The Rise And Fall Of Philadelphia’s Diners

 

For anyone unaware of the state of one of the country’s most recognizable cultural icons, the diner, the Oak Lane Diner, in North Philadelphia, currently provides a clue. The diner, one of the anchors of the neighborhood, remains boarded up. On June 6, the City posted a notice on the front door demanding its owners to either fix it or tear it down.

After its rise, fall, and rediscovery, the American diner may indeed serve up its last plate of meatloaf well within the lifetime of anyone born since 1980.

Contemporary Americans seem to prefer “fast-casual” chains (like Panera Bread) over diners, where you can get a pretty good meal for not a lot of money and you don’t have to bother with a server. Order, pickup, and go. We love this, especially in the suburbs.

One of the most tragic losses to the roster of Philadelphia diners came with the demolition of the long-suffering Wayne Junction Diner. Seen here in 1993 during a bus tour of the region's diners sponsored by the Society of Commercial Archeology, the 1940 Paramount attracted a great deal of interest, but ultimately no takers. | Photo: Randy Garbin

One of the most tragic losses to the roster of Philadelphia diners came with the demolition of the long-suffering Wayne Junction Diner. Seen here in 1993 during a bus tour of the region’s diners sponsored by the Society of Commercial Archeology, the sale of the 1940 Paramount attracted a great deal of interest, but ultimately no takers. | Photo: Randy Garbin

In the city, diversity and relatively cheap real estate prices in many neighborhoods along with increasing demand for an authentic cultural experiences allow entrepreneurial restaurateurs to set up shop and flourish here. But what about the diner?

While the the iconic Melrose and the Mayfair, both currently owned by Michael Petrogiannis, remain, the vast majority are gone. In the first decade of the 21st century, Petrogiannis also snapped up the Tiffany, Country Club, and Broad Street diners. In total, his restaurants represent about 900 seats. Whether or not he’s actually improved on any of them depends on who you ask.

Twenty-four diners now operate in Philadelphia, down from 30 in 1990 when I first toured the city (I’ve visited more than 1,000 across the country). You’ll find only three stainless steel diners in near-original condition (Trolley Car, Silk City, and Bob’s Diner), and two more (Melrose and Mayfair Diner) with renovations that, while they could have been much worse, still stripped away classic features.

Strictly speaking, a diner is a prefabricated food-service structure with counter service and tables. It is not a storefront. It isn’t constructed on-site, but rather brought to a semi-permanent location. It isn’t a converted rail car. The diner has its own history that stretches back to the 1870s when food vendor Walter Scott in Providence, Rhode Island modified his horse-drawn freight wagon into something akin to modern day food carts and trucks seen all over Center City–a small vehicle from which hot meals are dispensed.

From there, others imitated his success until Samuel Jones in Worcester, Massachusetts began building and selling more of these lunch wagons for others to operate. The wagons, eventually manufactured by several different companies, grew bigger and more ornate and semi-permanent. They began showing up in every major city and small town across the Northeast. Diner manufacturers eventually centered in northern New Jersey, where for a good 70 years they produced iconic stainless steel restaurants. Most extant diners likely came from a New Jersey factory. About 6,000 were built; today, some 1,800 remain with roughly two thirds still in food-service operation. Of those, around 200 were built before 1965 and are still in original condition.

But greater food service regulation, rising food prices, increasing labor costs, and operator burnout further endanger these cultural icons and once the doors close on these places they won’t likely reopen as something we identify as a diner.

This roundup features what I believe to be the city’s best and most significant examples of the the classic American diner.

A Word About Diner Food

Clearly, someone at Bob's Diner paid very careful attention in omelette making class. There isn't a true diner anywhere in this region that makes them as good as Bob's. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Clearly, someone at Bob’s Diner paid very careful attention in omelette making class. There isn’t a true diner anywhere in this region that makes them as good as Bob’s. | Photo: Randy Garbin

This isn’t a food review. What I like, you may not. I’m not a fussy eater. As a preservationist and a diner fanatic, I tend to give considerable slack to vintage diners, especially when they make an obvious effort to do right by the customer and their community. I look for a good value balanced against the general experience. Out of respect for the people who run and staff them, I never refer to diners as greasy spoons, but I revere any sign that the kitchen expresses a love of cooking.

I go to a diner to immerse myself in the neighborhood, especially in a city like Philadelphia that still has so many of them, each with their own distinct identities. I want a good meal at a reasonable price, but I also want to connect with actual people–staff and customers. My favorite diners get creative, while still serving up the classics and preferably with fresh ingredients.

Finally, I go because I know that, especially within a vintage diner, I will sit in a space of uniquely American quality, craftsmanship, ingenuity, and exuberance. They really don’t build them like this anymore. The fact that so few pristine examples remain should give anyone with an appreciation for aesthetic and structural quality reason enough to at least go in one and get a cup of coffee on a regular basis.

Notable Philadelphia Diners


Trolley Car Diner, 7619 Germantown Avenue

The Trolley Car Diner represents Ken Weinstein's support for Mt. Airy's continued revival. Just don't ask him when the actual trolleys will return to the tracks on Germantown Avenue.

The Trolley Car Diner represents Ken Weinstein’s support for Mt. Airy’s continued revival. Just don’t ask him when the actual trolleys will return to the tracks on Germantown Avenue.

The real estate developer Ken Weinstein loves Germantown Avenue. Given the extent of his investments along the corridor, I don’t think you’ll find anyone who has made a bigger bet on its comeback.

In 2000, he openly declared that love when he slipped on its finger one shiny gem in the form of a stainless-steel clad diner trucked in from Wilkes-Barre. The Trolley Car Diner was built by the Mountain View Diner Company of Signac, New Jersey, which seemed to do extremely well selling diners in the Wyoming Valley up into the Binghamton, New York area. You can still find at least a half-dozen examples of their diners built between 1948 and 1954.

Joe Palooka’s sports bar was to serve as one of several attractions in an ambitious heritage tourist development in Wilkes-Barre called Market Square that included the Lehigh Valley train depot, the Stegmaier brewery, a nightclub, and a collection of Pullman sleeper cars repurposed as a hotel. It all shuttered by late 1999.

The story of how the Trolley Car came to Mount Airy begins with a few too many beers. Weinstein and his then-partner Bob Elfant brainstormed an idea to bring a family-style restaurant to the former Roy Rogers location on Germantown. In 1998, with diners at the peak of their resurgence, Ken tossed the idea into mix, and the hunt commenced.

Weinstein and his wife traveled all over the northeast checking on leads for available diners, settling on Palooka’s days if not hours before the diner’s owner planned to bulldoze it. In fact, when they arrived at the site, it was cordoned off with temporary fencing. The city had already issued the demo permit.

In excellent condition, Weinstein had little restorative work to do, but he nevertheless faced a daunting task of connecting the diner with the existing Roy Rogers building. A million dollars later, the end result today includes a craft beer shop that sells over 450 brands and a well-designed dining area that preserves the streamlined atmosphere of the original Mountain View-manufactured diner.

Weinstein topped off the whole project with a neon sign almost worthy of the Las Vegas strip, something few do anymore. Designed and constructed by Philadelphia’s own Len Davidson, the sign depicts an animated scene of a trolley car rolling, stopping, and dropping off a passenger.

Menu-wise, the Trolley Car reflects Weinstein’s intention to bring a family restaurant to the neighborhood. There is a broad variety of dishes, but not it’s not overwhelming. I’ve come here often, with family and friends in tow, and we enjoy whatever we order, particularly when I select something off the specials list.

Serving food at this scale involves choosing your battles carefully, as you can’t make everything from scratch. Sometimes one or two exceptional items can make a restaurant a landmark. Weinstein likes to cite, with some justification, the diner’s chicken croquettes (a long Philadelphia culinary tradition) and milk shakes, and I can whole-heartedly vouch for the croquettes. Trolley Car strikes that rare balance between food quality and attitude. His marketing calls it a “50’s-themed” diner, but you won’t see a Marilyn Monroe cutout greeting you at the door and you won’t get barraged with Chubby Checker on the overhead sound system. If you want meatloaf you can get that, but you can also get jambalaya or a big, leafy salad instead and polish it all off with a bottle of Ommegang Hennepin ale.

Fifteen years later Weinstein has proven both his knowledge of his market and his appreciation for the authentic diner experience–one refreshingly devoid of cutesy, cheap nostalgia that rises far above the tired “greasy spoon” trope. The best diners pay loving homage to its past, but also strive to write their own history and become landmarks in their own right.


The Oregon Diner Restaurant, 302 West Oregon Avenue

The Oregon Diner has likely endured at least two or three renovations since its installation in the 1960s.

The Oregon Diner has endured at least three renovations since its installation in the 1960s. | Photo: Randy Garbin

The big “Greek-style” diner still reigns supreme in the Northeast Corridor. From the New York Metro Area all the way down to D.C., and especially in New Jersey, you still see them everywhere–the expansive “diner-restaurants” with menus that seem to specialize in “EVERY DISH EVER MADE!” If you can’t get it at one of these places you probably never heard of it anyway.

Philadelphia has its share of them, and the Oregon Diner on Oregon Avenue exemplifies the experience. Anchoring the east side of South Philly, the Oregon Diner has uncertain pedigree, but almost certainly emerged from one of the major diner factories in the 1960s. From the looks of things, it has also seen several makeovers, the last one happening a year ago, making any effort to detect original features futile.

The Big Greek Diner has generally thrived through the overall decline of the industry since the 1960s, largely because its owners reacted to the advance of minimized menus of fast food chains by piling it on. Simple menus of meat, potatoes, eggs and pancakes become dizzying cornucopias of sautéed, fried, broiled, grilled, tossed, and of course, baked–ostensibly “on premises.”

For the most part, the Big Greek Diners all serve more or less the same thing. If you removed the cover from the Oregon’s menu and dropped it on a table at the similarly-sized Penrose diner on the other end of South Philly, no one would likely notice for a week or so. The operators will take issue with this, chiefly out of pride, but they often order their food from the same suppliers. They also all use the same playbook so any differences become nuance.

The Big Greek Diner typically gives you a lot of food for the money. The best of them will serve you something that usually tops out at fair-to-good. When you attempt to offer as much as the Oregon does for that many people, greatness becomes nearly impossible.

At the Oregon, my family and I ordered dinner that included chicken soup, pot roast for me, spaghetti and meatballs for the kid, and pasta primavera for my wife. Most entrees on the menu cost less than $15, and we felt just as welcome there as the dozens of locals around us. For fifteen bucks, do you overlook the fact that the mashed potatoes were instant? That the primavera (or portions of it) might have come straight out of the Sysco catalog? Or that the chef erred on the salty side with the otherwise tender pot roast? Also, I didn’t have an omelet at the Oregon, but I can say with some authority after trying dozens of times in places just like these, the Big Greek Diner can’t make a proper omelet to save their lives. Overcooked eggs with ingredients scrambled in does not an omelette make.

Maybe the Big Greek Diner doesn’t earn superlatives, but if you come with a group of people who can’t come to any kind of culinary consensus, nothing fits the bill better than this.

Notably, the Big Greek Diner has become less and less Greek. The old-school guys who built up these businesses now have kids with college degrees who don’t see themselves working 18-hour days for two-percent margins. Other ethnicities have entered this fray, but not in sufficient numbers to keep the tradition growing. More often than not, the grill goes cold and a suburban chain moves in. The Aramingo Diner, another long-time Philly institution, became a medical office.


Melrose Diner, 1501 Snyder Avenue

The Melrose Diner underwent a relatively light, though completely unnecessary exterior renovation in 2010. | Photo: Randy Garbin

The Melrose Diner underwent a relatively light, though completely unnecessary exterior renovation in 2010. | Photo: Randy Garbin

When the Kubach family owned the Melrose Diner they managed to build up something of a one-diner empire. To Philadelphian’s of a certain age, the mere mention of the word “diner” meant the Melrose, an attitude cemented by the diner’s own long-running jingle, “Those who know go to the Melrose.”

The Melrose Diner is the third diner placed at that location, all ordered by Richard Kubach, Sr. The first was installed in 1935, the second in 1940, and the current structure built by Paramount Diners of Haledon, New Jersey came to Snyder Avenue in 1956.

Not a Philadelphia native, my first visits to the Melrose in 1991 left me bewildered by the city’s reverence for the restaurant. The diner’s manager approached me on the sidewalk demanding to know why I was taking pictures. The Kubach family, for whatever reason, apparently had a long-standing no photography policy in-or-outside of the diner. It took another ten years before I managed to furtively snap a shot of the diner’s interior.

It didn’t help my impression of the place when I watched Richard Kubach, Jr. on a television segment of WQED’s “Pennsylvania Diner Roadtrip” explain that the semi-circular booths where total strangers often sat at the same table enhanced the diner’s sense of community, when, more accurately, his practice increased customer churn.

Disingenuousness aside, the Melrose earned a reputation for its baked goods and sterling service. Both the Melrose and the Mayfair shared a particularly endearing practice of pinning their waitresses with the year they started service. You could come out boasting that your waitress was a thirty-year veteran which is no small thing in a business known for its employee turnover.

That all ended with Michael Petrogiannis. On the plus side, he replaced the communal booths. All-in-all, the Melrose still mostly looks and feels like the Melrose.

I can’t call myself a regular, as I’ve only visited the place about a half-dozen times in the past twenty years. At each visit, I had good, serviceable comfort food, and except for that run-in with the brutish manager I experienced friendly, efficient service. My last visit did nothing to change that general impression. My wife and I had the London broil, fried seafood combo, and the minestrone soup. The combo comes, oddly enough, with a dollop of tuna salad as well as fried shrimp, a crab cake, schrod, and scallops, my particular favorite. The wife loved the steak, but couldn’t finish it. You won’t leave hungry.

Judging by the all the online reviews, past impressions, and tips from fellow diner fanatics, the desserts remain the menu’s real attraction. We tried the apple pie with vanilla sauce, which made for a decadent pairing. I don’t know of any other diners that serve their apple pie quite like this, and the sauce is not overly sweet, but it could easily mask any faults of the pie. Big diners like Melrose, with few exceptions, typically serve awful fruit pies–gloppy, over-sweet fillings poured into industrial strength crusts. The Melrose apple would seem to be one of those exceptions. Next time I’ll have to get the sauce on the side to be sure.


Dining Car & Market, 8826 Frankford Avenue

| Photo: Randy Garbin

The sprawling Dining Car Diner look like an architectural version of B-9, the robot from “Lost In Space.”| Photo: Randy Garbin

Often overlooked for inclusion in the Philly diner pantheon, the Dining Car on Frankford Avenue in the Northeast nevertheless continues to get plenty of love from the neighborhood, and for good reason. Though a big diner, the Dining Car represents a rare breed that mostly excels in the kitchen, which explains the lines out the door during the dinner and weekend breakfast hours.

From a design perspective, the Dining Car represents something of a diner industry anomaly. In 1981, Joe Morozin went to the Swingle company of Middlesex, New Jersey and asked for something a little different. Only a couple of years later Swingle would close up shop, but Morozin’s request pushed diner manufacturers to fashion restaurants in various styles dictated by the often-dubious tastes of the operator. The iconic, streamlined style fell from fashion or was outright prohibited by municipal design codes by the mid-1960s. In its place first came the colonial style diner, then the Mediterranean style diner complete with Doric columns, the modern design and its glassy glitz, or some unfortunate melange of all three.

A full ten years before the culture rediscovered the vintage diner, Joe Morozin wanted his new diner to look like something out of the 1930s, but at about six times the size. Joe was a veteran of the industry and had previously owned the Torresdale Diner just south of Academy Road and needed to expand. His new old-style diner came by truck in six sections, pieced together on site. A bakery and an expanded dining room was added later. Today the diner seats more than 250 people.

Joe’s daughter Nancy runs the diner today, and it recently received national attention thanks to Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” program, which spotlighted their chicken croquettes. You really can’t ask for a more comforting example of comfort food than croquettes, and you can’t find a better example than at the Dining Car’s.

My last visit for Sunday breakfast found the place busier than the O’Hare Airport at Thanksgiving, and the meals met with my party’s expectations, except for the home fries. For many of us, home fries are a litmus test of the whole experience and every diner should make their own undeniably great version. I may allow some slack for most diners, but, in my mind, a well-run diner must do two things perfectly every time: Coffee and home fries.

The Dining Car makes up for this with desserts. Like a big diner should, it greets all customers at the door with a barrage of baked goods. Though, waiting around for a seat is a form of torture, especially for anyone trying to shed a muffin top.

At one time, the mere word “diner” meant among other things that it never closed. In fact, during the diner’s golden age, owners of freshly minted diners would have grand opening ceremonies that featured the cutting of the keys. If it never closed, it didn’t need locks. Today, the Dining Car still keeps those traditional hours, but it attracts company in fewer and fewer numbers.


Bob’s Diner, 6053 Ridge Avenue

Bob's Diner looks a little worn out after nearly 80 years at the same location, but the neighborhood loves it, especially on weekends when you'll wait a while for a seat. Photo: Randy Garbin

Bob’s Diner looks a little worn out after nearly 80 years at the same location, but the neighborhood loves it, especially on weekends when you’ll wait a while for a seat. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Within the Philadelphia city limits, if you want the true, blue-collar, meat-and-mashed experience inside the real McCoy of vintage American diners, staffed with seasoned, fast-talking, tough-but-tender, maternal waitresses, you will find it in exactly one place: Bob’s Diner in Roxborough.

I maintain a very high regard for Bob’s because it represents one of the last of a dying breed. It is a bona fide, old-school diner in continuous operation since it opened in 1947. Yes, the building is beat, worn around the edges, and unraveling in places, but it is also full of life, staffed by people who take pride in their work, and refreshingly devoid of kitschy self-awareness. The waitress might call you “hon,” not because a focus group demanded it, but because that is how she talks. Bob’s adheres very closely to the basic diner credo: Serve good food at reasonable prices in a clean and friendly atmosphere. Period.

I always make Bob’s a stop on my 25-cent tour of Philadelphia. No, I don’t consider Bob’s a family restaurant. It is a true-and-tried diner. Maybe Grace Kelly never dropped in for a cup and a slice of pie, and I suspect very few pairs of tasseled loafers shuffled across its terrazzo floors, though not that the diner wouldn’t welcome either.

Bob’s was built by the Jerry O’Mahony company in Elizabeth, New Jersey at its post-war peak. Some like to compare diner builders to the more familiar auto industry, and some might designate O’Mahony as the Chevrolet of diners–a well-built, stylish diner without some of the features or decorative flourish found in its competitors, like Paramount or Fodero.

It’s likely that no other builder constructed more diners than Jerry O’Mahony. Between 1913 and 1956, the company’s tagline boasted, “In our line, we lead the world.” By the time they built Bob’s, O’Mahony enjoyed a reputation for building high-quality, streamlined diners. Because of its output, O’Mahony had a large and loyal clientele that would often return old diners to the factory to trade it in for a newer, bigger model (I have no evidence that a diner sat on this location before the current one, but the possibility exists).

As far as the food at Bob’s, I must loudly sing the praises of the omelets. I like mostly everything, but when I come for breakfast I get the omelette simply because I’ve yet to find another true diner in the region that makes them as perfectly as Bob’s. As an added bonus, a seat at the counter gives you front-row access to the action. A proper omelet is carefully fried in a well-seasoned aluminum pan with the filling folded in. The end result should be a bright yellow, fluffy egg turnover that snugly blankets the filling.

Word has it that Bob’s owner Jim Evans has the place up for sale, but as he’s currently asking an obscene amount of money–$1.9 million–don’t expect any major changes soon. On the other hand, don’t count on it being there forever.


Silk City Diner Bar & Lounge, 435 Spring Garden Street

The Silk City Diner exemplifies the vintage diner that has successfully adapted to contemporary tastes all while retaining its original charms. Photo: Randy Garbin

Silk City exemplifies the vintage diner that has successfully adapted to contemporary tastes all while retaining its original charms. | Photo: Randy Garbin

I often say that the best way to preserve diners is to keep them viable. Putting one in a museum is all well and good, but if you can’t actually eat there what’s the point? In the face of extreme competition, age, new layers of regulation, and increasing overhead, viability for a 50-seat, short-order restaurant becomes a Herculean task. Sometimes it requires a fresh approach and maybe one that most might think is crazy.

One of the developments that sparked the resurgence of interest in the American diner came about with the reimagining of the concept by the owners of the Empire Diner in New York in 1976. Jack Doneius bought a run-down, but well-preserved diner in Manhattan’s lower West Side, spruced it up, and started serving upscale food. Burgers you expected to find for a buck fifty in such a place now cost five dollars, but the money bought you an expertly grilled fresh half-pound of meat served on a fresh-baked roll served with hand-cut French fries.

The idea brought about national attention and before long books about diners appeared, photorealism paintings of diners sold in Soho galleries for $50,000, and brands wanted to shoot their commercials in a real diner. In 1982, the movie “Diner” came out and launched the careers of five unknown actors and director Barry Levinson.

The more creative individuals in the restaurant business began to see that a diner didn’t just have to be about meatloaf and brown gravy and it certainly didn’t just have to appeal to truck drivers and middle America. Paul Devitt brought the Empire Diner concept to Philadelphia with his first American Diner at 42nd and Chestnut Streets (see Kabobeesh) and then his reimagining of the Silk City Diner Bar & Lounge.

The diner takes its name from the company that built it. You can see this on the builder tags still affixed over the door, and on that tag you’ll also find a serial number 5907 which tells you that it was the seventh diner built in 1959.

Silk City, currently owned by restauranteur Mark Bee, has diversified its revenue stream with the night club and bar which frees it from relying upon the weekend breakfast trade that so many smaller diners live or die by. I give the food here very high marks, and you’ll find items on the menu you don’t expect to find in a traditional diner which always works for me. If I can have a slice of meat loaf and my friend can munch on edamame while we sip a cocktail, everyone wins, and the diner lives on to serve a new generation.

Other Diners In The City


Ace Diner, 5517 Lancaster Avenue

Ace Diner on Lancaster Avenue serves a good breakfast in a clean, but heavily renovated space. Photo: Randy Garbin

Ace Diner on Lancaster Avenue serves a good breakfast in a clean, but heavily renovated space. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Behind the foreboding, Darth Vader-like facade sits a late-1930s Silk City diner that serves up the most basic of menus. They have about four things available for lunch and two of them are a turkey club sandwich served either with bacon or turkey bacon. The big sign outside advertises homemade bread, which you can get on the side with one of your breakfast dishes. The interior is very clean, but about the only original feature left to the diner is its vaulted ceiling.


Anna’s Pizza, 6211 Lancaster Avenue

| Photo: Randy Garbin

Stuccoed into obscurity at Anna’s. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Only bother to go here if you’re a hard-core diner fanatic. There’s little left to see inside its cave-like interior.


Broad Street Diner, 1135 S Broad Street

For some reason, that roll along the roofline became an extremely popular motif on retro-styled diners starting back in the mid-1990s. Most of the time, contractors use them to cover up the roof-top air conditioning units and to add additional height for increased profile. In the case of the Broad Street, they also replaced a shoddy vinyl awning that adorned the diner for years. | Photo: Randy Garbin

For some reason that roll along the roofline became an extremely popular motif on retro-styled diners starting back in the mid-1990s. Most of the time contractors use them to cover up the roof-top air conditioning units and to add additional height for increased profile. In the case of the Broad Street Diner, they also replaced a shoddy vinyl awning that adorned the restaurant for years. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Another Michael Petrogiannis diner. The Broad Street sat closed for many years beginning in the early 2000s, and one report had Stephen Starr interested in reopening it. The diner was originally built by Fodero of Bloomfield, New Jersey. Like the renovations at the Melrose, they could have been much worse, and Petrogiannis even applied a restrained and classy palate to the interior. Good soups and lunch.


Casa Del Marisco, 4301 N 5th Street

Casa Del Marisco, a sports bar on 5th Street. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Casa Del Marisco is a sports bar on 5th Street. | Photo: Randy Garbin

A beaten down Mountain View diner that looks like the owners use it for storage or maybe converted it into a kitchen for their sports bar addition. Diner-wise, this one’s only for hard-core fans.


Continental, 138 Market Street

All things considered, one has to appreciate Stephen Starr's imaginative updating of The Continental. In many ways, his designers improved upon the original interior, something as rare as a perfect omelette. | Photo: Michael Bixler

All things considered, one has to appreciate Stephen Starr’s imaginative updating of The Continental. In many ways, his designers improved upon the original interior that is as rare as a perfect omelette. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Stephen Starr converted a mid-1960s Fodero diner and appropriately swanked the joint up making it one of the city’s best known martini lounges. You can also get dinner here. I like how Starr’s designers paid loving homage to the “Mad Men” era by stripping away some of the diner’s original colonial-style trappings.


Country Club Diner, 1717 Cottman Avenue

Country Club Diner, another Petrogiannis diner, still adheres to its Jewish-American menu established by the Perloff Family. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Country Club Diner, another one under the Petrogiannis umbrella, still adheres to its Jewish-American menu established by the Perloff Family. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Can a diner still call itself Jewish-American after a Greek immigrant buys it? Since the 1950s, the Perloff family ran the Country Club in the Rhawnhurst neighborhood catering to its Jewish community. In 1968, they traded up to a ten-sectioned monstrosity that Diners of Pennsylvania describes as an “Arabian fantasy of stone, beige stucco, and arched windows.” The family decided on the style after a trip to Las Vegas and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Fodero built none others like it. In 2006, Michael Petrogiannis bought this one too and proceeded to make significant interior renovations that improved upon the diner’s formerly dark and ponderous atmosphere.


Domino Diner, 5110 Umbria Street

The Domino Diner which suffered a fire eight years ago, is likely abandoned. | Photo: Randy Garbin

The Domino Diner suffered a fire eight years ago and is likely abandoned now. | Photo: Randy Garbin

The Domino suffered a major fire eight years ago and has yet to reopen. While most of the damage occurred in the kitchen, the diner has seriously deteriorated after what looks like an outright abandonment. The O’Mahony diner came to Philadelphia in the 1960s from Medford, Massachusetts where it operated as Carol’s Diner.


Casa De Espana, 4235 Whitaker Avenue

Casa Espana now serves as a nightclub. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Casa Espana now serves as a nightclub. | Photo: Randy Garbin

The Golden Sword Diner is now a latin-themed night club. This is a stock, late-1960s Fodero diner similar to Lancer’s Diner in Easton Road in Horsham.


K Diner, 5717 Rising Sun Avenue

Formerly known as Mil-Lee's Luv-Inn Diner, the K Diner on Rising Sun features Korean Specialties as well as a good American-style breakfast. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Formerly known as Mil-Lee’s Luv-Inn Diner, the K Diner on Rising Sun features Korean Specialties as well as a good American-style breakfast. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Formerly known as Mil-Lee’s Luv-In, the diner did indeed have something of a hippie vibe during that era with its love beads and trippy menu graphics. Today, the K stands for Korean, and while you’ll find Asian specialties on the menu, you can also get a good, old-fashioned American breakfast. The original diner was built in the 1930s by O’Mahony, but at some point–probably in the late 1950s–an expansion to the front of the diner almost doubled the seating and added stainless steel cladding to the exterior.


Kabobeesh, 4201 Chestnut Street

| Photo: Randy Garbin

A diner renovation nightmare in West Philly | Photo: Randy Garbin

This diner is a perfect example of why you do not want to become a diner aficionado. If you had the good fortune to see it before 2000 and haven’t seen it since, stay away. The transformation will shatter your heart to see how the owners destroyed one of the world’s most gorgeous authentic diners and covered over or demolished the surface materials and original fixtures, most of which you cannot get or remake anywhere. Built in 1949 by Paramount to a standard of quality that no one else could match, it served in the 1990s as one of two American Diners in Philadelphia and was an attempt to upscale the traditional diner menu. The other is Silk City on Spring Garden Street.

Kabobeesh serves Indian and Pakistani food.


Kim’s Korean Barbecue, 5955 North 5th Street

| Photo: Randy Garbin

Asian fusion. Traces of the old diner mixed in with interior renovations at Kim’s Korean Barbecue in Olney. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Thanks to a tip by someone who grew up in the Olney neighborhood I managed to find this diner which, up until that point, existed on no one else’s list. Hard core diner fans feel tingles up their inseams upon such discoveries. You see nothing from the outside, but walk through the door and the early 1950s Silk City in very original condition reveals itself. Inside, the owners have built in a private dining room, but split the rest of the space for open seating and waitress service.


Mayfair Diner, 7373 Frankford Avenue

| Photo: Randy Garbin

Mayfair Diner is still clad in chrome. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Yet another Petrogiannis acquisition. The Mayfair Diner ended an 80-year run under the same family in 2006. Up until that time the Mulholland family ran, what was in my estimation, the best of the big Philly diners in terms of its preservation, food, and overall hospitality. Seeing the Mayfair for the first time in 1991 was a jaw dropping experience. What looked like the longest, stainless steel diner on the planet (which was actually a very long diner married expertly to an existing cinder-block, stainless-clad addition) welcomed you inside with nothing but superlatives. Petrogiannis put his own stamp on things with a silly turret-like roofline to raise the diner’s profile. Inside he ripped out a third of its extensive counter to accommodate more booth seating and wider waistlines, and he replaced much of the diner’s original laminate surfaces. Yet again, it could have been much worse. The Mulhollands also performed some minor renovations in the 1980s. I do miss the original owners, but maybe it was time for a change as in the last few years food quality had noticeably declined and the hours were cut back. Petrogiannis has also restored the the 24/7 hours of operation.


New Boulevard Diner, 11650 Roosevelt Boulevard

| Photo: Randy Garbin

New Boulevard recently changed their name to the Five Star Diner. | Photo: Randy Garbin

The former Boulevard Diner–now called the Five Star Diner–is all glass and steel and looks like a small, Reagan Era office building. You might expect to get dental work inside rather than a good breakfast. This is a diner built by Kullman Industries, which at the time was the oldest diner builders in the country. When built, the few remaining companies produced restaurants in confused styles, but no one held a candle to some of the creations that came out of the Kullman factory. Kullman would later become the first of the builders to produce retro-style diners on a regular basis, but before then you had diners like this one. The Boulevard has gone through a series of ownerships in the past 10 to 15 years, probably because of its poor location, but maybe also because of its crazy, hall-of-mirrors interior.


Oak Lane Diner, 6528 N Broad Street

 | Photo: Randy Garbin

Oak Lane Diner on North Broad looking worse for wear. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Well regarded by the Oak Lane neighborhood, the current diner is at least the second to sit at that location. In fact, you can still visit the previous diner in Newburgh, New York. As I write, the diner is now boarded up after a fire closed it down last January. At the beginning of June, the City served a notice to the owners that stated they had 30 days to either fix it or demolish it. The diner was built by Paramount and it still features the company’s trademark wedding cake corners with the gazing ball ornament. It was unnecessarily renovated in 1996 both inside and out, which stripped away some of the incomparable stainless work. Sometime in the aughts they stripped out more. Oak Lane’s prospects don’t look good.


Penrose Diner, 2016 Penrose Avenue

Penrose Diner in 1993 before renovations completely changed the character of the restaurant a few years later. | Photo: Randy Garbin

What I wrote about Kabobeesh applies to the Penrose as well. Up until about 1996 the Penrose was a spectacular example of quasi-Googie diner styling. The big DeRaffele diner featured soaring folded-plate roof line, expansive plate glass windows, and a space-age interior that restaurateurs in places like New York and San Francisco spend a small fortune to recreate. The Penrose had it all in spades. But no, the owners just had to go and crash land this beauty into a sea of ugly. How’s the food? Who the hell cares.


Spice Grill, 3447 Richmond Street

Spice Grill, Port Richmond. Not much left to see here except for the basic outlines of a classic 50s structure. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Spice Grill in Port Richmond. Not much left to see here except for the basic outlines of a classic 50s structure. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Heavily remodeled 50s-style diner that currently serves Asian food.


Spring Garden Pizza & Restaurant, 1137 Spring Garden Street

| Photo: Randy Garbin

Great breakfast at Spring Garden Pizza and the owners are sweet as pie. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Thanks to the internet you no longer have to waste hours of time and tankfuls of gas visiting local history museums, antique shops, and libraries to find vintage photos of diners and other roadside attractions consigned to history or often transformed into something else. While a trained eye can often tell if a building was once a diner, you still need the photos to confirm it and just such a search from the comfort of my desk chair confirmed this find.


Quaker Diner, 7241 Rising Sun Avenue

Quaker Diner in Five Points on Rising Sun Avenue. Somewhere under that brooding exterior is a shiny, 1950s structure. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Quaker Diner in Five Points on Rising Sun Avenue. Somewhere under that brooding exterior is a shiny, 1950s structure. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Anyone who believes that they can improve upon the look and quality of a true stainless steel diner probably has some serious psychological issues. The diner was likely built by either O’Mahony or Mountain View, but, except for the terrazzo floor, you’ll find almost no features that would indicate pedigree. The diner offers a basic, no-frills menu.


Red Robin Diner, 6330 Frankford Avenue

| Photo: Randy Garbin

Red Robin on Frankford Avenue was well liked. | Photo: Randy Garbin

The Red Robin Diner represents the transitional style of diners popular in the mid-to-late 1960s when stainless steel had lost its shine. Fodero became one of the leading builders of these Mediterranean diners that truly began to reflect the tastes and preferences of their owners.


Tiffany Diner, 9010 Roosevelt Boulevard

| Photo: Randy Garbin

The banquet room at Tiffany’s has been used as a filming location for Pennsylvania Lottery commercials. | Photo: Randy Garbin

Michael Petrogiannis got his start working in this diner’s kitchen. Now he owns the big, Mediterranean style structure of undetermined ancestry.


About the author

Randy Garbin has traveled the country’s back roads and Main Streets in search of diners, roadside attractions, and the great mom and pop enterprise. He was the publisher and editor of Roadside Magazine and RoadsideOnline, a magazine and website that promoted its “Recipe for an American Renaissance: Eat in diners. Ride Trains. Shop on Main Street. Put a porch on your house. Live in a walkable community.” He currently works as an independent website developer and art director. Find out more about his work and writings at www.randygarbin.com.



35 Comments


  1. Great article !! Found this pic of the Quaker Diner on Rising Sun https://foxchasereview.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/img_1435.jpg

  2. I remember the Mayfair diner. There was a diner on Aramingo Avenue we use to stop in back in the early 60’s after a night of bar hopping. Forget its name but it sure was crowded at 2 am! I also remember the great food in diners. Plus I always thought the Jersey diners had the best coffee I ever tasted, next to my dad’s that is. Great article thank you.

  3. The Frazer Diner in Frazer is the only un altered Jerry O Mahony diner in existence.Built between 1929 and 1935 it was originally the Paoli but was moved to Frazer on Lancaster Ave, in 1957.

    • Sorry, Bern, but that’s just not true. The Frazer is certainly one of the oldest examples of a pristine O’Mahony, but I could probably list at least a half dozen others that are in similarly pristine condition. The Frazer was built in the mid-1930s.

  4. Jim Clark: You must be referring to Port Richmond’s long-standing Aramingo Diner. I’m sorry to inform you that it closed just last year…and has now been remodeled into an urgent care center!

    • I visited the site of the former Aramingo, and it looked like about the only thing left to it was the foundation, so I chose not to include it in this list.

    • Thank you Jay. Meme posted that she thought it was a place called DeDe’s and I believe that was the one I was thinking of. It has been so long, but that name rings a familiar bell. Funny, converted to an urgent care center……back then after a night of drinking that’s what the diner was to us.

  5. Yeah the Mayfair Diner was a pretty great one, I’d been there a few times a year, from 1989 until sometime in 2006 or 2007, which I just found from the article is about when Petrogannis bought it. Up until then the food and service were great, and they had fantastic thick-cut bacon.

    The last time I wandered in I found an angry looking man in a suit managing the place, and very scared looking waitstaff scurrying about everywhere. The eggs were so-so, the homefries were lame, and the bacon was the thinnest cut I’d ever seen, it was literally transparent. The place had a well earned reputation for great food and friendly wait staff, and it was ruined, just like that.

    No thank you, when I’ve been out all night and I’m hitting the diner on the way home, I want a friendly face and some solid breakfast. I hope the place has gotten better since then, I’m not going to spend my money or time to find out.

  6. All the golden goddesses! Articles like this raise my homesickness for Philadelphia to Olympian heights. I always knew I was in good hands when a waitress would appear asking “What’ll youse have, hon?” I would bar-be-cue my dear old grandmama to be able to move back to Philadelphia…

  7. Randy, Thanks for acknowledging the original Oak Lane Diner which does in fact still exist in Newburgh, N.Y. These days it serves up Mexican fare as Jessi’s Diner behind a horrible brick façade which was installed by the previous owner. The original porcelain panels with “Oak Lane Diner” painted on them survive underneath the brick. If there are photos of this grand 1920’s O’Mahony in it’s original setting, I’d love to see them. If someone ever takes the initiative to remove the brick, I’ll send you a photo.

    • I grown up in Oak Lane is the 40’s. I remember the original Oak Lane diner to be a red Formica looking building very small. It did have Oak Lane Diner on the front in Art Deco style. It consisted of about 4 or 5 booths on ether side of the central entrance and a counter. It was replaced with a stainless chrome and larger diner about 1949-50

  8. My great uncle, Pete Kyriakodis opened what is now know as the New Boulevard / Five Star Diner a long time ago. I worked there as a dishwasher in the 1980s. I forget its name at the time, but it could have been “Stacy’s Place.”

    • I thought that place next to Nabisco was called “The Ritz” in the 80s & early 90s.

      • Alex, you are correct. It was the Ritz for quite awhile and since has gone through many name changes

      • I remember when this first opened in about 1966. It was originally called the Heritage Diner. My family used to eat there once a week for years.

    • I remember going there as a kid with my dad and grandfather. I believe the diner was called the “Heritage” before it was the Ritz, and I remember the manager or owner was Steve?

      • My grandfather, Peter, built the heritage diner and then my dad, Steve, changed it to Sophia’s Diner and Stacy’s Pub. In the 80’s he built the Ritz. He sold it in the late 90’s and there have been a few owners since then. Great memories!

  9. No mention of Little Pete’s or Midtown ?

    “Twenty-four diners now operate in Philadelphia, down from 30 in 1990 when I first toured the city”
    Diners in center city that have vanished since 1990
    Lite Bites
    Savoy
    Diner on the Square
    Little Pete’s on Chestnut Street
    (2) Midtown Diners
    Continental
    (2) Snow White
    Silk City
    Eagle II
    Days Deli

  10. Jacqueline Anderson

    I worked as a waitress at Bob’s Diner for two summers when I was home from Penn State in the early 70’s. Years later I moved to Roborough and became a semiregular. I left the neighborhood a couple years ago for Bella Vista but I go to Bob’s every time I’m in the area. Where else can you be greeted by name and your kids asked after? Oh. yeah, they have food but, really I just love the atmosphere and the memories of being 18 long ago.

    I also waitressed at Oak Lane Diner when I was in grad school in the late 70’s (Hmm, tuition=extra money=diner job). It’s where I met my husband. We were married for 27 years before he died too young of cancer. looks like the Oak Lane died as well. Sad on both counts.

  11. There is also Chung Sing, an American-chinese “diner” on Lancaster Avenue near Ardmore. Not sure if they serve diner fare besides the chinese menu.

  12. Alfonso Spinelli

    My father and his partner owned the Domino Diner up until 1986. Before the 2 additions and the addition of the foyer waiting area. Shame it sits the way it does. The Dom was a hub for the area for a long time.

  13. Let’s cut the nonsense, shall we? Every diner taken over by the Michael’s diner group, has suffered a precipitous drop in quality. Freshly ground meat, a Melrose tradition, has been replaced by portion control. The Mayfair, The Country Club, likewise. We look to blogs such as these for straight talk, not “depends on who you ask” waffling. Ask ANYONE who remembers.

  14. I live around the corner from the Oak Lane Diner. I moved into the neighborhood only a few months before it burned. I only ate there once and the food was so-so, but I had made the mistake of ordering from the dinner menu, when everyone knows the best food at any diner is breakfast food. I hope someone who loves diners reads this story and is moved to buy it and restore it.

  15. I loved this article. While i frequent my old neighborhood diner (trolley car diner)most often, one that i really love that is always superb to me is the Four Seasons Diner on cottman Avenue. Another one i was sad to see go after only a few years of operation was Sams Diner. In Mt. Airys cedarbrook plaza. Which is now a fair hibachi buffet. I am too an avid Diner lover tho. Thanks for this article.

  16. What ever became of Littleton’s at Ogontz & Cheltenham Avenues?

  17. Dianna Zoltek McCafferty

    Randy, thank you for acknowledging the Spice Grill located at 3447 Richmond Street in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. My grandfather purchased the property and had the diner built in the 50’s It was then Jersey Queen Diner. There was also Jersey Queen Dairy who began delivering milk in the city by horse and carriage. There is alot of history to that piece of property. I have the original plans and zoning for the building.

  18. I can say i have a lot of respect for these structures. And It always hurts me
    when I see one shut down.
    Love Your article and thank you for doing the research.

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