Newbold: The Dolphin Tavern Spurs Change on South Broad Street

Pictured above: A female go-go dancer atop a dance-floor platform at The Dolphin Tavern.

One afternoon more than a decade ago, Melissa Blimline (as she was then known) wandered to The Dolphin Tavern for a beer while waiting for her bus home to arrive. When she approached the door, however, she found it locked — the owner had stepped out. Moments later, a gentleman patron arrived, befuddled and in a similar predicament.  So, they gabbed and bonded while they anticipated the owner’s return.

Blimline never made her bus home that evening.

Instead, she guzzled beer after beer and downed shot after shot with her locked-out companion, Wil Morales, who today is her husband and a constant reminder of what The Dolphin Tavern means to her.

“It was my home, and [the staff] made you feel that way,” Blimline-Morales (as she is now known) recalled. “You knew everyone who walked in the door, and that’s what made it so good. It was our secret. People would come in and say, ‘This is amazing! I need to tell my friends!’ And we’d say, ‘Oh no, don’t do that.'”

Today, thanks to new ownership by Avram Hornik’s Four Corners Management, which also manages Drinker’s Pub and Union Transfer, nearly everyone knows The Dolphin Tavern — and not as the blue-collar locale she or her husband fondly remember.

“I went back the first night they opened, and surprisingly enough, the people who used to go to ‘The Old Dolphin,’ they came back,” said Morales. “But they didn’t stay. Because it’s not the same. It’s not the same place, not the same atmosphere – it’s not The Dolphin Tavern. It has the name, but not the feeling.”

A scene from one of the revamped The Dolphin Tavern's drag shows.
A scene from The Dolphin Tavern’s new drag series.

In 2012, the pair’s South Broad Street Cheers save for the Dolphin Tavern’s dark and cavernous atmosphere, iconic neon-lit sign, long-since-gone billiards table, gold-chrome monstrosity of a cash register and scantily clad female dancers with kitschy names like “Nancy-Dee,” — boarded up after 86-year-old owner Annette Benzuli passed away. Her will, according to Blimline-Morales, requested that the bar be put up for sale — a shock to regular patrons who expected longtime manager Lynn Potts to inherit it.

Since reopening in March 2013, it’s become a staple for a new crowd flooding surrounding neighborhoods: 20-somethings and, as of late, LGBT patrons who travel for the Sunday night, Josh Schonewolf-produced dance party and drag show, “CLUBHAUS.”

“The crowd is similar in some ways and different in others,” said Charlie Gill, who has been to both “The Old Dolphin” and its new iteration. “People before, they weren’t excited to be here; it was just a sort of quiet, dive-y, end-of-night, drink-your-last-beers kind of bar. … I think it’s good that there’s motion on this side of Broad Street and in this neighborhood.”

Left to right: "Icon Ebony Fierce," Josh Schonewolf and "Pretty Girl" lounge by the bar during a March "CLUBHAUS" party.
Left to right: “Icon Ebony Fierce,” Josh Schonewolf and “Pretty Girl” lounge by the bar during a March “CLUBHAUS” party.

Hornik is up-front about The Dolphin Tavern bringing in a new audience, and has worked to preserve the bar’s “time capsule” feel. But ultimately, to him, the bar’s change is indicative of something much larger: development of South Broad Street.

“If you look around in Philadelphia, South Broad Street is a natural growth area for the city,” he said. “There’s a lot of growth with young people coming in, because there’s affordable housing … South Philadelphia’s really developing as a neighborhood for young professionals. And hopefully, with a little vision from community leaders, it’ll lead to a real renaissance on South Broad Street.”

Hornik, who also reopened the Boot & Saddle at 1131 South Broad St. last year, insists that “90 percent” of patrons at The Dolphin Tavern are from the neighborhood. He also says he’s in favor of further development of the area, advocating a special service district to lure in entrepreneurs wary of opening brand-new businesses in the area.

Though, he’s aware he can’t force-feed such change to a community.

“There needs to be a balance for people who’ve lived here for generations,” he said. “It’s up to community leaders to have vision to come up with a cohesive plan that complements the newer residents who might be more interested in more nightlife, restaurants, coffee shops and activity, and at the same time takes long-term residents’ concerns — and very legitimate fears — into consideration.”

South Broad Street Neighborhood Association’s Streets/Beautification Chairperson Greg Damis, who’s also a realtor, welcomes the change bars like The Dolphin Tavern bring to the neighborhood — with conditions.

“[The Dolphin Tavern] brings something exciting to South Broad Street. … I truly believe South Broad Street has a lot going for it,” he said. “But the problem we have with all bars – Boot and Saddle, Dolphin, or anything along Passyunk Avenue –- is, with the new smoking ban, everyone stands outside and smokes. Even if they’re behaving themselves, they’re loud, and there are neighbors, and they hear it. So, as long as that’s controlled …”

Partygoers dance on The Dolphin Tavern's new billiards-replacing dance floor.
Partygoers dance on The Dolphin Tavern’s new billiards-replacing dance floor.

But for all the talk of positive change, Blimline-Morales continues to feel little has been done to make her crowd feel welcome, and that the legacy of The Dolphin Tavern in particular has been left in the dust.

“They’re just killing the history of the place,” she said. “It was bought because it’s an icon — for whatever reason, everyone had a story about The Dolphin, and they knew it had all of this history, and it’s like a fuck-you to all of the people who made that history. I had no desire to go back [after the re-opening]. I make money, and I’ll spend it somewhere where they appreciate it. You don’t want me because I’m 40? Fuck you.”

She’s particularly skeptical of whether the 20-something audience — which makes up an estimated 15.5 percent of Newbold and Point Breeze, according to 2010 Census Data — will, in fact, stick around as she and her husband did for two decades.

“Twenty-somethings are notorious for being flighty. What happens when there’s another big thing? Are they going to go, or stay? Are they going to make it their own?” she said, impassioned. “There’s such a lack of loyalty, and that’s mostly what the concern is: How could we love it for so many years, and then when [20-somethings are] bored with their shiny new toy, what happens to it?”

She grimaces.

“Because they won’t want us back either.”

– Text, images and video by Brandon Baker

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