The block of Sansom Street between 15th and 16th is colorful. You have Roy’s at one end with the bright purple awnings; the Nodding Head bobble head sign a few store fronts down; and then you get to Oscar’s Tavern, right in the middle, with the bright red door and neon signs. This neighborhood dive bar holds its own next to the snooty Sansom Street Oyster House, serving up cheap beer, delicious bar food, and a crowd as colorful as the street. I used to come here every week after class with my fellow Journalist grad students and we would take over. At least 8 of us at a time went to Oscar’s to discuss the woes of being a writer (or at least trying to learn how to be one) and drown our tortured minds in 23-ounce lagers or cheap whiskey. The air was thick with smoke (Philadelphia banned smoking in bars that served food in 2006) and the juke was always playing. Those were the days.
For a couple of years, after we all graduated, Oscar’s was far from our minds. On to bigger and better things. Let’s meet up at that new glam bar a block away instead. Let’s have coffee. Did you hear about the media networking event? We’ll meet up there.
It wasn’t until a year or so ago that a few of us returned to Oscar’s. With the smoking ban in place, we got to really see the dingy and worn interior without the haze of smoke blocking our view. The fresh smoky smell was gone but in its place was a stale smoky smell, and was that vomit, or pee? Oscar’s is dark and dirty and smelly. On April 13th the St. Patrick’s Day decorations were still up. But the game was on and the bar was lined with fans. Not the obnoxious fans who hang out at chain sports bars. These were hard core fans who didn’t talk during the whole game and held their breaths until the last strike was thrown. Then came the claps and some cheers and the conversation could start. As I said, Oscar’s is dark. So dark that when we left at 9:00, the street lights outside seemed like the bright sunlight.
The decor has character as the red theme has obviously spread throughout the bar. Use the chairs, though, as most of the springs are shot in the booths and you sink down to your waist when you sit. Even though the bar is usually full, during the week after work you never need to wait for a place to sit. Suits don’t usually hang out here, unless they’ve already been to the Stephen Starr bars and come in to Oscar’s lit for a late night beer.
The beer selection is nonexistent, but that’s not really why anyone goes to Oscar’s. You go to Oscar’s to drink at least one 23-ounce draft for $3.25. Oscar’s patrons do not like change, made obvious by the fact that my friends almost cried when they discovered that Miller Light had been replaced by Bud Light for the 23-ounce option. Also on tap were Michelob, lager (Yuengling) and PBR. Really? OK. They all have the same watered-down taste, anyway. You can’t complain in Oscar’s because it’s just that cheap.
The highlight, at least for me, is always the Oscar’s cheese fries. Nothing compares. I have weened myself off of cheese fries from anywhere else because I am always disappointed and end up comparing them to Oscar’s. Give me two drafts and an order of cheese fries and I am happy for three hours. For a grand total of $9 before tip. Heaven! Golden and delicious. Hot, salty, crispy, chewy, light, dense. Oxy moronic fries. These are the only fries I could eat by themselves. You know you’ve come across some great fries when you have a 2-minute serious discussion on whether the cheese is real Whiz or just squirt cheese. Verdict: it’s real Whiz.
The menu has hot and cold sandwiches, omelettes, and some main courses like roast beef. Sandwiches range from $4.00-8.00. I’d stick with the steak sandwiches. With Whiz.
My love affair with Oscar’s has been tumultous, but now that I am older and wiser I know that it will never be perfect. I will always feel like I need a shower when I leave. The graffiti on the stall door in the ladies room will never be painted over. And the beers might just go up another $.25 next year.