In 1860, Abraham Lincoln had just been elected president, South Carolina seceded from the union, and the Pony Express was in full operation. 1860 was also the year that two Irish immigrants moved their family of 15 to Philadelphia and opened a tavern, originally called Bell in Hand. Amazingly, this tavern, now named McGillin's Olde Ale House, has survived over a century, all while continuing to be a staple of the bar scene and part of the historical framework of Philadelphia.
The classic ale house is nestled in a small alley near City Hall—which wasn’t constructed until 41 years after McGillin’s first opened its doors. The well–maintained alley is a quiet escape from the hustle of Center City. The building has a brick exterior, with yellow window sills adding a wink of color. The bar screams Philadelphia, but there's a distinct Irish touch.
Walking inside is like walking into a history book. The walls are covered in pictures of the restaurant from practically every time period imaginable. A section of the wall even features every liquor license the spot has had since their first in 1871. Another famous element of its decor is its collection of assorted signs, mostly from other iconic Philadelphia stores and restaurants that McGillin's has outlived.
The current owner is Christopher Mullins Jr., who took over for his parents Mary Ellen and Christopher Mullins Sr. Mullins’ grandfather was a bartender at McGillin’s, and when the original family put it on the market, his grandfather bought it in 1958. Since then, the bar has stayed in the family.
Christopher Mullins Jr. grew up in the Irish pub business with another bar his parents owned, but didn’t go to McGillin’s much growing up—although he has fond memories of going to work with his grandparents when he was home sick from school. He didn’t grow up knowing he would eventually run the family business, but soon realized it was a perfect fit for him.
The family ownership is definitely one of the reasons for McGillin’s longevity. “I think we were pretty lucky that you know my own family were able to sustain their ownership for 99 years and our family's been able to find someone with the right fit that could manage it for the next generation,” Mullins mused.
However, Mullins doesn’t want to pressure the younger generation to take over if it’s not the right job for them, and understands the tradition may not last forever. Still, he’s hopeful.
Another strength of McGillin’s is its extremely central location. Mullins noted, “Our location does allow us a nice cross–section of business. So it's not like we're just a college bar or just a happy hour place or a spot for lunch. You get a little bit of everything.”
Mullins believes that McGillin’s is the place that Philadelphia goes to celebrate, which makes for many exciting experiences. He fondly recalls the night the Eagles won the Super Bowl, which is a personal highlight in his career owning the bar. He says that the place was packed, but when the team won everyone poured out into Broad Street, meaning that the staff got to close early to celebrate.
McGillin’s also prides itself on being the place where more people have met their husbands and wives than any other place in Philadelphia. In fact, the bar has a book showing hundreds of couples who’ve met there, and the couples often come back for anniversaries. While they like to say the reason for this is the beer, Mullins thinks that it’s probably the fact that McGillin’s is an unpretentious place that allows people to let loose and be themselves.
Although McGillin’s has been able to modernize and keep up with the times, the family is dedicated to preserving the history of the place. Mullins understands the immense responsibility he has, explaining, “This is an institution. And it's an important part of the fabric of Philadelphia but it's also a unique one. I can think of few restaurants and bars that are 50 years old, not to mention 159 years old.”
Mullins knows that while he technically owns McGillin's, the bar truly belongs to the community. “We never consider ourselves as like 'this is just our place.' We're kind of the stewards of a lineage of a long history here in Philadelphia.”