The team that runs Bob and Barbara’s, Philly’s iconic South Street lounge, has been weathering the COVID-19 storm with the best of them. They are currently open for outdoor and indoor dining, with safety restrictions in place.
“We’ve probably had four, if not more, iterations of different business models at this point,” said Katrina Duva, who manages the family-owned bar with her brother Oskar Duva. “I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, just pivoting week to week as new restrictions come through.”
Bob and Barbara’s is known for the Citywide special, otherwise known as a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of whiskey, and their weekly drag show, the longest-running in Philadelphia.
“It has gotten progressively a little bit better each week in terms of business, so that’s a positive,” Oskar said. “But there’s a lot that’s unknown in the next couple of months. That makes it hard to focus on the successes.”
When Philadelphia bars and restaurants were first permitted to resume service, customers were allowed to order inside the bar, and then enjoy their drinks outside or take them to go. Later on, bars were restricted to table service, and patrons had to order food with their drinks. Most of the seating at Bob and Barbara’s is currently outside, but thanks to some of their neighbors, like the folks who run the thai restaurant Sawatdee, the Duvas have been able to accommodate 40 customers for outdoor dining.
“The community on the street has been great,” Katrina said. “We definitely wouldn’t be able to do the amount of business that we are right now without the help of our neighbors. Inside is pretty small for us.”
B&B’s does indeed have a long, narrow indoor space, with the large, rectangular bar occupying most of one side of the two-room venue. Patrons are prohibited from sitting around bars at this time. Under normal circumstances, Bob and Barbara’s hosts weekend jazz performances, karaoke and other shows inside.
“If no one can sit at [the bar,] it doesn’t make it easy for us to put everybody at tables and still do decent business,” Oskar said. Not being able to sit around the bar has also been a disappointment for Bob and Barbara’s regular customers.
“The vibe is different,” Katrina said. “Everyone’s used to coming in, saddling up to the bar, being here primarily if not secondarily for the bartender because they want to converse with the people that they’re so close with.”
Bob and Barbara’s has been a core aspect of South Street since Robert Porter and Barbara Carter opened it in 1969. After 26 years of providing a communal space for drinking and live music, they sold it to Oskar and Katrina’s stepfather, Jack Prince, in 1995. Prince then teamed up with local drag queen Lisa Thompson, aka Lisa Lisa, to produce a regular drag show.
“We always kind of say that it’s the family’s bar, but it’s Lisa’s show,” Katrina said.
Despite changing health restrictions, Lisa has been able to run her weekly Thursday night drag show outdoors. “It’s been going good, I think I’m just kind of happy that we’re back to doing stuff outside to get back to a little bit of normalcy,” she said.
The drag queens who participate in the shows are taking all necessary precautions – they get ready inside and wear facial shields even while performing. Customers and drag queens are not allowed to touch each other, so someone walks around with a tip jar during shows, Lisa said.
“We’re all learning something from this too because maybe now the city can see that we can do outdoor events and control it,” she added.
While the Duvas and Lisa acknowledged that the usual vibe of the bar is not what it was pre-pandemic, they recognize the importance of keeping up shows outside, especially during these stressful, unpredictable times.
“Other people that have their bars outside, they get to see that we’re doing the show outside, so it’s kind of making the block a little lively, and people are smiling,” Lisa said. “It’s been a positive thing for the block and the bars.”
The Duvas have also hosted DJs and their house jazz bands in front of the bar. Entertainment at Bob and Barbara’s usually involves wall to wall people crowded in the bar, “getting to watch a show and feeding off each other’s energy,” Katrina said. Forty people can fill the bar’s outdoor space, but 40 people attending an indoor show would be considered a light crowd, Oskar explained.
“It’s all relative, but it definitely makes a good atmosphere out on South Street,” he said. “People are having fun, and people passing by get to experience it too.”
Oskar and Katrina both discussed their need to preserve the legacy of Bob and Barbara’s, despite putting their personal stamp on it as managers.
“There’s a lot that came before us, and we both try to be very cognizant of that and we try to honor that,” Katrina said. “People have been coming here for longer than Oskar or myself have been alive. There’s a certain respect to everything that came before us that we very much tried to keep the same.”
When the weather starts to get colder and outdoor shows are no longer an option, Lisa said that several factors are at play in terms of producing indoor shows. Pennsylvania bars and restaurants are permitted to run only at 50% capacity.
“We’ll see how it works, because you can’t have a lot of people in the bar,” Lisa said. “It depends on if the performers are comfortable, because right now some of them are not comfortable going in.”
As for how the Duvas foresee the bar functioning a year or so down the line, all they can do is take it one step at a time, they said.
“I’m just trying to take it day by day, week by week, and keep opening and keep having fun,” Oskar said. “And be here for people who want to come out, have a good time, and forget about the world for a few hours.”