In my hometown of Bethlehem, Pa., there isn’t much to do if you’re young and living on a minimum wage salary — except go to diners. When I first came to Philadelphia, I expected to find similar late-night amusement in the form of endless cups of coffee and big slices of pie, but city diners are an entirely different breed of restaurant entirely.
After all, heartburn isn’t too much fun even though there are so many other cheap options in Philly – but, as I found, sometimes atmosphere is everything.
Melrose Dinedr 1501 Snyder Ave.
The first thing I noticed about the Melrose
Diner was its sign, which features a large clock in the shape of a coffee mug, with a fork and a knife instead of two hands. The second thing I noticed was that it was packed with senior citizens, elderly men and women eating, talking and laughing among themselves at the oval-shaped bar in the center of the dining area. The waitresses were all very busy, rushing
from table to table, topping off delicately, painted coffee mugs and bringing people sandwiches, milkshakes and plates of eggs. The paper napkins in the dispensers read “Everybody who knows goes to the Melrose,” and it looked like everybody who knows was there – almost every seat in the restaurant was taken.
“The Melrose has been a South Philadelphia
tradition for over 70 years,” one of the waitresses, Jackie Pemberton, told me as she set down a bottle of ketchup at my booth. “We’ve got good service and good food – it’s hereditary. Everyone’s kids grow up and come here.”
“It’s a friendly place,” said Judy McGrath, who was working the cash register. “Everyone knows everyone else. It’s tradition.” Lucille, a patron of the Melrose added, “It’s a great place to make friends.”
While I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to make friends with some of the items on the menu – the corned beef sandwich in particular – I was ready to believe her.
Never before had I seen so many happy faces in a diner with only lightly-better-than-mediocre coffee.
Broad Street 1135 S. Broad St.
Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. isn’t exactly a peak eating time at diners, I suppose, and the Broad Street Diner was suspiciously empty when my roommate and I – along with our respective boyfriends – sauntered in for a late lunch. We were the only customers seated in a back corner next to a mirrored wall streaked with dirt and a large window overlooking South Philadelphia. It was decorated with out-of-season yellow and orange leaf cutouts, of course.
A small “No Smoking” sign caught my eye, but the atmosphere – despite lacking a cigarette haze – felt pretty authentic.
Hilliard wrinkled her nose. “It smells like a wet cat in here.” I made a mental note: Would have been better off with the cigarette smoke.
Our waitress, a blonde woman with a thick Eastern European accent and heavy blue eye makeup, was brutally honest when we asked her questions about the food.
“How’s the French Onion soup?” She shrugged noncommittally.
“It’s OK …”
“How about the French fries?”
Another shrug and vague response. According to the sign outside, the Broad Street Diner is “A Place for Ribs,” but I had a hard time imagining anyone having the courage
to order meat there. I stuck to a plate of home fries and a cup of coffee, both of which were much better than I expected, if a little on the bland side.
Bland food is a part of the diner experience. Regulars learn to apply salt and pepper like pros. I noticed halfway through our meal that most of the people working there – none of whom seemed to speak very much English – were standing near the counter, watching us eat. They looked as though they were waiting for us to leave, and when we did, they immediately
flipped the “Open” sign on the door, closing the restaurant.
But at 5 p.m.?
I had been told by friends that the Broad Street Diner had “unusual” hours, but this seemed ridiculous to me. Cups of coffee for a dollar and fake wood paneling can’t make up for an early closing time. We headed back to the Ellsworth-Federal subway stop feeling a bit indignant and nostalgic for the neon “24 hours” signs from the suburbs.
Sam’s Morning Glory Diner 735 10th
Sam’s Morning Glory Diner is a “finer diner,” or so it says on their sign. From the outside, it looks more like a cafe or a coffee shop with red brick walls and a garden waiting area, but inside, the decor is more traditional and the Sunday brunch menu boasted diner favorites such as scrapple and grits. The crowd (squinting into the sun out on the patio) was a younger one than I had noticed at the Melrose, mostly composed of college students and South Philly 20-somethings, with a couple of older couples scattered
Ben and Lewis, a pair of tired-looking boys dressed in tight-fitting jeans and worn T-shirts sat on one bench reading the “City Paper.”
“Pretty much the reason I go to diners is because I don’t have any money,” Ben said, shrugging. “Today I’m hoping to bum food off people.”
Lewis nodded, tying a handkerchief bandit-
style around his neck.
“I don’t sleep much. Anything open past 1 or 2 a.m. is good in my book.”
Jamie Strenchock, a Temple senior and diner-lover, lifted her sunglasses to tell me, “In a city like Philadelphia, you have a lot of ‘boutique’ diners where you get more than you would get in a small town. It’s more than a mom and pop experience. There are organic options on the menu, vegetarian options … you have a lot more to choose from.”
This is definitely true at Morning Glory.
When finally seated, my coffee was served to me in a stainless steel mug and the orange juice I ordered tasted like it was just squeezed a few minutes ago. My scrambled eggs came with a homemade
buttermilk biscuit and a small cup of baked apple slices – definitely a step up from the too-dry toast and packets of jelly I’m used to.
The waiter was a cute, slightly scruffy, artistic-looking type, and wasn’t grumbling about his job or forgetting to refill drinks. I left feeling full and content – but unsure of Morning Glory’s authenticity. Can a restaurant’s appearance and dedication to serving comfort food earn it the classification of “diner?”
At least I had a better idea as to why young people in a city would want to go to a diner.
“People like old-fashioned, kitschy things,” said Diane, another customer. “And, personally, I like being able to order breakfast at any time of the day.”
South Street Diner 140 South St.
With its cigarette machines, jukebox and bowl of jelly-filled mints by the cash register, the South Street Diner felt more like a suburban diner than any of the others I had been to in the days prior to my visit there. My roommate still scoffed,
“Not a real diner,” upon seeing the large amount of seafood on the menu. But I was comforted by the atmosphere and syrupy taste of my Diet Coke. The people eating there seemed to come from a wide range of backgrounds, ethnicities and social groups – which didn’t surprise me, since it is a diner on South Street .
According to our waitress, a sweet, ponytailed girl named Jenny, “The best part about working here is meeting all of the different people. It’s better than cable. We have a lot of regulars – some of them come in two, three times every day.”
“Diners are places to hang out, chill, meet up with friends,” she said. “If one person wants a burger and another person wants an omelet, they can go to a diner and both get what they want.”
Which are, essentially, a few extra pounds, a caffeine buzz and a dose of nostalgia.
Anna Hyclak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.