Dim light bathes the room—it’s hard to tell whether the wood is dark and varnished, or simply catching a shadow. Glasses filled with liquor are exchanged between patrons and bartenders, accompanied by the soft murmur of conversation. It could almost be a medieval pub, with customers nursing their beers and crests displayed on every available surface, emblazoned with the words, “Leges sine moribus vanae.”
Or maybe it’s not a medieval pub at all. Perhaps it’s a 1950’s joint. The faces of hundreds of smiling football players with cleft chins and greased hair, cheerleaders with jaunty ponytails and modest skirts, all looking down at the customers with their grins frozen in grainy photographs. Plush booths fit comfortably beside walls, which bear the scars of carvings: graduation dates, initials encompassed by hearts, names shaped by angles so sharp they almost call hieroglyphics to mind.
But then again, maybe that’s just the mystique of Smokes’. Smokey Joe’s, fondly dubbed Smokes’ by adoring students, has served as Penn’s beloved bar for over 80 years.
And while Smokes’ is cherished by Penn students, at first glance, it’s hard to determine what differentiates it from any other university bar. College towns across the country boast their own pubs, each one flowing with students and liquor, and draped with university colors and slogans. But Smokes’ is different because it exists as a magnet, attracting students from every circle of Penn’s social sphere. It is an inclusive hub for everyone at a school where exclusivity reigns.
The bar was founded in 1933 as a waffle shop during Prohibition. In 1952, Philly native Paul Ryan purchased Smokes’. Says Paul Ryan, the current owner and son of Paul Ryan (fear not, there’s only one more Paul Ryan in the mix after these two), “My grandfather, who was also in the bar business, thought he was crazy. He said, ‘college students, they don’t drink!’ But my father, I think he liked the young crowd. He saw the potential. So he bought it in ’52. And he was young at the time, I think only 27 or 28. And then it moved to 38th and Walnut in 1961” (from its original location on 36th). The bar eventually found its permanent home on 40th street in 1978, and is currently operated by Ryan and his brother Patrick.
Ryan is as familiar with Smokes’ history as he is with its many patrons, both former and current. Before I have time to turn on my recorder, Ryan asks about my journalistic ambitions, and tells me about a former waitress that went on to have a successful career as a reporter. He’s a smiling, friendly man, clad in a navy cardigan and clutching a water cup. He offers me a seat in a booth, a glass of water and a firm handshake. He gets up twice to turn down the music, conscious that the throbbing '60s beats might disrupt the recording. Paul Ryan is Mister Rogers, if perhaps the friendly neighborhood educator decided to instead obtain a liquor license.
A small photograph of a figure surrounded by shrubs grabs Ryan’s attention. “See that one? His name’s Kyle. He’s a comedian in LA… he put that up. He put that up himself. In fact, I’m just noticing that… I didn’t put that up!” He chuckles appreciatively. “Kyle Wassell. He worked for me.”
Ryan is well–versed in the lives of his former customers (his forehead wrinkles with familiarity when I mention that my sister used to frequent Smokes’ when she was an undergrad). His familiarity serves as a testament to Smokes’ existence as the great equalizer at Penn: regardless of social circle, anyone can enter and enjoy themselves—and Ryan will remember them all.
However, Ryan’s affection extends far beyond just those framed on a wall. He swirls the ice in his cup, smiling thoughtfully. He says, “I tell people, ‘this is a neighborhood bar, where the neighborhood is from all over the world, all races, all creeds, from different parts of the country, number one, and from the whole world, number two. And every four years, the neighborhood changes.’ So there’s some nights that I’m standing over here at the bar, talking to somebody from Mumbai, and somebody from Paris is here, and then London, and there’s LA, and New York, and Montana, Texas, Puerto Rico. It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun. You get a lot of different perspectives.”
I can’t hear Sara–Paige Silvestro (C ‘16) over the mechanical roar of an espresso machine at Metropolitan Bakery. Silvestro has been a Smokes’ regular since turning 21, and considers it one of her main social outlets.
She leans in confidentially, waiting for the froth to sputter out so she can continue.
“Last semester I was writing a thesis, so [I would only go to Smokes’] two or three nights a week. But I’ll definitely go for Kweder, which is Tuesdays,” she explains, absentmindedly picking at a bagel. “Then Thursdays and Saturdays, and most likely Fridays, and just throw Wednesdays in there if I’m out.”
She explains, “Socially, [going] is the easiest way to see the most of your friends. [More] will be at Smokes’ than anywhere else, so if I want to just go and hang out, I’m going to have people there.”
Going to a downtown is both a financial and time investment, and the clubs attract a niche group of Penn students. Fraternity parties are limited to brothers and the few allowed in at the door. But Smokes’ provides the unique opportunity to transcend any social boundaries Penn has constructed. It allows every student, from every social walk, to sit down, share a pitcher of beer and enjoy conversation.
The espresso machine gurgles, almost drowning out Silvestro’s throaty explanation. “I definitely know a lot of people there, and it’s also good for keeping friendships with people that you don’t have class with, or don’t get to see much, you know, they’re just at Smokes’… I can stop, we catch up. So it’s helped me maintain friendships.”
Allie Cohen (C '16) wears a pair glasses so reminiscent of the '50s that she could have easily stepped out of a photograph on the wall of Smokes’ and slid into a seat across from me, where we share an Enjay’s pizza (the pizza served in–house at Smokes’).
She pushes the frames back as she explains Smokes’ s allure to Penn students, noting that, “Even along the walls, you’re so reminded of its history with Penn and Penn students...that sentiment gets communicated throughout the student body, and therefore Smokes' is way more than just a place to get a drink.”
As Executive Vice President of Class Board, Cohen often utilizes Smokes’ inclusive nature and large space as a gathering for class–wide events. Feb Club, a schedule of special events for seniors every day of February, completes its run with a senior class gathering at Smokes’ every year. Class Board also looked to Smokes’ when throwing its annual Junior class reunion night at the start of spring semester. For the University, Smokes’ is open, available, and welcoming to all students.
As Cohen puts it, “That’s why a group like Class Board chooses a place like Smokes’ to hold these events that are trying to bring classes together...for a lot of people, when they look back on their college experience, Smokes’ will be such a college staple…[there is] ultimately the sentiment of, ‘this is where I went to see my friends, this is where I went to meet new people, this is where I went and felt like I belonged to Penn’s student body.’”
Greg Louis (C ‘16) sits with his legs slightly splayed out, unable to entirely fit his 6’7” frame underneath a Capogiro table. Based off his height alone, it’s easy to see why Louis was hired as a bouncer earlier this fall.
He’s calm, measured, reasonable: everything a bouncer should be. Louis is well aware that Smokes’ is something unique to Penn students, noting that, “It’s very simple: I think...Smoke’s gives people a place where they can be comfortable.”
This comfort, Louis hypothesizes, is a large reason behind Smokes’ longevity. “I think Smokes’ has lasted, and will continue to last, because they’re reliable,” Louis begins, breaking apart a cookie as he explains. “It has an identity as a college bar, and that’s exactly what it is, from top to bottom.”
Some students lounge on bar stools, excitedly talking to their friends. They gesture excitedly while they speak, their drinks slosh out and speckle the bar, the table, the ground. Others find the small, dark corners of Smoke’s—insulated nooks in which they can immerse themselves in conversation. Still others make their way to the dance floor, twirling and chatting, too engaged to notice that the tight grip on their beer has warmed it past the chilled serving temperature.
Perhaps you chat with Louis as he wiggles your ID to ensure its authenticity. Or you find yourself talking with the football team, the debate team, the fraternity brothers. A Smokes' experience is personalized, tailored, a wild medley of everyone and everything you’ve seen at Penn. As Silvestro explains, “[Smoke’s] is homey. It’s not a trendy bar, it’s not a dive bar...it’s a Pennstitution. It belongs to Penn.”
Orly Greenberg is a sophomore in the College studying English and Cinema Studies. She is a Features Editor of Street.