You’ve been eating and drinking at the same local bar for how long? Two, five, ten years? Try 154 … and counting! Meet Christopher Mullins, Jr., owner of McGillin’s Olde Ale House in Center City Philadelphia. McGillin’s opened its doors in 1860. Yes, that’s the year Lincoln was elected president and just shortly after the Liberty Bell cracked. Therefore, it pretty much goes without saying that McGillin’s is the oldest continuously-operating tavern in Philadelphia. Anyone who has lived in Philly for sometime — let alone passed through — has a McGillin’s story to tell. Personally, I’ve been going to McGillin’s since the late-1990s. Over the years, I’ve had many memories there: numerous meet-the-brewer/beer release parties at the upstairs bar, sipping McGillin’s ales (brewed by Stoudt’s Brewery) after 3.5 mile runs with the sweaty/thirsty Fishtown Beer Runners, watching Eagles games on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights, lunches with friends (enjoying the complimentary help-yourself soup) and eating a ton of their famous Buffalo wings. My favorite McGillin’s memory is enjoying pitchers of beer at a table in the main barroom with my father and friends, cheering on the Phillies for Game 5 of the 2008 NLCS. After Carlos Ruiz caught a foul pop-up to end the game and win the National League pennant, we spilled out the side (locals-only-in-the-know) door and celebrated on Broad Street. Recently, we connected with the McGillin’s gang when collecting information for our Sunday Funday Drink Special Locator. (Indeed, McGillin’s sure has some great drink specials each and every Sunday that you should check out/enjoy.) Chris Jr. is currently taking over the reigns of McGillin’s from his father, Chris Sr., and mother, Mary Ellen, whose father and uncle bought the tavern from the McGillin’s family back in 1958, and owner Christopher Mullins, Jr. was kind enough to share his (Chocolate Covered) Memories with us …
How did you find yourself in this niche of the food industry?
I guess I would say I was born into it. On my father’s side, my grandfather was a chef, working the summers on Cape Cod and winters in Florida, while my grandmother ran a cottage colony in Dennisport (Cape Cod). My mother’s side of the family has long roots in the bar business. I am the third generation here at McGillin’s; however, my great-grandparents had a bar in Fairmount. So hospitality runs deep.
Any child/teenage food industry jobs?
Practically my whole life was spent in this business. As a child, my parents owned Morley’s Pub and Dining Saloon. It was in Norristown, across from the courthouse. They built a small but successful business in not the best dining environment. I was very little but was there a lot. In college, I worked for the Williamson family at Williamson’s on top of the GSB building in Bala Cynwyd. Coincidentally (or maybe not), my parents, and almost everyone in my family, also worked for Williamson’s at some point in their lives. My parents didn’t know each other until they were introduced on Cape Cod in the early 1970’s by my aunt, who worked with my mother.
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
Sitting at a restaurant with my parents doing my homework. Because my parents were constantly around food at work, they never wanted to cook when they were off together, so my parents, sister and I would eat out a lot. Where most children beg their parents to eat out, we would beg our parents for a home cooked meal. Because of this, we were exposed to every cuisine under the planet, and it definitely sparked an interest. When I was a little older, maybe 12 or 13, my mother taught me how to make Chicken Piccata. This was my signature dish in elementary school!
Where does your love of food stem from?
I am told that, as a child, I wasn’t very interested in Sesame Street but was captivated by Julia Child. In 1979, my mom took me to meet Julia and her husband Paul at Strawbridge’s here in Philly. I sill have the very faded autograph from both of them. Throughout high school, I was addicted to The Frugal Gourmet with Jeff Smith. I watched his show every Sunday night and took copious notes and had so many notebooks filled with recipes. I really wish I still had them.
What foods remind you of childhood? What were your favorite foods growing up?
Because I love food so much, I think there are too many reminders to count. When I see a pickled green tomato, I think of my grandfather who relished them. Pickled herring reminds me of childhood, as we always had them around. Fried clams always bring me back to summers on Cape Cod at the Cream & Cone in Dennisport (or as the locals say, the Scream & Groan). It sounds so decadent, but lobster is also a trigger. We always had a big lobster dinner at least once on the Cape. We would name each lobster, let them race on the kitchen floor, take photos with them. Now we do the same activity with the next generation in our family.
I loved perogies with fried onions, steamed clams or mussels. And I still do! When we used to eat out in Chinatown, we ate at a place called Vans, which was THE BEST Vietnamese restaurant. This was before Vietnam opened. After we ate, we would stop on Headhouse Square for Koffmeyer Cookies. It was the best part of the night, especially the ice cold milk. They are long gone, but I think they resurfaced recently out in Conshohocken.
Any McGillin’s memories/stories?
Because my parents were neck high with their own restaurant battles, we didn’t get to McGillin’s too much growing up. My grandmother took us a couple of times to McGillin’s to say Hi to everyone. I remember Cassie on the second floor always with a big smile and a hysterical story. She still works here today! I remember my Aunt B, who sat at the cashier station every day on the first floor when we had the lunch buffet. The cashier also had tons of penny candy to choose from, but I still think of my Aunt B when I see a peanut chew. After a visit to McGillin’s, my grandmom would walk us over to Woolworth’s for a snack at the lunch counter. A Woolworth’s hot dog was, and still is, the only hot dog I ever liked!
How did McGillin’s beers (brewed by Stoudt’s) come about?
When my parents purchased McGillin’s from my grandfather and my great uncle in 1993, Philadelphia still had an undeveloped beer culture, especially when it came to local beer. Back then, McGillin’s had five lines, all national domestics. My father saw the niche for this focus on local beers and started talking to the very few brewers. In 1993, Stoudt’s was still small but produced fantastic beers. They were building their brand here in Philly, and owners Carol and Ed made fast friends with my parents. We are still very loyal to them, and they to us. Today our house Ale, Lager and IPA are all made by Stoudt’s.
Were you a picky eater as a kid? Any stuff you loved eating as a child that you would never eat now?
NO, NO, NO, NO. I ate everything, and I still eat everything. Of course I stay away from all the sweets and sugary products every child likes.
Growing up, what was your favorite meal/food/snack to eat outside? How about now as an adult?
As a kid, I loved eating watermelon outside, so I could spit the seeds anywhere I wanted. Other than that, I am not a bid snacker, so to speak. But I do love dining al fresco, especially at Parc or the little deck at Bistrot La Minette.
What do you think of the modern food world (from franchise chains to Starbucks, from the Food Network to Groupon, from Yelp to foodie bloggers)?
It is so much easier to be a foodie now-a-days, as a kid I had to wait until a Julia Child of Jeff Smith came on to watch and write down recipes. As an adult, I had to wait for Michael Klein’s weekly Table Talk column to get the latest and greatest on the restaurant scene. We bought cookbooks or clipped recipes out of a newspaper. Now everything is online, everyone is an expert, and everyone thinks they have a voice that needs to be heard. I do think that all the avenues of information have pushed the culinary boundary farther than ever, but it does create a more challenging environment.
Groupon and the other discount sites are great for certain businesses, just not ours. Our prices are already so low, and we are already high volume. So at peak times, we are not really interested in catering to a discount program. Yelp is Yelp. There is nothing we can do about it. At the end of the day, we tell ourselves that we can only do the best job we can for the vast majority of our fans. We can’t be 100 percent perfect every single time. There is too much human interaction to not make any mistakes. Often, we find that complaints come from new customers who do not really “get” McGillin’s. We know we are loud, we know we have basic bar food, we know we can be very extremely crowded – this is what we are known for – but when you get someone who thought we would have live Irish Music (we don’t) with fine dining food (we don’t) and can sit quietly and have a quiet meal (you can’t), then this person will give us one star on Yelp. There is absolutely no way we are going to change our business for the minority.
What family recipe do you want to share with us?
The best way we introduce our customers to the fall season is putting our Pork & Pumpkin Stew on the menu. Just the word “pumpkin” gets everyone in the mood. This dish was created by my mother, Mary Ellen Mullins, and has been a huge success since she introduced it over 10 years ago. This dish can be found on our menu from late September through the end of November. Enjoy my mother’s McGillin’s Olde Ale House’s Pork & Pumpkin Stew!
McGillin’s Olde Ale House is Philadelphia’s oldest continuously operating taverns and one of the oldest in the country. It was opened in 1860 – the year Lincoln was elected – as Bell in Hand Tavern. But everyone called it McGillin’s – after Pa & Ma McGillin, who ran the tavern & raised their 13 children upstairs. After Pa died (1901), Ma ran it with an iron-hand and even survived prohibition. Their daughter, Mercedes (who grew up upstairs), sold the bar to Joe Sepaniak & Henry Spaniak (brothers who spelled their last names differently) in 1958. Henry’s daughter (Joe’s niece), Mary Ellen Mullins, and her husband (Chris Mullins Sr.) took over in 1993, and their son (Henry’s grandson), Christopher Mullins, Jr., is now taking over the reins. Christopher graduated from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and honed his skills at Philadelphia’s esteemed Union League before becoming the third generation of his family to join the business.