Penn is a campus with some pretty old traditions, many of which extend to where we go to drink. Some of our favorite recurring shit–shows, like Hey Day, have been around for a hot second, while Smokes’—they call themselves “the Pennstitution” for a reason—prides itself on having served “of–age” Quakers for over 80 years now. But there are a few institutions—like Chipotle and Theos—ubiquitous to our Penn experience that are 21st–century innovations. Copa falls into the latter category.
The Copabanana that we know and love was founded in 2004 by Brian Phillips and Mitch Whitaker, after they bought what was formerly a cheesesteak joint called Billy Bob’s. As Nicole, Copa’s manager who has worked there for six years, tells me, the beloved margaritas haven’t changed since the beginning. It’s no secret that Penn stu- dents and Copa have a pretty tight, symbiotic relationship. Nicole says “at least 50%” of Copa’s customer base is Penn students, especially on Wednesdays for half–priced burgers and on Mondays for $5 Mexican entrees. They also have a Penn graduate student, Dr. Srimix, who DJs on Thursdays. Student groups also throw parties in the basement, sometimes with an open bar. While in the summertime things do get a little slower, that hasn’t been happening as much in recent years, as more and more Penn kids are sticking around on campus to take classes or work in Philly. Copa has tried to cater to the audience by adding more craft beers to the menu, although Nicole notes that most students are just into “whatever’s the cheapest.”
Some students have an even better relationship with Copa than most. Nicole told me that the restaurant always has a great relationship with the students who live upstairs. While it’s usually a different student group every year, one particular group made a lasting impression. The restaurant ran a “Jameson Pickleback Challenge” a few years ago, which dared patrons to take 100 Jameson Pickleback shots. The group from the upstairs apartment took the challenge together and got their names on a plaque, and every summer, they come back to take a picture with it. Hopefully the restaurant will run the pro- motion again for all the kids who don’t want to dedicate their entire senior February to getting their name on a Smokes’ plaque.
Penn students’ enthusiastic support of local businesses can sometimes attract a little too much attention. On April 19th, 2012, Copa was raided and 30 minors were cited for underage drinking and/or possession of false identification. This is par for the course for a bar in University City, however: as Nicole says, “most or all of the bars in this neighborhood have been raided at least once.” The Blarney Stone was similarly hit with the RICO back in 2013.
As a result, the restaurant now sometimes asks students to sign a waiver confirming their age. “It’s just a waiver where if the person at the door or the server thinks that it’s real, but they have a little bit of an inkling of [doubt],” Nicole explains. “We do it every once in a while if it’s iffy.”
Usually, it doesn’t come to that. “Obviously there are a lot of ones that you can pick out [as fake] right away,” Nicole says with a laugh. “Our door guys are really good with IDs and stuff. Although I know college kids these days are much better with [realistic–looking fake IDs] than they were in the past.” Ain't that the truth. As for what ID is most common? “I’ve heard through the grapevine that Illinois is the new big one that people are getting.” (Ed. note: Slow down on that group order, tight–knit Riepe hall.)
Whether you’re sipping on the best marg in University City, wolfing down a half–price burger, SABSing al fresco in the outside seats or perhaps all three, most Penn students can instantly conjure up an image of themselves enjoying their time at Copa. How blurry that memory is will depend on their activity of choice, but it goes without saying that Copa is as "Penn" as it gets.