A big anniversary for South Philly’s ‘Birthday Bar’

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A South Philly tavern known as “Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar” is marking a milestone — 75 years in business. The neighborhood institution right around the corner from the Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak empires hasn’t changed much in three quarters of a century, even if its customers have.

Some children inherit furniture or a home from their parents. Lou Capozzoli got a bar. His dad started this place in 1938. The place used to be called “Ray’s.” Capozzoli said he renamed it  as a tribute to his father who would always greet customers with “Happy Birthday” when they walked in.

“When he passed away 15 years ago I said you know what I’m still going to call it “Ray’s” but I’m going to call it “Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar” to honor my father.” Capozzoli said the non-traditional greeting even drew some laughs. “Once in a while it was somebody’s birthday and they’d say, ‘How’d you know?'”

Capozzoli recalls the days when workers from the Italian Market came in before work. “My father had coffee, he’d give you the cup of coffee and then you bought a shot of Anisette. At that time I guess it was a quarter and that was what kept them going on those cold morning at the Italian Market.”

Capozzoli said the bar has stayed in business by treating its customers well — from old timers to neighborhood newcomers. “It started out as an Italian neighborhood,” he said the yuppies have moved in. “And guess what, it’s fine. You want to plant trees and make it Cherry Hill? That’s fine with me. But they’re really nice people.”

From 20-somethings to 80 and 90-somethings he welcomes them all to sit at the bar or one of the nearby tables for a beer and maybe even a joke. Capozzoli loves jokes and the bar hosts a joke telling contest as well as a meatloaf contest, and an ugly holiday sweater competition. One thing that’s impossible to miss if after talking to Capozzoli for even just a few minutes is that this place is more than a bar. To Mary-Jo Athena Metaxas this place is “like home.”

Sitting at table near the door she shared a laugh with with half a dozen fellow nurses. The group arrived at the door before 9 a.m. after working the night shift. “We are post-shift after saving lives and coming here so that we could just unwind, relax, have a good time, good company, get a Pat’s cheesesteak, eat it here for breakfast. Nothing better really.”

Lou Capozzoli didn’t expect this would become his life’s work. He dreamed of making it as a musician but when that didn’t work this place became his work. “Our oldest customer was Nicky Pino. He passed away last year, he was 98 and I know God bless him. He still came in and had a beer and of course at that age you don’t charge him. And he still had a great sense of humor.” For Capozzoli this place also holds personal memories. His family lived upstairs during his childhood. “My father went in the war in like 1942 I guess ’41 or ’42 and my mother ran the bar and I actually remember waking up on the third floor and maybe I was three years old and I was scared because I was by myself and I ran down the steps and I sat on the bar right here and my mother gave me cornflakes and milk on the bar. For some reason that always stuck on my mind.”

Over time some things have stayed the same at this neighborhood establishment including items that no longer have much use like the old “Ladies Entrance.”

Some of the old-timers who spent decades drinking here, have passed away. Other old patrons still come in, including Nick who pauses as he leaves the bar to say, “I’ve been coming here since 1960. Terrific bar, terrific.”

The place has added a few things over the years — a new jukebox, an ATM and a modern TV, but even in an era when most Philly bars are smoke-free, you can still puff away at Ray’s.

Capozzoli said “Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar” is getting a new reputation too: as a dive bar. “We were in Maxim and GQ as being the best dive bar in Philadelphia. Fiedler: Do you think it’s the best dive bar? Capozzoli: Well I think it’s not a dive bar but they come in and say it is but I’ll take it.” Capozzoli said his wife tells him these days the label “dive bar” is an honor.

In celebration of the bar’s birthday this weekend, there will be cake and in a tribute to the past a 1930’s costume contest.

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