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May 27, 2024

McGillin’s bartender John Doyle reflects on 50 years working at the oldest bar in the city

The South Philly native is being honored with a year's worth of festivities to celebrate time at the Irish pub.

Food & Drink Bartenders
mcgillin's john doyle Provided Image/McGillin's

John Doyle has been working at McGillin's for 50 years, and the pub is commemorating the milestone with a year's worth of festivities.

McGillin's Olde Ale House is known to host celebrities, sports icons and politicians passing through town in search of a brew or two. In the coming months, the historic pub is celebrating a VIP of its own, and he just so happens to be the one pouring the beers.

Bartender John Doyle, 79, is marking his 50th anniversary working at McGillin's, making him the longest-serving bartender at Philly's oldest continuously operating pub. His first day on the job was in April 1974, and the bar will be honoring him with a series of celebrations through March 17, 2025 — his 50th St. Paddy's Day at McGillin's.

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Doyle, who grew up in the Grays Ferry neighborhood in South Philly, has worked weekend shifts at McGillin's. He also had a full-time gig for 38 years working as a shipping manager for a machine shop. The years at McGillin's have been a family affair for Doyle. His twin daughters celebrated their 21st birthdays at the bar 17 years ago. He's also made close friends with his coworkers, having been in a few of their weddings, and forged close bonds with customers.

"All kinds of people I met, they always give me their card, 'Hey you need a lawyer? You need a doctor? Give me a call.' I met a lot of nice people, and I think that's why I still do it," Doyle said. "People say to me, 'What drives you?' I like what I do, that's what drives me."

Doyle's tenure at McGillin's has spanned three generations of ownership and eight Philly mayors — many of which he's served. He's also served well-known politicians passing through town, including Joe Biden when he was vice president, an experience Doyle refers to as "very humbling." 

Doyle himself has been jokingly urged to run for president, and a friend from his parish in Roxborough once stopped by McGillin's to pass out stickers reading "John Doyle for President," which is how his year-long 50th anniversary festivities gained a presidential theme.

The celebration kicked off with a party last month that welcomed Doyle's family, friends and longtime customers. At the party, Councilman Mark Squilla presented Doyle with a city citation and the Mullins family, who own McGillin's, presented Doyle with a Rolex watch. Other surprise guests included a group of Mummers and a Japanese bus group who unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of the festivities.  Some proceeds from drinks sold benefitted Doyle's charity of choice, the Disabled American Veterans. Doyle is an Army veteran who served in Korea during the Vietnam War.

The next "John Doyle for President" event will happen Saturday, June 8, when McGillin's hosts a watch party as the Phillies play in London. During the game, patrons can enjoy a Doyle Dollar Dog Day, with hot dogs being sold for a buck.

Can't make it out to a special event? Catch Doyle during his Saturday afternoon shifts at the bar any weekend. His wife, who is 80, also continues to work as a hostess at another restaurant.

"As long as I can do one day a weekend, and McGillin's lets me do it one day a week, I'll continue to do it," Doyle said. "I just like the people I work with, and the people I work for, they make it very easy on me. One thing about working Saturdays, it gets crowded but not 'til later on in the day, and I get a chance to say to a customer, 'Hey, where are you from?' and then I get the chance to find out about a lot of people from all over."

Doyle enjoys drinking Irish Mist whiskey-based liqueur on the rocks and doesn't recommend patrons order vodka-cranberry because the juice drowns out the taste of the vodka. He also said he would be hard-pressed to choose his favorite time of year at McGillin's, but that Christmas is definitely one of the best. Other than that, here's what Doyle had to say about his McGillin's tenure during a phone call with PhillyVoice last month ahead of the kickoff of his 50th anniversary festivities.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity: 

PHILLYVOICE: How did you come to be hired at McGillin's?

JOHN DOYLE: I'd been going there for years. My wife would go out on Friday nights to her mother's to do the laundry and I'd go down and have a couple of drinks with my buddies. And then one night I'm down there and the doorman asks me, 'Can you check IDs while I go to the bathroom?' and I said, 'Yeah, sure.' And I did that, and that was about it. Well, I really wasn't checking IDs, people were walking in on me. But then I went down there in the next week or two and we get to talking, and he goes, 'You know, we can use a guy to fill in on Friday nights to check IDs.' I said, 'Oh, that's good, I'll take it.' $17.50 a shift.

PV: That's how much you made for the whole night?

DOYLE: Yeah, the whole night! I was really good at it, next thing I know I was making $20 a shift back then in like '74, '75. Sometimes I would work a Friday night, sometimes I'd work a Saturday night and a Friday night. I never worked during the week because I have a full-time job. And then eventually the following year I took a course in bartending at Ronnie's Bartender School on Market Street and I graduated. When I was working down here on the door, they decided they want to go with Irish bartenders, and they hired a couple of full-time guys. So there wasn't much part-time bartending work and the people who did work here were mostly family who worked part time. So there wasn't a big changeover and then one day in the early '80s I was working there and the owner came up to me and said, 'I want you to tend bar.' I said, 'Sure.' And McGillin's trained me the way they do things down at the bar and the way they want things done. Next thing you know, I'm a bartender working in McGillin's.

PV: What were people ordering during those first shifts?

DOYLE: Very easy stuff. It was a lot of bottled beer. We sold a lot of bottled beer. There wasn't many drafts on tap. But you know, easy drinks, maybe a Manhattan, stuff like that, martinis. I took a course on making all these famous cocktails and we never used them at McGillin's to be honest with you. Just basic drinks, rum and Coke, vodka soda, bottled beer, shots, Jameson — stuff like that.

PV: When you were first starting, was the bar similar to what it's like now, or was there a different feel to it?

DOYLE: McGillin's at one time was the hottest spot in town, which it is today, the hottest spot in town. McGillin's was the place to go. Back then when I started working the door, I had to dress up. I wore a sport jacket and a shirt and tie. At 9 o'clock they had a rule: no stickers, no jeans, no tank tops. And the line was out the door. And then it kind of tapered off in the mid-'80s and stuff like that. And then the two owners who hired me were up in their 60s and weren't ready to invest anymore money. They were ready to retire. So I don't say it's the reason they declined, but it's one of those things where they were ready to move on. Fortunately for everybody, the Mullins family bought the place. Chris Mullins is married to Mary Ellen, who is the daughter of one of the (former) owners. If you know anything about McGillin's, the way it is today it's because of this couple and their son Christopher Jr. They made it what it is today, it's unbelievable. I've seen the transition when it was going down. And now it's back up. It's amazing.

PV: You referenced wearing a sport jacket to work back in the day, what do you wear when you're working now?

DOYLE: I wear a shirt and tie. Some of the young guys I work with will end up wearing Sixers jerseys for the playoffs, Phillies jerseys, but standard procedure is from May to October, we can wear summer shirts. In the winter months, we wear shirt and tie behind the bar, just sort of a nice feel. For Mary Ellen's father, that was the dress code for bartenders, shirt and tie. And then (Chris and Mary Ellen) took over and they did the same thing, they wanted everyone to look more presentable. It's a good look.

PV: Do you have a favorite celebrity interaction or a favorite person you've met at McGillin's?

DOYLE: None of them more-so than the others. When Ed Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia, he hired John Timoney as the police commissioner. I said to Chris Mullins I'm gonna invite the new police commissioner for a drink at McGillin's and he said go ahead. And I literally called the commissioner's office and I told the guy who I was, where I worked, and I said I want to invite Timoney for a cocktail. And one summer day, I'm at McGillin's, getting ready to open up. This guy looks in and asks, is John Doyle here? I said, I'm John Doyle. I went, holy crap it's the police commissioner. Ironically his name is John Francis Timoney, and my name is John Francis Doyle. He was the nicest guy, the fact that he would even come by. Well, I think the name John Doyle kind of enticed him: one Irishman to another.  

PV: Are there any coworkers you've worked with or customers that have been coming since you first started that you still see today?

DOYLE: That's 50 years. That's a long time. Unfortunately, there's so many people I worked with that have passed on. I got a picture of us on a golf outing years ago. (There's) maybe 10 of us in the picture, and five of these people have passed on. But yeah, I've made many close friends. The thing is, I was seeing the kids of the people I served, and now I'm seeing the grandkids of the people I served. 

PV: Do you have a favorite Philly sports moment you were part of at McGillin's? 

DOYLE: In 2008 when the Phillies won the World Series, they had the parade Oct. 31. It was 65 degrees, beautiful weather. And we had two bartenders on, me and this other guy. We made a killing. After the parade, my buddy and I went to the Capital Grille.

PV: What do you think has made you a successful bartender through the years? 

DOYLE: I guess I always realized that it's a service industry. You gotta be nice to people. I think it's just the fact that I've been nice to people all these years. I mean, everybody doesn't like John Doyle, I understand that. I think the fact that I make people comfortable and I love my job and make people happy, I think that's what makes me successful. I think I made a lot of friends. And this thing, this 50 years, and what McGillin's is doing, it's very humbling. I'm overwhelmed. But the reason I think is because if you're nice to people, they'll be nice to you.

PV: And now that you hit the 50-year mark, how many more years do you want to do this?

DOYLE: If you'll notice I'm locked in 'til next St. Patrick's Day. Chris asked me, 'What's your plans?' I said, 'I don't know, until I break my hip.' But who knows what's going to happen, I'm just looking forward to the year ahead.

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