CAMDEN BARS - Donkey's Place

CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY

DONKEY'S PLACE
1223 Haddon Avenue

1223 Haddon Avenue does not appear as a bar in the 1918-1919 Camden City Directory. The building appears to have operated as a speakeasy during the Prohibition years, 1919 through 1933. A private club called the Parkside Athletic Association had space in the building, and an elaborate system of alarms and bells was installed, which is still in evidence today. 

By 1939 the bar at 1223 Haddon Avenue had been acquired by Charles E.A. "Pop" Mathews, who had operated bars, taverns, and hotels throughout the city for many years. By 1939 Mr. Mathews was living above the bar. Mr. Mathews resided at the bar until his passing on July 6, 1942. After his death, his wife and sons took a shot at operating the establishment, as the bar appears in the 1943 Camden City Directory under the name of Mrs. Ada Mathews, his widow. By 1947 the Mathews family had sold the property to Leon Lucas, who had been the on the United States 1928 Olympic boxing team as a light heavyweight, in the early 1940s. 

Leon Lucas renamed the establishment Donkey's Place, and the bar soon gained a reputation for it's delicious steak sandwiches, served with fried onions on a poppy seed roll. The bar remains in the hands of the Lucas family, with son Bob Lucas operating the business since his father's passing in 1971.  

Donkey's place remain open in as of the fall of 2005, known far and wide for delicious food and drink. In 2003 Bob Lucas opened a second location in Medford NJ, and in 2005, a third Donkey's Place opened up, at 1018 Asbury Avenue in Ocean City NJ. 


April 20, 1959
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Veteran's Boxing Association
Ring No. 6

Donkeyt's Place at 1223 Haddon Avenue - March 16, 2003
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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

Camden landmark does one thing - and does it right
Owned by one family for 61 years, Donkey's Place sticks to cheesesteak

by
Eileen Stillwell

Courier-Post Staff

Donkey's Place, a bar and cheesesteak landmark on Haddon Avenue, is alive and well after 61 years of operation by the Lucas family.

Located 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 northeast cities.

Inside, 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 neighborhood.

"There's 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."

A heavy smoker, Lucas doesn't worry about the possible impact of pending no-smoking legislation on his business.

"My customers don't stay much more than 20 to 30 minutes," he said. "Anybody - even me - can last that long without a cigarette."

Lucas 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.

"My 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. 

Downstairs is a former speakeasy with a secret door that was a hot spot during Prohibition under a previous owner.

"This 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 12-stool bar.

"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 Stratford.

The 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.

No 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. .


Bob Lucas

Camden
Courier-Post
December 3, 2004





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