by Len Lear
I can remember the days when a bare-bones neighborhood bar was a place where they did not have much in the way of food except for hot dogs, burgers, sandwiches and fries — and sometimes you were afraid to eat those because you might see some multi-legged creatures crawling around who wanted to share your meal but without paying anything for it.
In recent years, however, there has been an explosion in the city of gastropubs — bars that also serve darned good, sophisticated food from experienced, talented executive chefs you would expect to find in upscale eateries on Walnut Street’s Restaurant Row. Just a few gastropubs that are really kicking butt are Smokin’ Betty’s on Washington Square West; Swift Half Pub and Abbaye in Northern Liberties; Memphis Taproom in Port Richmond; Sidecar and Pub & Kitchen in the Graduate Hospital area; and Devil’s Den, Royal Tavern and Ugly American in South Philly.
The latest addition to this pantheon of pub protagonists is Khyber Pass Pub, 56 S. 2nd St., which opened on Nov. 18. This will no doubt sound strange to frequenters of Old City who have seen the name Khyber Pass Pub before. In fact, the building has been a bar since the 1850s. It was even open as a speakeasy during Prohibition. It was named Khyber Pass Pub in the early ‘70s under the baton of Serrill Headley, who owned it until 1987. Headley had been married to a Pakistani diplomat and moved with him to Pakistan. She hated living in Pakistan, though, and according to the current co-owner, Stephen Simons, “She eventually left her husband and escaped across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. She named the bar after a moment of freedom.”
Simons’ brother, David, re-opened Khyber in 1988. “I worked here, managing the bar and booking bands, until 1991,” said Stephen, “and the person who took over my job was Dave Frank, who is now my business partner. We bought Khyber Pass Pub in 1997 and christened it The Khyber. Dave Frank and I also own Cantina Dos Segundos, Royal Tavern and Cantina Los Caballitos.”
There was live music at Khyber since the 1970s, and for the last two decades it was a rock ‘n’ roll bar, but earlier this year the owners pulled the plug on the music. “There are a lot of reasons why we stopped having music,” explained Simons. “Probably the largest factor was the changing nature of Old City. Punk rock and indie rock clubs often fall victim to gentrification.” Another likely reason was the influx to Old City of “Jersey Shore” types, butt-grabbers with flashy jewelry, squeeze-tight outfits with ultra-short skirts and impossibly high heels who are interested in something other than funky music.
The owners closed The Khyber for a short renovation and reopened it last month with more emphasis on good vittles and a huge selection of microbrews. They added eight more taps and two beer engines (handpumps); they expanded and revamped the bottled beer list and added a bunch of bourbons as well.
There is a spectacular old bar in one room and a no-frills dining room in the other with a clever road sign chalkboard beer list, tin ceiling, hardwood floors and tables, beer signs on the wall and long church pew-like benches against the walls. Calling the dining room unpretentious would be an understatement. The new kitchen at Khyber Pass Pub features regional Southern favorites like fried chicken, po-boys, gumbos, briskets and pork butts smoked for 12-14 hours, as well as burgers, fries, wings, chili and other American bar foo
Vegans and vegetarians also have options such as grilled vegan sausage sandwiches, fried green tomatoes and vegan barbecued pulled pork. Salads are $6 to $10; appetizers are mostly $3 to $7; sandwiches $10 to $11; side dishes $3 or $4 and entrees $14 to $18. The chef is Mark McKinney, who previously impressed us big-time at Vesuvio and Cantina Dos Segundos in South Philly.
We absolutely loved the rich, spicy, meaty gumbo, homemade cole slaw, barbecued pork ribs with three sauces (the Kansas City-style sauce was drool-worthy), macaroni and cheese and the chicken wings sampler, also with three sauces. The spicy foods in particular go down easy with a Franziskaner ($5.50), a German beer similar in flavor to Blue Moon, and the Yards Stout ($5), a more muscular, full-bodied, dark brew. During Happy Hour (4-6 p.m.), you can get a pitcher of beer for just $10.
To show how classy Khyber Pass Pub has become, our server, a delightful lass named Diana Zackey, is a graduate of Yale University who is planning to go to medical school. For more information, call 215-238-5888 or visit www.khyberpasspub.com