Senior Life

50 years tending bar at 164-year-old Center City tavern

by Len Lear
Posted 5/9/24

If there were an Encyclopedia of Bartenders, John Doyle would have a prominent place in it.

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Senior Life

50 years tending bar at 164-year-old Center City tavern


If there were an Encyclopedia of Bartenders, John Doyle, a long-time resident of Andorra who will be 80 in July, would have a prominent place in it. Doyle started working at McGillin's Olde Ale House in Center City in April 1974, making him the longest-serving bartender in the city at Philadelphia's oldest operating bar and possibly the oldest in the state.

McGillin's Olde Ale House, which was opened by William McGillin in 1860, the year before Abraham Lincoln became president, is currently toasting Doyle with a year-long celebration that began on April 27 and will end on March 17, 2025, which will be Doyle's 50th St. Patrick's Day at the historic Philadelphia tavern.

"People often ask me how long I'll keep doing this," Doyle said. "I will keep doing it until I break my hip. I still really like it. Look at these prices: vodka and soda, $6; a shot of whiskey, $6; a bottle of Bud, $4. Who else has prices like these? We keep prices low because of the volume. We have 32 beers on tap. Genesee Cream Ale was 50 cents when I started. We only had six or seven beers on tap then. Hard cider is a big seller now. Even young women like draft beer now. It was not that way years ago. And there are so many more local breweries now."

Early life and military service

Doyle, born and raised in the Gray's Ferry section of South Philadelphia, was the middle child of seven in an Irish Catholic family. All six siblings are now deceased. 

After graduating from Bishop Neumann High School (now Neumann/Goretti) in 1963, Doyle went to work at Carr Tool and Machine in West Philadelphia, where he started as an apprentice machinist, a job he did not like. He worked there until he was drafted into the Army the following year, where he spent 10 months serving as a medic in South Korea, near the demilitarized zone. "I was very lucky," he said, "because the Vietnam War was going on, but I was stationed in South Korea, not Vietnam."

From machine shop to McGillin's

When he left the Army and returned to Philadelphia in 1966, Doyle returned to work at the machine shop and became a shipping manager, a job he had for 38 years. He also became a regular customer at McGillin's on Friday nights in the early '70s. One night when the doorman had to use the bathroom, he asked Doyle to watch the door. He must have watched it really well because he was soon asked to do it on a regular basis.

Doyle got a part-time job checking IDs at the front door. "I'd get to McGillin's at 5 p.m.," he said. "On Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, there would be live bands playing six sets, from 8 p.m. on."

After a while, Doyle was elevated to bartender, which just might be because he is a super-fun guy who can tell stories and jokes with the best of them and is comfortable schmoozing and kidding with every customer. You might say he was born to be a bartender.

"Over the years, John has probably mixed nearly a million cocktails and has served local craft beer, including green, red and blue beer for local sports championships," said Christopher Mullins, Jr., who co-owns McGillin's with his parents, Mary Ellen and Chris Mullins, Sr. "John has told more jokes than a late night take show host and remembered drink orders that even the guests have forgotten. He's acted as a matchmaker, watched romances blossom and maybe even saved a few marriages. Always with good humor."

A Philadelphia icon

John's place in Philadelphia bartending history was cemented when a larger-than-life photo of him behind the bar at McGillin's was included in an exhibit at the Atwater Kent Museum, a now-closed museum that chronicled Philadelphia history. He earned a "Best of Philly" award in 2010 when he was named the city's best bartender.

"John has met the biggest names in sports, television, stage, music and entertainment," said Chris Mullins, Sr., "but one of the things that makes him special is that he treats everyone like a celebrity. John has a personality that draws thousands to McGillin's, and he treats staff with the same respect."

Retirement and beyond

At age 58, Doyle retired from his day job at the machine shop and took a job with Gladwyne Concierge Service, driving people home from the airport and running errands for eight years and then doing handyman jobs for four years. At age 70, he slipped on a ladder, ending his handyman career, and in 2018, he hurt his back and had disc surgery.

All along, though, he kept tending bar at McGillin's part-time. He now works Saturdays, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and some holidays. "I do well with tips," Doyle said. "Shana Cox (fellow bartender) and I do well together. Being cordial makes a big difference on tips. The young customers are not as generous as the older folks, but I have no complaints. The more you hustle and show personality, the better." His biggest tip was $500 from two men who had two martinis and some beer. He split the tip with the other bartender working that day.

Doyle's wife, Laura, 80, is a hostess at Brittingham's in Lafayette Hill. They have twin daughters, Tracy and Heather, 38.

John Doyle's 50-year career at McGillin's Olde Ale House is a testament to his dedication, personality, and the enduring appeal of the historic tavern. As Christopher Mullins, Sr., noted, "John has a personality that draws thousands to McGillin's, and he treats staff with the same respect." Doyle's presence behind the bar has become an integral part of the McGillin's experience, making him a true Philadelphia icon.

McGillin's Olde Ale House is at 1310 Drury Lane, between 13th and Juniper, Chestnut and Sansom Streets. For more information, visit