Full Complement

National Mechanics, Philadelphia: “Playing it safe is just about the most dangerous thing a woman like you could do.”

I’VE had my eye on National Mechanics for a while now, ever since I first discovered Farmicia and noticed the interesting pillars across the way. It’s been tantalizing me: a sort of siren song that I’ve resisted (mostly by accident), but one that promised mysteries and enchantments.

Last winter, on a night out in Old City with Linda and some others, we decided to get after-dinner drinks at National Mechanics. We braved the cold and the winds, made it up the imposing front steps — and then discovered that Linda had left her ID at home. Discouraged but able to laugh, we wandered elsewhere and enshrined ourselves around steaming mugs of cocoa and made up mythologies for what the interior of National Mechanics must look like.

And I’ll say this for the place: we could never have imagined this particular interior. When I finally stepped through the doors and found Nicole tucked into a table against the wall, I had to take a moment to just suck in the understated simplicity of the place.

The pillars of the Parthenon-esque steps lead you to believe that the inside is going to be grandiose, overdone, indulgent to the point of gaudy. Instead, you walk into a room darkened with heavy wood furniture, a back wall of exposed brick, and windows half-blocked by glass canisters filled with hothouse plants. The bar on the right is the focus of the room, but the centerpiece is the laughter. Sound lingers in this room, bright and airy, and lights what the overheads do not reach. People sit high in their chairs, swinging their feet and sharing bites and sips over the rustic-style tabletops.

The bar boasts everything you need to make your own Bloody Mary. Order your vodka and rim from the waitress, and then you have free reign over the horseradish, tomato juice, various hot sauces, Worcestershire sauces, and other ingredients. Here, it’s up to you how spicy to make your drink, how horseradish-y, how salty. Celery comes courtesy of the establishment, and for those newbies to the Bloody Mary making, there’s also a convenient carafe of pre-made Bloody Mary mix to use.

Nicole and I decided to take the plunge (much like Loretta in Moonstruck), but decided to wait till after our meal. I was still half-drunk from the night before and needed copious amounts of water and stable food in me before getting back aboard the liquor train. Plus, this was that ridiculously hot sudden weekend in April, and the walk from my apartment to National Mechanics had left me parched.

Nicole ordered the National Skillet (ham, potatoes, and tomatoes topped with Oaxaca cheese and fried eggs), as her house in West Philly has become something of a no-egg, no-meat zone. For me, in my half-dazed state, I wanted color and greens and something substantial without being heavy. So it was the Avocado & Grapefruit Salad with a sweet lemon vinaigrette for me. Eminently satisfied, we sat back, pushed our empty plates a few inches away from the edge of the table, and contemplated the Bloody Mary bar.

It was a no-brainer: of course we were going to test it out. You don’t get full access to a fully stocked Bloody Mary bar and turn it down! So, after determining that neither of us really knew what we were doing, we took our vodka-and-ice filled glasses (Nicole’s rimmed with celery seed, mine with Old Bay), and trepidatiously walked ourselves over. By this time — our brunch started late, and we were now closer to 3pm and tea time than to our original plan of 11am — it was about 2pm and National Mechanics had emptied out a bit. (We’d find all of our fellow brunchers an hour later at Franklin Fountain).

Thanks to the example set by another patron, we had a general idea of what to do: splash some tomato juice atop the vodka, teaspoon of horseradish, drop or two of hot sauce, a couple drops of Worcestershire sauce, more tomato sauce, stir, taste. Add more hot sauce as needed. Mine had a faint, wonderful buzz; Nicole, daredevil that she is, splashed more than a generous amount of Jamaican hot sauce into hers and had to down two gulps of water for every sip of Bloody Mary.

But every sip was worth it. Not just because we got the chance to catch up after what feels like an incredibly long time; not just because the food was good, the sun was out, and our waitress was all smiles; not just because I finally got to set foot into National Mechanics and see the myth for myself. Take all this, and add the fact that in the midst of it all, we got to create. We got to make our own drinks, then sit back and enjoy the fruits of our own labors. And man, was it ever good.

As Ronny Cammareri says, so eloquently:

“We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.”

We might as well eat and drink really well while we’re at it.