Bob Lucas owner of Donkey's Place in Camden stands in front of his establishment. The Lucas family started the bar in 1943 in December of 2004.
|Philadelphia Inquirer - June 16, 1993|
In Camden, A Neighborhood Bar With The Works Cheers To Donkey's Place, Still Kicking After 50 Years
By Gwen Florio,
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.".
|Philadelphia Inquirer - July 11, 2004|
Donkey's Place is a Stubborn Survivor, and so is its Cheesesteak
by Rick Nichols, Inquirer Columnist
It is a bit of Camden in amber now, Donkey's Place is, or maybe a shrine - the dingy bar hung with photos of the founder, his dukes perpetually up; the grill steaming with steaks and onions; the back room still swathed in the original tobacco-colored mural, a sweep of Sahara, its palms chipped and faded from 60 years of wear.
This was his father's brainstorm, his idea of subliminal suggestion, owner Robert Lucas tells me: a parched desert scene calculated to drive his patrons to drink.In fact, the only major change at Donkey's is that while it looks like a bar (circa 1943) and feels like a bar, it is really more a cheesesteakery these days, the Lucas family's magnificent version of the sandwich having triumphed over the booze (especially since the place now closes at 6 p.m., though an adjoining take-out window cranks out the steaks until midnight).
The old-timers have faded into the woodwork. Once upon a time during Prohibition, this was a speakeasy serving a Jewish clientele, its secret bell system still visible along with its name above the basement stairs: Parkside Athletic Club. Later its stools were graced with Polish shipyard workers and assemblers from the RCA plant and Campbell's soup-makers dressed in telltale whites, their hair neatly netted. There were lean years after the factories left. Then came the latest wave - African American staffers from three burgeoning hospitals nearby and from City Hall.
Not a thing has changed the sandwich, though, a reshaped vision of the South Philly classic. It is as close to taking a bite of 1943 Camden as you'll likely get. The meat is still a block of thin-sliced ribeye folded on the grill, poked at with the corner of a spatula to loosen the texture - but never chopped. The hot, chopped red pepper relish is from K&Z, the Camden pickle maker. The rolls are, yes, round, their tops set on the sizzling steaks to breathe their steam and give them character. They are the same oversize poppy-seed kaisers, baked to Donkey's specs by Del Buono's Bakery in Haddon Heights, just as they have been since opening day. Finally, there are the sweet onions. They were delivered in a little red wagon years ago by a vendor who lived two blocks away. Now it is his son who delivers them. They are ordinary onions. But they become special on the grill, mounded up and around the steaks for close to an hour, sucking up the beefy juice, seasoned with secret seasoning (garlic? paprika?), furrowed and plowed until they are as tender and caramelized as the onions in French onion soup, which is what Lucas' wife, Lisa, sometimes makes from the ones left over.
It is big helpings of those onions that give the steak its personality. They're more the signature than the steak, turning the thing into a soupy, gooey, hugely flavorful handful - the beef informing the onions and vice versa, the red pepper relish tangy against the sweet and salt and cheese, the perfect counterpoint.
It is so good - and the round roll so intriguing - that after wolfing his first one in 1998, Philadelphia's then-Mayor Ed Rendell wrote to Lucas, urging him to move across the river. It is so good that two years ago, a Jersey expat copied it right down to the double-waxed-paper wrapper in New York's Greenwich Village (at a place called BB Sandwich Bar) that still cranks it out seven days a week. It is so good that Lucas' three children have opened a branch of their own in Medford. But this is the mother lode, where Haddon crosses Liberty - where the cooking is slow, and take-out orders are tucked under the grill, and hallowed boxing gloves dangle over the sands of the Sahara.
Lucas' late father, Leon, was a fighter - a champ in his unit in World War I and, in the 1920s, U.S. amateur light-heavyweight champ. Had a punch like the kick of a mule, they say. Gave him his nickname. Left a lasting impression, that's for sure.
|Camden Courier-Post - December 3, 2004|
landmark does one thing - and does it right
Place, a bar and cheesesteak landmark on Haddon Avenue, is alive and well
after 61 years of operation by the Lucas family.
on the corner of Haddon Avenue and Liberty Street, the weathered, tan
brick building with a green wraparound awning catches the eye because its
front door is angled in a way that is unique to commercial corners in
Bob Lucas, 64, wipes the bar, greets old friends and makes new customers
feel welcome. His low-key presence is a safe harbor in an oft-troubled
no pool table, no dartboard or jukebox in here because my customers eat
and leave," Lucas said. "Never any drunks or underage kids
because they know it's just not the place."
heavy smoker, Lucas doesn't worry about the possible impact of pending
no-smoking legislation on his business.
customers don't stay much more than 20 to 30 minutes," he said.
"Anybody - even me - can last that long without a cigarette."
grew up in an apartment over the bar in the days when it was open six days
a week until 2 a.m. Today, it's open Monday through Friday until 6 p.m.
Lucas lives in Medford, where his children are running a Donkey's Too on
Tomlinson Mill Road.
dad was a boxer and his nickname was Donkey, because he was told he had a
punch like a mule," said Lucas about the bar's name.
The walls are covered with photos of Leon Lucas, a light heavyweight who went to the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam along with Jim Thorpe. His boxing gloves are behind glass in the bar, next to a piano, that is next to a broken neon sign and a pile of clutter.
is a former speakeasy with a secret door that was a hot spot during
Prohibition under a previous owner.
bar hasn't changed a bit and I've been coming here for almost 50
years," said Ivan Cantiant, 67, while sipping a Coors Light at the
neighborhood has changed, but I come for the food and because it's a
cheerful place," said Cantiant, a retired tractor-trailer driver from
menu is limited to cheesesteaks sandwiches with or without cheese, with or
without onions; french fries or potato chips are on the side. Round sesame
rolls from DelBuono's in Haddon Heights are steamed closed before delivery
on a paper plate.
soup, no chicken, no tofu. Not even a Tastykake. Just 400 steak sandwiches
on a good afternoon.
The Donkey steak is so beloved that Lucas fills orders from homesick people, sending partially cooked sandwiches via UPS as far away as Hawaii.
"It's a nostalgic place that has a very loyal following," says Randy Primas, chief operating officer for the city of Camden and former two-term mayor. "I was raised on those sandwiches. Recently, Sen. (Wayne) Bryant and I stopped for lunch, and we bumped into a couple of Camden judges."
An East Camden native, Primas also is nostalgic for the days when Haddon and Kaighn avenues were safe and prosperous shopping streets.
"Despite that statistic that called Camden the most unsafe city in America, I don't feel it," Primas said. "It is our hope that places like Donkey's will last until there are no longer any issues about safety on Haddon Avenue."
Lucas says he has no plans to retire or sell the business. He remains one of about 90 barkeepers in a city that 40 years ago had 200 bars.
"We're doing well. We really are," Lucas said. .
|Camden Courier-Post * August 4, 2015|
|Camden Courier-Post * August 4, 2015|
Bob Lucas, 75 of Medford, owner of Donkey's Place located on Haddon Ave. in Camden, stands behind his bar. Donkey's Place which was started by Lucas's parents, Leon and Alice Lucas, in 1943, serves hundreds of the restaurant's famous steak sandwiches daily.
Thin rib-eye steak, onions, and cheese are sit on the grill at Donkey's Place in Camden. Donkey's Place serves their steak sandwiches on rolls from Del Buono's Bakery in Haddon Heights.
Carol Blalock of Philadelphia, left, traveled from Philadelphia to Camden to try a steak sandwich at Donkey's Place for the first time. "I never had a steak sandwich quite like this. It's amazing", Blalock said.
An order of freshly made steak sandwiches are gathered before being wrapped at Donkey's Place in Camden.
Donkey's Place founder Leon Lucas was an amateur boxer who fought in the 1928 Olympics. Lucas was nicknamed Donkey because people said that his punch was like a kick from a mule.
|Camden Courier-Post * August 4, 2015|
Robert A. Lucas
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