Philadelphia Inquirer – June 16, 1993
Cheers to Donkey’s Place, Still Kicking After 50 Years
By Gwen Florio, Inquirer Staff Writer
CAMDEN — It’s the classic neighborhood bar: all soothing dark wood and low, easy talk and the murmur of a ballgame from a discreet corner television.
So it gives you a jolt to walk back out into the harsh, hot day and realize that the neighborhood around Donkey’s Place died years ago.
No matter. Back inside, where the drawn blinds screen out the boarded-up storefronts that line Haddon Avenue near the hospital named for Our Lady of Lourdes, the folks at Donkey’s have created their own neighborhood.
Gwendolyn Brown and Mabel Boston, girlhood friends who renewed their acquaintance in a senior citizens’ high-rise, still make a point of patronizing one of the first white-owned bars in Camden that let black people walk in through the front door.
“This is a homely kind of place. I never felt like I was segregated,” Brown, 66, said yesterday as she and Boston enjoyed a lazy smoke over plastic cups of Budweiser, and helped Donkey’s mark its 50th anniversary.
Patrick O’Brien, 32, of Wyncote, on the other side of Philadelphia, stops by whenever his sales job takes him to Camden. To his regret – because he considers their Donkey’s Steaks far superior to the famous cheesesteaks across the river – that’s only about once a month.
Still, Mary Snyder barely glanced up from the grill when he walked through the door yesterday. “Plain steak, ketchup on both sides of the roll, right?”
“She knows,” said O’Brien, “what I like.”
Knowing what people like is what a neighborhood bar is all about. For 50 years, it’s been Donkey’s specialty.
Yesterday, the bar celebrated its golden anniversary in a typically understated way. There were some balloons, three bouquets of flowers, and – on a corner table – a dark, melty chocolate cake baked by Patricia Lucas, 46, of Medford, daughter of Leon “Donkey” Lucas, the 1928 light-heavyweight Olympic boxer who acquired the bar in 1943.
Three generations of Lucases held court in the bar’s dining room yesterday, from 85-year-old Alice Lucas (Leon’s widow) to her grandchildren Robert Jr., Joseph and Lisa, who took a half-day off school to help celebrate.
Robert Sr., Leon’s son and the proprietor, tended bar – something he’s been doing since “the second it was legal, when I was 21.” He’s 53 now.
A few things have changed since his father took over in 1943. The family no longer lives upstairs; they moved to Medford in the 1950s. The postwar closing of Camden’s big shipyards cut into what once was a brisk early-morning trade for Donkey’s; now the bar opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 7. And the buildings nearby, with their peeling paint and broken windows, bear testimony to Camden’s slow decline.
Inside, though, little is different from the days when the name of Donkey Lucas was enough to draw customers such as Mike Rozier, 1983 winner of college football’s Heisman Trophy, and 1951 world heavyweight boxing champion Jersey Joe Walcott. Both grew up in Camden.
Pictures of Lucas in his boxing heyday – he set a record in the 1928 Olympic tryouts for stopping four opponents in four bouts in just 26 hours – decorate the walls. A Kurt Russell lookalike, with his generous mouth and wavy hair, Lucas got his nickname because his famed roundhouse right “was like the kick of a mule,” said his daughter, Patricia.
“I don’t know why they just didn’t call him Mule,” she added.
And, just as the clientele at Donkey’s Place has been since the bar opened, yesterday’s crowd was racially mixed. Maybe that’s not as big a deal now, but it was unheard of back then, said Mabel Boston, 66.
“He met a lot of black people when he was boxing,” she said of Lucas, ”so I guess it didn’t bother him to let us in.”
These days, she and Brown hit Donkey’s a couple of times a week, for a beer and a smoke and a Donkey’s Steak.
Ah, the Donkey’s Steak. It’s something else that hasn’t changed in nearly 50 years.
The bar tried a couple of different sandwiches at first, said Alice Lucas. They served a cold ham sandwich when it opened, then switched to hot roast beef with a mushroom-soup gravy when they got the grill.
Then, Leon Lucas and one of the cooks started fooling around with cheesesteaks, serving them on round poppyseed rolls and throwing some spices into the fried onions.
They became known as Donkey’s Steaks, and it’s the only sandwich that Donkey’s serves. Robert Lucas occasionally gets requests to ship one across the country on dry ice.
“There are people all over the world right now wishing they could have a Donkey’s Steak,” said Patricia Lucas.
Her sister-in-law, Elsie Lucas, 40, of Medford, chimed in with a story about how, when she was visiting Italy a few years ago, an American woman spotted her.
“I know you!” the woman yelled. “You make Donkey’s Steaks!”
Yesterday, Gwendolyn Brown had wrapped her Donkey’s Steak so she could eat it later. Looking around conspiratorially—almost as if her doctor was lurking at the next table—Brown whispered, “I’m not supposed to eat this. I’ve got high blood pressure.”
She was, she said, going to sneak the cheesesteak into her apartment and take a blood-pressure pill before she ate it.
And next week, she expects to be back at Donkey’s with Boston, ordering herself another Donkey’s Steak.
“I was here three times last week. I will continue to come here,” she chortled, “until they take me out in a body bag.”