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.
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
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 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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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-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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Heavily remodeled 50s-style diner that currently serves Asian food.
Spring Garden Pizza & Restaurant, 1137 Spring Garden Street
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
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
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
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.
Leave a Reply
Public health scholar Steve Metraux exhumes the heart of Philadelphia's Skid Row, buried under the Vine Street Expressway by the hands of urban renewal. > more
Dan Papa celebrates the Cambodian New Year with a look at the Wat Khmer Palelai Buddhist temple under construction in Southwest Philly > more
Nearly 70 years after Benjamin Franklin’s death, public outcry demanding honor for the Founding Father transformed a battered, overgrown gravesite into a popular tourist destination. But the real story isn't at all what we've been told. Join Mark Dixon as he uncovers truth and public deception behind the hole in the wall at Benjamin Franklin's grave > more
On the outskirts of Fishtown, a dance club and rock climbing gym keep spirits high inside an old 19th century trolley car power station > more
An exhibition at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia illuminates the history of railroad architecture through drawings, photographs, and more. Michael Bixler has the review > more