A Guide to Semi-Sober or Sober-Curious Living in Philadelphia

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From fancy cocktail programs to city specials, in good times and bad, Philly has long been known to fend them off. Here’s how not drinking became a movement in the most unlikely places.

A Guide to Semi-Sober or Sober-Curious Living in Philadelphia | Photograph by André Rucker


My so-called (semi-sober) life

The fairly basic act of not pouring yourself a glass of wine requires a great deal of introspection and clashes with great cultural and social forces. Could Philadelphians really think differently about alcohol? Can I? By Laura Brzyski

Photograph by André Rucker

There was not one catastrophic event that caused me to re-evaluate my relationship with alcohol. Instead, smaller, less awesome moments started to string together like pearls on a necklace that I no longer wanted to wear. Usually canceling the Sunday morning spin class I swore to myself — in my hungover-free state — I wasn’t going to miss it. Delete emotionally charged social media posts the morning after abusing — or, worse, apologizing for passive-aggressive DMs sent to haters. Sleep so, so badly. Mindlessly picking up a bottle of wine or a can of fortified seltzer any night because work was done/I was so productive/I had a hard day/¯_(ツ)_/ ¯

I used to be the person who only drank on Friday and Saturday nights, and I kept my drink count low enough that I rarely got hungover. But since the pandemic hit, I’ve found myself more willing to pour a drink or two or three on several weekdays. Being less restrictive with my drinking helped at first. As a perfectionist who struggled with orthorexia — an obsession with healthy or “clean” eating — I found that gaining the upper hand allowed me to not be so hard on myself when I let myself down. However, I also found myself unable to decline the dry bubbles of brut, the sweet and sour delight of a cosmos, or the tang of a grapefruit High Noon, no matter if the setting was social, solo, anxious , clumsy or simply uneventful. Keep reading here.


Leaving Club Soda

With complex flavors and pretty toppings, non-alcoholic options in bars and restaurants in Philadelphia have finally grown. Here, five N/As to try the next time you go out. By Regan Fletcher Stephens

Photograph by André Rucker

Albert Drary, The Good King’s Tavern

Beverage director Pat Bruning’s first attempt at this drink was a failure. (He used radishes.) The winning cocktail, named after a carrot lover the Lord of the Rings character, is a mixture of charred carrots, grapefruit juice, honey syrup and black pepper. A spoon of labneh gives a creamy texture.

Floradora, W Philadelphia Wet Deck Bar

Global cocktail authority Resa Mueller has been hired to create drink menus for the sleek new Center City hotel, including its seventh-floor bar. Find the sunset-colored Floradora, made with mashed raspberries and a shot of ginger, in the Wit or Witout section, where each drink can be ordered as is or with a shot of alcohol.

lavender bow tie, Royal Butcher

RB’s Temperance Cocktails menu offers a thoughtful collection of ABV-free drinks that includes the floral Bloom-scape, with hibiscus and rose; the East Side, a kind of Moscow Mule without vodka; and the lavender bow tie, with grapefruit, club soda, and vibrant purple butterfly pea flowers.

Triple G, Food and drink

Grenadine, guava and grapefruit come together over ice for a transporting tropical blend. While 3-G is usually only served in the warmer months, beverage manager James Smith says his bar team loves to dream up non-alcoholic drinks made from an arsenal of ingredients made to by hand, including birch extract, tincture of black pepper and seasonal fruit syrups. .

Savory Sage Spritz, Lark

Meyer lemon juice and fresh sage make a well-balanced effervescent spritzer that’s part tart, part salty and just a little sweet, says its creator, Lark GM Christy Nguyen. Served in a highball glass with a large ice cube and a garnish of fresh herbs, it’s the sophisticated mocktail you deserve.


Way beyond O’Douls

Four things Philly needs to normalize — and celebrate — all forms of sobriety.

Photograph by André Rucker

No more non-spirit bottle shops

Gem Life + Bar, the closest non-alcoholic bottle shop to Philadelphia, is awesome. But it’s in New Jersey. Other cities as obsessed with food and drink as ours have seen a steady opening of non-alcoholic bottle stores over the past couple of years. Philly needs more places like pioneering Spirited Away in New York, hip Soft Spirits in Los Angeles, cute Sèchey in Charleston, and The Open Road in Pittsburgh — which even offers delivery.

More dry bars

Imagine the best parts of your favorite bar – great lighting, live music, chilling without screens, catching up with friends (maybe making new ones, winking) – but minus the booze. Sans Bar, in Austin, started the temperance bar trend in 2017. Since then, iterations have followed: the Virgin Mary in Dublin, where “people can socialize on a more conscious level”; the Ocean Beach Cafe in San Francisco, which offers vegan dishes; and Denver’s Awake, which offers acoustic parties and singles parties. In Philadelphia, there’s only one: the Volstead, which opened in Manayunk last month.

More meal pairings N/A

As Philadelphia restaurants think more about mocktails, there’s room for improvement. Some of the world’s most notable restaurants – Noma in Denmark, Eleven Madison Park in New York – have added soft drink pairings to their menus. (EMP’s non-alcoholic pairing is $95!) It’s just another way to create a memorable dining experience for those who don’t want to drink.

More community connections

Websites, Instagram accounts, newsletters – digital media covering the scene helps turn a trend into motion. Locally, Edible Philly editor Joy Manning (the former Philly Mag food critic), who started the IG channel @betterwithoutbooze five years ago, seems like an isolated voice despite the popularity of her content.


My Alcohol Breakup Story

Four Philadelphians share what made them dry.

Lou Perseghin / Photograph by André Rucker

Lou Perseghin

Point Breeze, parent

When I finished it: October 2021.

Biggest takeaway: I have yet to be in a situation that, in retrospect, would have been better had I had a drink or two. This feeling is liberating.

The biggest challenges: “Coming out” to people I used to drink with.

Main advantages: I have more energy. My body hurts me less. I stay more focused. I hope I will answer clearly in case of emergency. The realization that I’m already weird on my own, and that I don’t need alcohol to feel that way.

Tina Dixon Spence / Photograph by André Rucker

Tina DixonSpence

Mount Airy, owner of Buddha Babe

When I decided to get semi-sober: October 2021. I wanted to feel in control again. Over the years, I’ve developed a routine that has taken me to altering meal plans, having a glass of wine before bed, or drinking mimosas with store customers.

Biggest takeaway: Wine drinking is such a part of a mother’s routine that it is glorified and celebrated. But honestly, it drains my life.

Biggest Challenge: Do without this drink during dinner. It’s a dangerous area that I find difficult to manage.

Robert Li / Photograph by André Rucker

Robert Li

Old City, clothing designer, AcroYoga teacher, photographer

When I re-evaluated: Intentionally, in 2017. Unintentionally, before that. I started a project in which I travel around the world to lift 10,000 different people into acrobatic poses. I would rather be sober in those scenarios.

Main advantages: Fewer empty calories. Being able to enjoy the moment and not feel bad the next day. Being able to make better bad decisions.

The biggest challenges: Being able to set boundaries and say “No, thank you” when people offer you a drink. To be able to dance without drinking too much – but you understand things.

Katie Laughlin / Photograph by André Rucker

Katie Laughlin

South Philly, personal trainer at X-Force

When I finished it: December 26, 2021. I was in a bad space emotionally after an argument with a guy I was dating. To cope, I went to a bar. I got so drunk that I fell and broke my ankle. It forced me to slow the hell down and do some self-reflection. I am grateful.

Biggest takeaways: I don’t have to be an “alcoholic” to recognize that I have a problem with alcohol.

Main advantages: Self-awareness and getting a support system.

Published as “My so-called (semi-sober) life” in the April 2022 issue of philadelphia cream magazine.

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