Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got an established bar in Philly that may make you reconsider your dinner plans.
NAME: The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company
LOCATION: Center City, Philadelphia
ON THE JUKEBOX: David Bowie, The Shangri-Las, A$AP Rocky
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Greatest Hits tasting menu
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Seasonal tasting menu
WHY WE LOVE IT: As more and more restaurants around the country introduce cocktail programs, cocktail-only bars—such as The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company in Philadelphia—have to fight to hold their ground as a necessary player in the nightlife scene. “Philadelphia is having a food renaissance right now, and a lot of the places that are opening up have bar programs,” says Sara Justice, The Franklin’s general manager and head bartender. “People have so many options now, which is exciting, but at a lot of those places the cocktails are almost like a side dish to everything else that’s going on there. Our menu is 99 percent cocktails. That’s exclusively what we do.”
The dark and subterranean Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company is named after the large booze ring that existed in Philadelphia during Prohibition. (Even though it has existed for seven years, people still call the bar asking for financial advice, so colloquially the bar is referred to just as The Franklin.) The Franklin doesn’t have a kitchen, so it can’t compete with restaurants for the dinner crowd, but last year it began offering cocktail tasting menus, a concept that is not only unheard of in Philly, but also incredibly hard to find elsewhere in the country.
The bar’s two tasting menus—a seasonal one that changes every month or so and a Greatest Hits menu that changes much less frequently—are served like a chef’s tasting menu. “The drinks are coursed out for you and they progress like a meal,” Justice says. “You start out with drinks that are a little lighter then you progress into heavier drinks. It’s more of a curated experience.” And because the bar only lets in as many people as it has seats for (49), people can sit at their tables and enjoy the drinks like they would at a sit-down dinner.
While the drinks often include ingredients that are hard to pronounce like Quina, they also have accessible, culinary ingredients like graham crackers or Jamaican Jerk rub (which are not in the same drink, thank goodness). “We try to have a little bit of something on there that anyone who comes in can relate to,” she says. “People really appreciate the thought we put into every drink. We’ve always had a big focus on pushing the envelope and just having fun.”
The seasonal tasting menu includes three cocktails and is meant to be conceptual. For instance the menu from this past summer was called “Down the Shore” (what people in Philadelphia call going to the beach) and one drink included cognac, banana, maple and brown butter to remind people of the flavors of saltwater taffy. “It’s so fun to get to see people trying these drinks and being taken to another time and place,” Justice says. “They remind you of something you really love.”
The current seasonal menu is dedicated to the foods and flavors of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. (Justice grew up in Lancaster County.) The first is a fruity and creamy play on plum pudding and includes aged rum infused with dehydrated milk and brown butter, preserved plums, baking spices and lemon juice. The second drink is inspired by wintertime sledding and includes whiskey, rum, pine liqueur and a tincture made from menthol candies, which gives you the sensation of breathing in cold air. The final drink feels like warming up in front of a fireplace and includes chestnut praline and bourbon infused with bacon, red wine and brown butter.
For those new to The Franklin, those who want to be served drinks without having to think about it, or those who want to delve deeper into the bar’s history, the Greatest Hits tasting menu is the way to go. This menu includes five signature drinks, both staff favorites and customer favorites from over the years. One cocktail on the Greatest Hits list that people consistently come in and request, for example, is the “…With A Baseball Bat,” which is made with Genever, blackberries, raspberries, brown sugar, bitters and bourbon infused with peanut butter. “There’s a lot going into this drink, but it tastes like a PB&J,” Justice says. “We explain things in a very straightforward way because we want you to enjoy it for what it tastes like.”
But don’t expect to get wasted drinking five cocktails; each drink is a little bit smaller than normal size, so it works out to only being about two and a half cocktails. The whole event also takes at least an hour and a half to complete (depending on how quickly you finish each one) and snacks are provided. If you don’t want to invest a few hours into drinking, you can order from what Justice refers to as the à la carte menu. “You can still make a night of it here, just in a different way,” Justice says.
Over the summer The Franklin opened a second bar, The Upstairs Bar, located—you guessed it—upstairs. The vibe is a little more beer-and-shots than cocktail, and some of the walls are plastered with pages from vintage Playboy magazines. Maybe we’re biased, but that sounds like the makings of another Bar We Love.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. She thinks most restaurant bar programs are terrible. Find her on Twitter: @amshep