- July 22, 2019
In a city as historic as Philadelphia, with landmarks that date back to our country’s origins everywhere you look, it’s a shame that there are so few bars and restaurants that have been in business long enough to represent the history of some of the city’s most storied neighborhoods. That, of course, was thanks to Prohibition. And while tourists often look to Old City and Center City to get a sense of Philly’s past, South Philadelphia is home to one of this city’s most cherished, old-school taverns: Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar.
Current owner and local legend Lou Capozzoli spent his life at Ray’s: from eating corn flakes at the bar as a child, to working alongside his father as a young man, to now, celebrating over 80 years on Passyunk Ave. Stop by on a Thursday afternoon and you’ll find Lou, as warm and energetic as ever, still quick with a joke or a story about a life spent behind the bar.
Heady Times (HT): What’s the history of Ray’s?
Lou Capozzoli (LC): My father, Anthony, bought it in 1938. It was an original dive bar before they were even called dive bars. We lived on the 3rd floor, where I grew up, while my father worked day and night.
HT: How did the bar get its name? Who is Ray?
LC: Ray was my father’s nickname. Everyone had a nickname in South Philly, in case you got into trouble. You never used your real name when the cops wanted to have a word with you. So, the bar was always called Ray’s, but I decided to add Happy Birthday Bar years later because that’s how [my father would] greet everyone when they walked in. “Happy Birthday!” Which for him was just a friendly greeting. But every so often he’d say it and it actually would be that person’s birthday. If you can prove it, we’ll give you a free drink, ring the bell and have the whole bar sing to you.
HT: What’s changed the most about the bar over the years?
LC: Well, in 1952 my father knocked the building down and rebuilt it. That was when he started serving seafood, which was a new era for the bar. As soon as we got a reputation for our food, the place was packed. There would be a line out the door, with people wanting mussels, which at the time were only 45 cents an order – imagine that!
A big difference between my dad and me is that he was interested in food, and I’m more interested in music. I’m part of a group called The Rage Band, where I sing and play the saxophone. We started playing here on Thursday nights, years and years ago. And we still do. We have people who take buses from out of town just to see us play.
HT: What’s the next chapter for Ray’s?
LC: My wife and my kids keep up the place now. It’s spotless here, which is all thanks to my wife. It’s been quite a change for me because I used to be here behind the bar all day, telling jokes and hanging with customers. They called me and my father Batman and Robin when we bartended together. Now I see my son behind the same bar. It means a lot to have a place with that kind of history.
TheHappyBirthdayBar.com • 1200 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia • 215-365-1169