “city-wide”, and with that materialized variations on the theme. For example, Cantina Los Caballos, a Mexican bar and restaurant in South Philly, purportedly serves a shot of tequila and a can of Tecate.
If you find an appeal in vaguely-dingy bars, more often than not, you’ll be able to edge up to the bar and get yourself a special, a decent way to start or end a night out. But for bars that at all pride themselves on their craft beer selection, it’s definitely not the time nor place.