Camden landmark does one thing – and does it right

Camden Courier-Post – December 3, 2004

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.


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