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A Toast to 30 Years of Bonner’s Irish Pub
Bonner’s Irish Pub, the storied neighborhood bar on 23rd and Sansom, marks its 30th anniversary on November 8th
By Rolando Rosa
In 1993, after establishing bars in University City and in Madison, Wisconsin, Dan Bonner sought to leave an even deeper imprint in the world of hospitality. It was this drive that led him to open Bonner’s Irish Pub, a now-beloved fixture in the neighborhood.
The pub's rich history, as Bonner recounts, goes back to the 1840s when it served as a saloon and B&B. There are whispers, according to Bonner, of its days as a clandestine speakeasy.
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Before adopting the Bonner’s moniker in the early 1990s, the venue was known as Cavanaugh’s, which has since moved a few blocks away to Sansom Street. Bonner worked in tandem with Cavanaugh’s for a time, eventually taking the reins entirely by 1995.
A Changing Neighborhood
In the three decades since Bonner’s became the latest owner, the neighborhood landscape has changed.
The surrounding area, which draws from upscale Rittenhouse Square, has become wealthier. Graduate students flock to the pub, particularly from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s a positive thing because real estate values are going up,” Bonner said. “But your clientele is your clientele. It doesn’t matter if they’re blue collar, white collar, whatever. People are all the same. They want a good product at a reasonable price.”
“The Mayor of 23rd Street”
Susan Eisiminger, a dignified regular who visits twice daily for lunch and happy hour, is proclaimed by her pub peers as the Mayor of 23rd Street. Eisiminger lives right across the street and has been a staple at Bonner’s for 12 years.
“I love the people and the atmosphere. It's a place where I can sit, have a glass of wine, read my book and be comfortable as a single woman,” Eisiminger said. “Somebody always walks me home.”
She’s so devoted that regulars would often place a friendly wager on her arrival.
“We used to bet on the exact time she came in,” Patron Joe D. said. “Everybody puts in a buck. I’m talking like 10-15 people. [If you won], the rule was you had to buy her a drink, and you get to keep the rest.”
“Everybody knows Susan,” Joe D said. “She’s a great lady.”
Joe, a facilities manager in the athletic department at the University of Pennsylvania, lives around the corner on Manning Street. He’s frequented the bar ever since its inception as Bonner’s in the 1990s.
He points to a fridge of drinks steps away. “I remember when this was a bathroom,” Joe said. “No lie, this was the men’s room from here to there. So when you opened the door, you’d see somebody sitting.”
Joe jokes that he can’t share his favorite memories on the record, but lauds the venue’s aura.
“It’s a cool place. For a Center City bar, it’s cheaper with good vibes,” Joe D said. “It’s not a pretentious bar. It’s a neighborhood bar that’s entertaining and fun.”
“They came with the building”
Bonner takes great pride that four of his employees have been with the pub since the beginning. “I jokingly say to them they came with the building,” Bonner said.
One of his newer employees, Mike Bofinger, began bartending at the pub nearly 10 months ago while attending Widener University. Outside of the occasional rowdy customer, Bofinger expresses gratitude for the laid back environment, likening the dynamic in the pub to Philadelphia’s version of a classic TV sitcom. “It’s very personal. I would compare it to Cheers cafe,” Bofinger said. “I have a good time talking to all the regulars.”
Loyalty Through Tough Times
The regulars have remained faithful even as the pub endured its recent challenges. During the pandemic, customers had to gather outside under a tent due to indoor occupancy restrictions. Also, as a result of inflation, Bonner says food prices have increased each of the last 2 years.
Yet, the regulars’ commitment has been steadfast. They can’t envision themselves anywhere else because of the relationships they’ve built.
“The employees are great,” Joe D said. “The bartenders know your name and your drink.”
Throughout the years, the pub has partnered with organizations such as the Red Cross and YMCA for charity events. It also hosts block parties. And as an Irish pub, Bonner’s pays homage to its roots with a large St. Patrick’s Day event each year.
Bonner is in the process of planning a 30th anniversary event, with official details still to come. On the precipice of the milestone, he reflects on the biggest factor behind the pub’s longevity.
“I think it’s because we make [people] feel at home. They feel safe here. I emphasize with my employees that we’re part of a family,” Bonner said. “You’re not treated like a customer. You’re treated like a friend.”