Pretention is an interesting thing. It's fun to get all dressed up, go out to some posh venue, have a few delicious $12 cocktails, and then brag about it on Facebook. It's certainly not a weekly occurrence, or even a monthly one. But treating yourself to something special, something unique, and being a little bougey...it's alright.
Hop Sing Laundromat, Chinatown's speakeasy style cocktail bar wants to encompass all these things. It's intimate, beautifully decorated, and owner Lee's cocktails have a fine reputation.
You won't find Hop Sing easily. It's entrance sits behind an iron gate on the 1000 block of Race Street, under nothing but a subtle blue light.
You ring the door bell.
Then someone decides if you're worthy.
It's not unique. In many more cosmopolitan cities "in the know" nightspots abound. In places like London, New York, and Paris, nightlife is overwhelmed with high end cocktails from celebrity mixologists, crowded with suburbanites and tourists.
Finding a seat at the bar is a chore in the cultural oasis of Manhattan, buried beneath a sea of pleated kakis ferried in from Staten Island and New Jersey every night.
Unique hot spots tucked in discreet alleys, unlit and devoid of signage, were born from necessity. These are places for the true urbanite to find reprieve from the soul sucking demons of being a World Class city.
More importantly, their owners know why they exist and why their patrons are there. They may enforce a dress code, or even turn people away simply because they don't belong. But those allowed inside arrive for the same reason.
Philadelphia, for all that's right with it, is not one of these cities. Good cocktails, food, and ambiance can be found with ease, but unlike our larger counterparts, these venues can also be enjoyed with ease. If you can't find a table with a view at XIX you can slip over to Jamonera for a cocktail and some unique tapas. If El Vez isn't taking reservations you can always find a table at Valanni or Tavern.
Hop Sing doesn't exist to service cultural Philadelphians driven from their local establishments by droves of conventioneers and weekenders. If it did it's pretention and rigid dress code would be excusable. Instead it exists for the sake of being pretentious.
If people went to Hop Sing for its good cocktails and quiet ambiance, they'd simply go somewhere much easier to find, much easier to get into, somewhere severing the same drinks with the same atmosphere.
Unlike New York's quiet, unmarked lounges mildly crowded with locals seeking refuge from the bridge and tunnel crowd, there's nothing inherently unique about Hop Sing because Philadelphia doesn't share New York's unique reason for Hop Sing to be what it is.
Perhaps Hop Sing's perceived arrogance is all an accident. The bar's sparse website offers nothing more than an apologetic letter to its critics. Though many may be unhappy with Hop Sing's exclusionary tactics, none seem more upset with the reaction than the bar's owner.
Hop Sing never meant to advertise, however the age of the internet did Lee's advertising for him through the pages of Yelp and Philly.com.
While small speakeasy style taverns are designed to offer a piece of culture to those who will truly appreciate it, the business model's lack of precedent in Philadelphia made it a target from those it was trying to avoid.
There's no mystery why it has exclusively one or five stars on Yelp. Those who got in enjoyed themselves, those turned away, understandably did not. Fortunately Philadelphia has plenty of cozy alternatives pouring great cocktails.
Those exclaiming, "Lee doesn't want my money?" may not know their question is rhetorical. The truth is, he doesn't. Those are the kind of people who may not understand his vision. I'm not sure I understand it either, at least not in Philadelphia.
Similar to lines at Studio 54 or Mike Jeffrie's comments that he only wants attractive kids shopping at Abercrombie, it's a tactic that pisses people off, but whether or not it was Lee's intent, it's a tactic that drives mystique.
Perhaps once the allure wears off, perhaps once those driving from Cherry Hill just to see this quaint neighborhood bar decide to stop trying, Hop Sing can go back to being what Lee intended: a quaint neighborhood bar.
As a resident of not just the city, but also Hop Sing's neighborhood, perhaps once Lee's anxiety over his unwanted press wears off, I'll be allowed to enter my quaint neighborhood bar.
Michael Solomonov: The Culinary Emissary
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