I first visited Camden, New Jersey, with the sole intent of eating panzarotti, the deep fried ancestor of the pizza pocket that put Camden on the culinary map. Standing at the counter of The Panzarotti Spot, I crunched through four golden-brown cheese purses before inquiring of the owners where one might sit down for a cold beer. In unison everyone shouted, “Donkey’s Place.” Mention was made of a soul music jukebox, meat sandwiches, and birch beer on tap; I wasn’t going home anytime soon.
Donkey’s Place has been open since 1943. It takes its name from original owner Leon “Donkey” Lucas, an Olympic heavyweight boxer who was said to have a punch “like the kick of a mule.” Tending bar on my first visit was Donkey’s son, Robert Lucas, who at the time was in his late 60s.
Their “meat sandwich” is actually New Jersey’s most revered cheesesteak.
It was quickly revealed by Robert that their “meat sandwich” is actually New Jersey’s most revered cheesesteak. Served on round poppy seed rolls baked that morning at Del Buono’s Bakery in nearby Haddon Heights, Donkey’s cheesesteak is assembled from a sizzling mountain of seared beef, onion, and cheddar. Homemade pickled habaneros from the family garden can be procured from a large glass jug at the end of the bar. Small containers of house-made pepper oil top each table. If you are driving, a sharply carbonated birch beer soda on draft is a refreshing complement to the sandwich.
The top of the bar is lined with unopened bottles of long-extinct liquor brands. Steins and other memorabilia veil a heavily patinaed wall fresco of Donkey and his family frolicking on a countryside farm a lifetime ago. The clientele hugging the old wood bar are a boisterous cross-section of friendly Camdenites. Without trying, Donkey’s Place has the true iconic character new businesses attempt to manufacture and tourist traps attempt to achieve. It is a perfect bar to sit back, have a drink, and learn about a city most outsiders fear, from the people who call it home.
The piece of memorabilia that stands out to me is an autographed picture of legendary Philadelphia soulster Billy Paul. Sipping brown liquor while listening to that brown liquor music, one wonders if Donkey’s Place could in fact be “the café” where Billy meets Mrs. Jones in his seminal ballad to premarital liaisons, Me and Mrs. Jones. After a few of Donkey’s celestial sandwiches, one can even hypothesize that perhaps Mrs. Jones wasn’t a woman at all. Perhaps this forbidden lady represented a culinary love affair Billy was having with the cheesesteak across the river.
Since my first time in Camden many years ago, I make it my business to visit Donkey’s at least once a year. Robert was thrilled to be on Parts Unknown and considered it a career highlight. Sadly he passed away in 2015, but his son Robert Jr continues to keep the suds flowing and the cheesesteaks sizzling. He has even extended the hours so they now stay open weekdays until 5 p.m.
Day drinking in Camden with some Billy Paul and a cheese steak?
Yes. Yes please.