Although Union Tap House has changed with the times, the neighborhood bar — known for its craft beer and wings — has never lost its identity.
By Brian Anderson
Photography by JPG Photo & Video (jpgphotography.com)
Bill Newman says Union Tap House is an extension of his living room, and that’s an apt description of the place. The space feels lived in. You’re always welcomed here. Grab a drink, order some food, and then just relax.
Bill, all-things expert of Union Tap House, has a long history with this place, which was previously known as Union Jacks. He once sat on the other end of the bar as a patron — when the burgers were the best thing on the menu — and he wasn’t a craft beer drinker. He became a part-time cook and saw the wings and craft beers gain acclaim. More than a decade later, Bill decided to buy the place, changing the name to Union Tap House.
Though the name may have changed and the menu may have been updated, the bones remain the same — beer, burgers, and wings.
“Union Jacks was always a craft beer bar,” Bill said. “They were doing craft when only a few other bars in the city were.
Union Tap House’s extensive beer list changes often. There are always seasonal brews and beers that represent the latest trends in brewing. As tastes evolve, so does the draft list.
“I try to make sure there’s something for everyone on there,” Bill said. “There are so many great local breweries. There’s so much great beer that it’s tough to carry everything and make everyone happy.”
It’s why the draft list has seasonal beers, old classics, and more exotic, high-end beers. For good measure, the tap list won Best of Manayunk in that category back in 2017.
Union Jacks was a beer-and-a-shot kind of bar, and now Bill and the bartenders aren’t afraid to try something new. Union Tap House, at the corner of Umbria and Fountain streets, now features an expanded cocktail list and wine program, and its bourbon collection rivals any bar in the neighborhood. The classic cocktails (you’ll find them as “drinks that don’t suck” on the menu) all have a twist.
“I wanted to change it to have our own identity, but I didn’t want to stray too far from what it was,” he said. “I didn’t want people to think, ‘The name changed, so everything is different.’ We wanted to keep a piece of our history.”
Everything on the menu — wings, appetizers, fries, salads, burgers, sandwiches, and wraps — is a collaboration between Bill, his wife Steph, and Union Tap House’s kitchen manager, John Smith.
Now, let’s talk about the famous wings. After all, they’re also a Best of Manayunk winner — and trust me, they are out-of-this-world, come-back-just-for-them delicious.
“That’s what I have the most fun with because we get to be creative,” Bill said.
Union Tap House sells a lot wings, which makes one wonder, “Why do we like wings so much? What draws us to them? And how can you be creative with chicken wings?”
“For us, it’s the sauces,” Bill said. “The sauces are what makes it fun.”
Today, the menu boasts more than 20 sauces for the wings (and there’s always a few more in the works). There’s a spice level and flavor profile for everyone. Let’s name just a few flavors: cajun, apple honey barbecue, bourbon molasses, honey Caribbean, Sicilian killers, Mexi-jalapeño, Tex-Mex, Southern country, Thai hot, and lemon pepper.
The next sauce you might see on the menu is a habanero pomegranate barbecue. But developing a wing sauce is a unique challenge — it’s the right balance of flavor and wing-stickiness, Bill explained.
“It’s gonna work,” he said with a smile. “It’s definitely going to work.”
Bill isn’t afraid to change what’s happening in the kitchen, either. This isn’t just a wing and burger bar, after all. Bill said last year, the kitchen made homemade pastrami for sandwiches. “That was a big hit,” he said, and it might make a return to the special menu.
“Every time a special works, we keep it around until the next menu revision,” Bill said. But don’t worry — the wings are still the same.
The menu and beer list are the perfect representation of the history and future of Union Tap House. Bill said you can find record of a bar at that corner as far back as 1875. And the history is etched into the building, too. Look up, and you’ll see street names on the corner of the building from more than 100 years ago before Washington Lane became Umbria Street.
Of course, times and tastes are changing, so Union Tap House is changing, too. Every year, Bill asks his staff for their list of recommendations for the bar — they know the place and the regulars more than anyone. From those lists came the bar’s wine program and expanded cocktail menu.
Union Tap House isn’t afraid of change. It’s why the bar features different breweries every month with tap takeovers, and just one of the reasons why the bourbon menu has grown so much in recent years.
This place still feels lived in and has a friendly atmosphere, though. The sign outside Union Tap House reads “United We Drink.” It’s hard to come up with better description the place — it truly is a quintessential neighborhood bar.
“It’s a big melting pot, every walk of life comes through this door. It doesn’t matter who you are,” Bill said. “We know we’re the corner neighborhood bar. Our goal is to be the best corner neighborhood bar we can be. It’s the food, it’s the beer, it’s the ‘everyone is welcome here.’”