When staffing Tapster, his new Center City bar, Roman Maliszewski did not hire a single bartender or cook.
His focus was on the atmosphere at the corner of 16th and Sansom Streets — now an airy, light-filled room with swings for table seating, TVs and board games for entertainment, and a photo booth for giggles.
Tapster’s “bar” is not a bar, in the conventional sense. It’s a wall lined with 54 taps of beer, wine, batch cocktails, spiked teas, hard seltzer, kombucha, cold-brew coffee, and juices — all self-service. Tapster’s few employees roam the floor to guide customers, rather than stand behind the bar or work the stove.
Such pour-your-own setups have been popping up locally over the last dozen years, at such places as Rivertown Taps in Phoenixville, Stumpy’s Hatchet House in West Chester, Bark Social in Manayunk, and Vince’s Pizza in Newtown.
The thinking is that self-service allows people to sample at their own pace.
Most of these places have kitchens. Tapster, which now has three other locations nationally, follows Pennsylvania law by offering food (popcorn and reheated empanadas), but the bulk of the menu is handled through an arrangement with the Happy Rooster, the bar across the street. Tapster customers can scan a QR code to order quesadillas, loaded tots, wings, fries, calamari, Caesar salad, burgers, and fish tacos, and the food is run across Sansom Street.
At Tapster, the process is this: Walk in and present your ID and credit card at the counter. A tab is opened. You get a “tapcard,” linked to the credit card, to activate the taps. Peruse the menus, shown on TV screens overhead; drinks are explained more fully at each tap. Then pick up a glass and pour whatever you want. You pay by the ounce. When you’re ready to leave, you check out either at the counter or by dropping the tapcard into a box.
Drinkers are automatically cut off after two beers, though a staffer can reset their cards.
The beer variety is broad, and prices range from pretty good to high. “Where in Center City can you get a [16-ounce] Rolling Rock for $2.88?” Maliszewski said. It’s 18 cents an ounce. On the higher end is Brewery Ommegang’s witte, which at 70 cents an ounce comes out to $11.20 for a pint. A Hoop Tea spiked iced tea is 30 cents an ounce, or $4.80 a pint. Stacy’s Mom by Evil Genius, at 75 cents an ounce, comes out to $12 a pint. Cocktails such as margaritas and mojitos come out to $8 to $9.
Maliszewski, 45, grew up in Chicago, graduated from Princeton, and worked in advertising until 2014, when he said he got burned out, put his stuff into storage, and traveled the world. Back home, he saw a bar with taps at tables and asked the owner who made the equipment. Maliszewski looked up the owner of PourMyBeer and went to work for him in sales while planning his first location, which opened in Chicago’s Wicker Park in 2017. A second opened in Chicago’s Lincoln Park in 2018. Seattle followed in 2020, and Lakewood, Ohio, in April 2023. Bellevue, Wash., is next. (The Wicker Park location closed last month.)
Maliszewski is particularly bullish on the neighborhood, just a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square. Not only has he made friends with Debbie Jordan, owner of the Happy Rooster, but he sees hundreds of potential customers at the under-construction apartment building across the street that will include a branch of the New York Spanish restaurant Boqueria. An expanded version of the Michael Solomonov restaurant Dizengoff is expected to open later this fall down the block, at 1625 Sansom St.
(The Tapster location had been Philadelphia Runner, which was among the businesses ransacked during the unrest in May 2020. It relocated to 1711 Walnut St., a block away.)
Tapster’s vibe is social, as groups of friends meet on the bench-type furniture in the back, or at swing seating in the front.
Though there are TVs, it is not a sports bar. In a bit of cheekiness, each of the four solo restrooms is decorated to honor the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, and Sixers. Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice stickers for rival teams affixed inside the toilet bowls — not a welcome sight for fans of the Mets, Cowboys, Penguins, and Celtics.
Hours are noon to midnight Monday to Thursday, noon till 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 1 to 11 p.m. Sunday.