“We live here, so she lives here” ~ McGillin’s employee Ivy Jackson on Ma McGillin’s spirit.
You can’t visit Center City, Philadelphia without making a pitstop at McGillin’s Olde Ale House for a pint. As the oldest continuously run tavern in the City of Brotherly Love, McGillin’s opened its doors the same year the Pony Express made its first mail delivery, Lincoln was elected president, and Annie Oakley was born. It’s older than paperclips, dynamite and of course, sliced bread.
William “Pa” and Catherine “Ma” McGillin emigrated from Ireland and opened McGillin’s in 1860. Back then it was known as the Bell in Hand Tavern, but folks habitually called it Bill’s or McGillin’s and one day the name just stuck. The tavern stayed in the McGillin family for almost 100 years, passing to Ma’s daughter Mercedes McGillin Hooper in 1937 when Ma died. In 1958, it was purchased by brothers Henry Spaniak and Joe Shepaniak (yes, they spelled their last name differently). Currently owned by Henry’s daughter Mary Ellen Spaniak Mullins and her husband Chris Mullins, McGillin’s has won more “Best Of” awards than I could possibly list, so let’s just say it’s one of the best Irish pubs/sports bars/karaoke spots in America.
I’m no stranger to McGillin’s. Being from the Philadelphia area McGillin’s is always one of our go-tos. Annually, my friends and I travel from bar to bar to celebrate St. Patricks’ Day. McGillin’s is always packed and we’re among the many standing in a line wrapped around the corner eagerly waiting to enter. We’re happy to do so knowing what’s through the doors. A variety of local and Irish beers on draft, including O’Hara’s Irish Stout (the only stout exclusively brewed in Ireland), a robust menu of local favorites that pay homage to the bar’s past, and service that is always welcoming of its many patrons, even on the most hectic days.
I’ve enjoyed many outings at McGillin’s, usually ordering a few Irish Car Bombs and then proceeding to a table to order off the menu. Tucked away on Drury St, an alleyway behind the main drag, it’s highly coveted by locals and visitors alike.
I was meeting Chris Mullins Sr., who agreed to sit with me to talk about the fascinating history, ghosts, and of course the food behind this local treasure. We settled into the upstairs dining room where Chris served me one of their top selling items, Shepard’s Pie! Ground sirloin slowly simmered with vegetables and herbs, topped with fluffy and hearty mashed potatoes served with a side of garlic bread. Chris acknowledges that technically it’s a Cottage Pie as Shepard’s Pie is made with lamb. Knowing that lamb is not as big as a staple to American taste buds and still wanting to celebrate their Irish roots they made the decision to substitute the dish with beef. Let me tell you, you don’t miss the lamb! As Chris and I chatted I was also treated to one of their many locally made brews. Indulging in McGillin’s Real Ale, a signature house beer, I was taken back through years of history, family, and perseverance. The secret recipe that has kept McGillin’s successful and owned by only two families for its 159 years of life.
Chris and Mary Ellen purchased McGillin’s in 1993 and run it along with their son, Chris, Jr. Both Chris, Sr. and Mary Ellen grew up in the restaurant business- Chris’s dad was a chef who would take him along to different jobs he was working. When they purchased McGillin’s from Mary Ellen’s Father, their main goal was to improve the food while continuing to make guests feel welcomed and looked after. Mary Ellen’s Father’s main food was quick deli sandwiches, but with Mary Ellen’s and Chris’s background they felt confident crafting their own menu. Chris says the credit for most of the recipes goes to Mary Ellen who made sure the food reflected not only the Irish and Philadelphian roots connected to the bar, but is also fresh and made from scratch. Mary Ellen cooks at the restaurant at least three times a week and oversees the cooking in general to make sure the quality remains even when she’s not on the line.
When I asked Chris what his favorite thing to eat here was, he replied, “Anything on the menu!” Good answer! If he had to choose though, Chris recommends the Rueben, Shepherd’s Pie or Club Sandwich, but their number one seller is the Philly cheesesteak (of course!). In fact, Chris told me when they were featured on “Fox & Friends” he was asked what the secret to a good cheesesteak was and his answer surprised them. “The roll. It’s got to be a good Italian roll-fresh and crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. That’s the key. We use Liscio’s because it holds up throughout the day.” In addition to their expansive menu that includes sandwiches, salads, and main entrees, McGillin’s has 30 beers on draft and a large selection of regional microbrews on tap, including Stoudt’s, Dogfish Head, and Philadelphia Brewing. When I ask which beer, he would recommend for someone visiting for the first time, Chris says it depends what they like. “If they prefer an IPA, I’d recommend McGillin’s 1860 IPA. That’s an American-style IPA, only about 6.5% alcohol. If they prefer an English-style, I’d recommend McGillin’s Real Ale and if they like lager, we have a German-style lager. All are fresh and locally brewed for us by Stoudts. We’ve had a relationship with them for as long as I’ve been here.”
McGillin’s today is comprised of both upstairs and downstairs bars and dining areas, which gives them lots of room for their varied annual events. Always drawing a large crowd, Midtown Village Fall Festival, St. Patrick’s Day, and Cinco De Mayo where they serve up a delicious Irish Chimichanga are just a few of the celebrations you can find hosted here. The original bar however, was very small. In fact, present day McGillin’s is actually three buildings in one. The middle section is the original bar, then Pa purchased the oyster house and a four-story building that were all connected. His hope was to tear down the walls separating the three buildings to open up the space. Unfortunately, he passed away before that could happen, but Ma took over and finished his vision. “When Ma did the renovations, she brought over William McGillin’s cousin who was an architect/designer from England,” explains Chris. “When you look at the front of the bar, you don’t think of an Irish pub, it looks more English-like a neoclassical design which was very in vogue in 19thcentury England. Also, the higher ceilings are more English than Irish. The windows, doors and some of the wainscoting are all original from 1907.”
Pa’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1901 must have been a tremendous heartbreak for Ma. Left with 13 children (yes, 13!) to raise and a business to run- both were done in the present-day building, Ma probably didn’t have much time to mourn the loss of her cherished husband.
She persevered and ran the bar successfully on her own for 19 years before Prohibition was enacted. When the Nationwide ban went into effect, another devastating blow for this family, Ma locked the front door thinking it would last just a short time, instead Prohibition lasted 13 years from 1920-1933. “She vowed never to open the main door”, Chris explains, “but she kept the side and back doors unlocked and customers still came. During that time Ma hired a chef (the Executive Chef from the Benjamin Franklin Hotel) and turned it into more of a restaurant. She was never charged with any illegal activity, but the rumor was that there were three private rooms where all the famous people would go- W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Will Rogers, John and Ethel Barrymore…they all came here. They’d either have a courier or bring their own liquor and Ma provided tea cups for them to drink out of.”
The deli and self-serve sandwich lunch bar that Ma started carried on well after Prohibition ended, “They had a buffet where you could make your sandwiches to order and they’d serve up to 600 people a day. Don’t forget that Philly during the 1950’s was mostly a banking city. Every major Philadelphia bank had their offices within a few blocks from here, plus City Hall and Wanamaker’s. Wanamaker’s had about 5,000 employees back then. The buffet continued with Henry and Joe, then when we took over, we converted the first floor to a dining room.”
“I think Ma’s presence is definitely here,” Chris tells me. “Pa, too because of his fondness for really good beer. Ma for her feeling of hospitality- they’re welcoming spirits.” Chris tells me that while neither he nor their patrons have ever seen anything, his former cook, Tyrek (who has since passed), claimed to have seen Ma in the basement. “I’ve had employees sense things or had mysterious experiences occur, like TV’s turning on and off or images appearing in a mirror-they’d say it was Ma. She died in her home, not here, and she’s only been seen in certain spots such as the mirror above the fireplace on the first floor. I’ve personally never had any experiences, though.” Chris tells me he’s allowed paranormal groups to spend the night and they’ve acknowledged a presence in the building, even photographing what they claim to be a woman in white reflected in the mirror. This particular photo is hanging on a wall with a sign that reads: “Lady in White. Taken by Unseen Forces of South Jersey Paranormal Researchers. April 2007.” The image in the bottom left corner has been enlarged to show what looks to be a woman wearing an old-fashioned white dress.
As you look around the bar, the most prevalent décor are the signs- they’re literally everywhere and have a unique history of their own. “The first sign was a gift from the owner of the Wanamaker’s building (John Connors)-he walked it over here and gave it to us, so that started a tradition. Then Peter Strawbridge gave us his seal of approval sign… it just continued on from that initial gift.” Other historic who’s who signs dotting the walls include Woolworth’s, Gimbel’s, Lit Brothers and the iconic French restaurant Le Bec Fin. This room could get any local lost in a sea of nostalgia and I wonder if that same feeling of sentimentality keeps the spirits of Ma and Pa from ever leaving McGillin’s. Asking Chris, why he felt he needed to continue the tradition, he replied, “To remind people of the great past here.”
Another unique feature in the décor, Chris points out their antique Brunswick back bar, explaining that Brunswick makes pool tables and bowling alleys, but in the 19th century when mining towns and new cities started popping up, they began to build bars. “They were the original IKEA-they’d build them in Iowa and ship them all over the country. This one is from a bar in Ohio-restored locally and installed here over ten years ago. This area was originally a kitchen with a little bar, but there was a fire in 1971. They were cooking French fries without a hood. It burnt upwards and unfortunately, the third and fourth floors weren’t replaced, they only rebuilt up to the second floor.” Most likely, these were the floors where Ma raised her brood.
As we continue to walk through the bar and I hear the stories of the lovingly decorated walls Chris points out an old black and white photograph of the large McGillin clan and asks me an unexpected question: can I pick out who in the photo is dead? After studying the photo, I couldn’t tell. “The answer”, Chris tells me, “is one of the babies.” Although, he’s not entirely sure which baby is deceased in the photo, he confirms he had been told this is indeed postmortem photography.
Revisiting the paranormal we go back to Pa McGillin who sadly lost his life in the basement, where the current kitchen is located. He was having a furnace installed when he passed away. Employees claim to feel his presence in the spot where he died, some not even knowing the backstory of his death or where it occurred. While further exploring the basement and kitchen we ran into Ivy, an employee who has worked at McGillin’s for over 30 years and has her own menu item, “Ivy’s Three Threes” a mix of breaded, coconut, and chargrilled shrimp. I asked Ivy if she’s ever felt Pa’s presence. “Nah,” she said, “but he may have been in here today ‘cause all of a sudden this (a stainless-steel mixing bowl) here fell down. I asked the guys if they pushed it and they said nah, we ain’t touched it.” I asked her if she’s ever seen or felt Ma. “No, I haven’t, but other employees have. They’d hear a noise in the storage room-they’d go to look and nobody’s there. No one’s been touched or seen anything.” I asked Ivy if she thinks Ma is still here. “Yes,” she quickly replied. “Why do you think she’d stay?” I asked. “Because it’s McGillin’s. We live here, so she lives here.”
The only other death that has occurred on the property that Chris and his family know about is sadly, Mary Ellen’s Uncle Steve. “One night after hours, the staff was having their drinks at the end of the night- they were all whoopin’ and hollerin’ and left out the back door. The next day, Steve’s wife called Henry and told him that Steve never came home last night. Sure enough-he’d gone out the back door and apparently passed away from a heart attack right on the back steps.”
Leaving McGillin’s I’m left with newfound appreciation for not only the current owners, but for Ma and Pa McGillin. Immigrants who opened their own business, persevered through death, Prohibition, and The Depression, raised 13 children, and made sure they took care of their patrons. I especially think of Ma, who did this for many years as a widow, single mother, and a woman in a male dominated world. Remember, she owned a bar during a time when it was frowned upon for women to be unescorted in a drinking establishment and on the extreme end of that spectrum, banned altogether.
Although, McGillin’s might not presently have a jarring amount of paranormal activity I have to agree with Chris when he talks about feeling Ma’s spirit. It’s not something you can really put your finger on objectively, but it is a sense that when you’re at McGillin’s, you’re home. I have to wonder if Ma approves of Chris Sr, Mary Ellen, and Chris Jr. and that’s why her appearances have been infrequent. They’ve certainly carried on her legacy while creating their own. As Chris tells me their mantra at McGillin’s is, “That (the customers) are welcomed and taken care of. That service is key. It’s absolutely positively the number one thing”. I’m certain it’s this commitment, shared by predecessors Ma and Pa, that has kept McGillin’s breathing for over 150 years and will continue to give it life for centuries to come.
Now it’s your turn to take a piece of McGillin’s home with you! Chris shares McGillin’s Shepard Pie! Get ready to add a go-to recipe to your collection!
This recipe is restaurant quantities. It makes 12 servings.
3 C onions (or 2 whole onions) diced
10 lbs. ground sirloin
2 qt. sliced mushrooms
2.5 lbs frozen peas and carrots
2 qt. brown gravy
2 oz. dry sage
2 oz. dry thyme
1 oz. ground pepper
1 oz. granulated garlic
salt to taste
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped.
Special thank you to McGillin’s Olde Ale House and Chris Mullins Sr, Chris Mullins Jr., and Ivy Jackson.
Photography by Rachel Smith
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