By Sandy Smith for the Passyunk Post
That’s how patrons who walk into Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar have been greeted for decades. And why not? It’s somebody’s birthday somewhere every day.
On Saturday, October 6, the birthday was the bar’s own. And from 3:30 in the afternoon on into the night, regulars and friends from all over came to say “Happy Birthday” to the legendary establishment at East Passyunk Avenue and Federal Street.
Lou Anne Capozzoli, daughter of owner Lou and member of the third generation of Capozzolis involved with the bar, explained how the bar got its name.
“Ray was my grandfather,” she said. “When he owned it, and people came into the bar, instead of saying ‘Hello,’ he’d say ‘Happy birthday.’”
Lou himself is more likely to crack jokes when patrons enter, but the tradition continues: whenever the bartender rings a bell behind the bar, everyone in it shouts out “Happy birthday!”
“The bell rings maybe 10 times a day, easy,” said Lou, who grew up with the bar.
“My father bought it in 1938,” he said. “I was born in 1939, and we moved here in 1940.”
Over the seven years after Prohibition ended in 1933, the bar had had three different owners. It’s remained in the Capozzoli family ever since, and Lou does his level best to run the bar as his father did.
Which means everyone’s welcome. “Everybody came here. Jewish people, Italian people, black people – my father was friends with everybody,” he said. “He was one of the nicest people you ever met. He treated everybody equally.
“And I teach my son in the same way: ‘If someone comes in and shakes your hand, say Happy Birthday to them.’”
Lou’s son Anthony, who was behind the bar at the party, didn’t have time or room to shake hands that afternoon, for the bar was packed to the gills with well-wishers who came out to have a good time and listen to live music.
At the outset of the celebration, the music was provided by the Rage Band, Ray’s house ensemble. Lou fronts the band and plays tenor saxophone. Later on, Adam Weiner, frontman for the rock band Low Cut Connie, dropped by to perform a set, and DJ Lars would come by later that night to spin tunes “until the neighbors complain,” Lou said.
Low Cut Connie, the critically acclaimed party rock band that had a song land on President Barack Obama’s summer playlist in 2015, got its start playing at Ray’s. It’s that kind of place: “You come here and you’re going to have a good time.”
It’s gotten to the point where Ray’s reputation precedes it. It routinely makes lists of the “best dive bars in America,” an honor Lou found off-putting at first until he learned that dive bars have legions of fans and aficionados. It’s certainly far cleaner than a typical dive bar thanks to Rose’s fastidiousness.
And you can also do two things at Ray’s that you can’t do at any other bar in the city. One of those is smoke. When the city implemented its ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, “we were grandfathered in,” Lou said. “But if we ever sell it, whoever buys it won’t get that privilege.” Smokers need not worry, for the next generation appears ready to take the reins when Lou is ready to hand them off.
The other thing you can do here and almost nowhere else: drink at breakfast time. Ray’s opens at 7 a.m. every day but Sunday, when they sleep in late and open at 9. This has led Bon Appétit magazine, among others, to label it “a place for the serious day drinker.” As a patron’s T-shirt read, “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning.”
But rather than promoting vice, Lou Anne says the early-morning opening actually performs a valuable service by giving night shift workers a place to unwind at the end of the workday. “John, our morning bartender, said to me, ‘You got your firemen, you got nurses coming in, and I’m doing them a service. For them, it’s their happy hour.’”
“I’ve sometimes seen people standing in line to come in at 7 in the morning,” Lou said.
The conviviality and high spirits were contagious, and the family kept everyone happy as Anthony poured drinks, Rose passed out cannolis and chocolate, Lou Anne offered Jello shots and Lou handed out Mickey Mouse paraphernalia as he performed the “Mickey Mouse Club” TV show theme, among other familiar tunes from stage and screen.
Lou summed up the atmosphere and attitude at Ray’s this way: “I told my wife I wanted to get one of those signs that reads, ‘There are no strangers here – only friends you haven’t met yet.’”
Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar
1200 East Passyunk Ave.