Bartenders Bible

John Doyle Will Bartend at McGilllins for Another 25 Years or as Long as His Legs Hold Out

John Doyle behind the upstairs bar at McGillins
John Doyle behind the upstairs bar at McGillins Photo: Kirsten Henri

Bartenders spend most of their time, well, tending to you. They make you drinks, make you laugh and convince you that your drunken babble is nothing short of genius. Or at least the good ones do. In the Bartenders Bible series, we let the folks manning the speedrails and taps around town have their say. This week, we visit McGillins, which has been open for 150 years, and talk with the legendary John Doyle, who has been behind the bar there for 25 of them. The affable 65-year-old, who, despite being a grandfather, tells a delightful dirty joke, explains how being a medic in the army was good preparation for bartending and shares with us the secret to waking up a drunken dwarf after a bachelor party.

Name: John Doyle

Coordinates: McGillins Olde Ale House

Bartender or mixologist? Bartender

Tenure at McGillins? I’ve been working at McGillins for 35 years. I’ve been behind the bar for 25. It’s the only bartending job I’ve ever had. I’m just happy being here.

How come you never left? I saw no reason to, I love it here. And they kept me here! You don’t leave a good thing.

Does it help to have a limited schedule?
Yes. I think McGillins - I’m not sure of their rules - but no one works more than three or four shifts because you can get burned out. All these years I never felt burned out. I worked with people and you can see - they start screaming “these goddamn customers” and it’s time to go. There was this one bartender, Joe, he’s a retired firefighter, and he was tending bar one night and he was on the register and a customer was going “Yo! Hey! Yo! Hey!” and waving his money, and then, he whistles. So Joe turns around and he sees the customer and he comes out from behind the bar and he grabs him and he says “I’m not a goddamned dog!”

One unexpected fact about John:
I don’t think people know how handy I am or realize I’m a handyman as my second job. They’re amazed at what I can do. I’m amazed at what I can do! I can do most anything - I can patch a wall, I can put tile in, do plumbing, electricity. When I say “handyman,” it’s also a concierge service. I literally got a call the other day from a woman, she had a meeting in town and the dog had to go to the vet. My job was to pick the dog up, take it to the vet, make sure it’s ok, pay the bill, bring the dog back to the house.

Favorite beer: We just recently got a new ale. It’s the 1860, our Celebration Ale, all of a sudden I’m tasting that pretty good, you know? It’s brewed by Stoudt’s. If I’m not drinking that I like a bottle of Amstel Light myself. Or Harp.

Favorite liquor: Irish Mist. I drink it on the rocks.

Favorite cocktail: I don’t really have one. If I drink anything else, it’s usually a glass of wine. A pinot noir or something like that.

Your best customer in five words or less: Quick ordering.

Your worst customer five words or less: Slow ordering.

All bartenders should know a good joke. What’s yours?
Over the years I’ve heard so many! I heard one recently which I thought was pretty good. I don’t know if you can print this or not. A woman in her mid-50s decides to get breast implants. She goes to the doctor, she gets her implants, comes home from the doctor and gets on the bed naked and she’s jumping up and down. Her husband comes in and says, “What are you doing?” She says, “The doctor says I’ve got the breasts of an 18 year old!” And he says, “Did he mention anything about that 58-year-old fat ass of yours?” and she says, “No, your name never came up!”

Have you ever had to break up a fight at your bar? What was it about?
Oh, many, many, many fights over the years. There was actually a gay couple, years ago, they were sitting at a table and they were punching one another. So I stepped in to separate them. As I turned my back, the one guy behind me hit me over the head with an umbrella. He said, “Don’t you touch him!”

You break up arguments more than fights. More verbal stuff, before they get into fisticuffs. You can see it coming and you can stop it real quick.

What’s your patented drunk-handling technique?
I’ll just tell them to settle down and if they’ve had too much I’ll actually flag them. I’ll explain to them why, if they’re driving I’ll tell them they have to get a cab. But if I flag the person, they have to leave the bar, they can’t stay. If I flag them and they walk down to the other end of the bar and their friend buys them a drink, there’s nothing you can do about it. They’re done and they have to leave.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen at your bar?
[Laughs] One night we were closing up, back in the ‘80s I think it was. The doorman came up to me and said “John, there’s a couple in the ladies room.” and I said “Alright” and he said, “No, they’re in the ladies room.” So I went up and they were having sex on the commode. I knocked on the door and said, “We’re closing up.” But here’s the best part. I went downstairs - I gave them the courtesy of getting themselves out of there - I got behind the bar and stood there because I wanted to see who was coming down. And sure enough, a couple comes down the steps and the girl comes over, walks to the end of the bar - we’re all standing there - and she says, “Who knocked on that door?” and I said, “I did.” She said, “Boy, you can’t get privacy anywhere!”

I’ve seen a lot of things over the years. One time there was a woman sitting naked in the ladies’ room, I don’t know how she got there or what happened, but we had to get her home.

I was tending bar one day and a guy threw up on it in front of me. So I just got a towel and cleaned it up. I was a medic when I was in the army, I’ve seen dead people and picked up dead people and saw a couple of autopsies so it didn’t bother me to clean the vomit up with everything I’ve seen over the years.

I’ll tell you one of the best things I’ve seen. There was a bachelor party here one time and there was a dwarf and he got drunk. See this bench here? He was laying along the bench asleep, passed out. We had the lights on and we were cleaning up and we go over and we’re shaking this guy and he would not wake up! So we called the cops. The cops came in and we tell them what happened and the one cop goes over and says, “Watch this.” He pinched the guy and the guy woke right up! The guy got right up and he left. The cop said it works every time, but I never had a chance to use it again.

It’s okay to sleep with customers. Yes or no?
Noooooooo it’s not. It comes back to haunt you, I would imagine. But I’m married 48 years, since before I was working here.

The best tip you ever got?
Oh, I’ve gotten gift cards, whiskey. Financially, I don’t know - it’s been so many years. I guess $100. Our customers are pretty good as far as taking care of us around the holidays.

What’s the best part of the job?
The people. The customers - that’s the best part of the job.

What’s the worst part of the job?
There is no bad part about tending bar. It’s a lot of fun.

Give us one of your bartending tips-of-the-trade.
Over the years you think about a lot of things, but be good to the customers, that’s the biggest thing.

Where do you like to go for a drink when you’re on the other side of the bar?
There’s a place called Brittingham’s in Lafayette Hill. I also enjoy the Capitol Grille. Great place.

Why should people get a drink from you rather than the bartender down the block?
It’s McGillins and it’s the best bar in Center City Philadelphia, as far as I’m concerned. Not necessarily for me, but for the prices. McGillins has a well-priced menu. And free soup! What’s amazing is the customers come up to me to pay and they’ll have two twenties in their hand and it’s only $17. They can’t believe it. As for me, I’ll give you a big smile and I’ll give you good service.

How long will you keep bartending for?
I don’t know. As long as my legs hold out, I guess. As long as McGillins keeps me. At some point I guess I’ll have to say “this is it” but I really do enjoy it.

What’s the secret to being a great bartender?

Know a bartender who should be part of the Bartenders Bible? Tips gladly accepted here.

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John Doyle Will Bartend at McGilllins for Another 25 Years or as Long as His