The King of the Philly Diner

by Don Steinberg | November 26, 2010 6:00 am

The vintage sign on the side remains, as kitschy as ever. It says MELROSE DINER in neon, with a clock in the shape of a coffee mug, its two hands  —  a fork and knife  —  promising to take you back to an earlier time. The Melrose opened in 1956 on this triangle drawn by 15th and Snyder and Passyunk, and it still stays open no matter where those utensils are pointing. Lately, though, particularly since Michael Petrogiannis bought the place, some other things aren’t exactly the way they were, and you know how people can get about that.

Most strikingly: the jarring red roof. For decades, the stainless steel Melrose had a flat top and an understated burgundy ribbon around the perimeter, with mustard-yellow letters that said FOODS TO TAKE HOME and SEAFOOD and BAKERY ON PREMISES. Classic. One admiring book called the South Philly landmark “a silver wedding cake.” This September, Petrogiannis, who bought the Melrose in 2007, pulled the iconic letters off, installed bright exterior lights, and plunked a giant, generic red-and-silver topper on the building, hoping to attract more street traffic.

“The letters said ‘FOOD TO GO,’ something like that. People know you can get food to go,” Petrogiannis explains, as if the information content of the words is what mattered. Sigh. What’s next? Spackling the crack in the Liberty Bell? Breaking up Hall and Oates? Knocking down the Spectrum?

“The best I can say about it is that it could be worse,” says Randy Garbin, who publishes the website Roadside Online about classic diners and lives in Jenkintown. Garbin may be thinking of last year, when Petrogiannis installed a blocky red crown atop the sleek steel Mayfair Diner, which he bought in 2006. Jack Mulholland, whose family owned the Mayfair for 80 years before selling to Petrogiannis, reasoned, forgivingly, “You have to do what you think is right.” Then, after seeing the Melrose: “He likes those toppings.”

Michael Petrogiannis talks with a strong Greek accent. He’s 55 years old, an old-school 55. His look might remind you of a manager on a baseball card, his face furrowed and weary, his hair dark and combed back, his hands and forearms strong. He’s a businessman and a pragmatist, seemingly unsentimental for someone who has made diners his life, has been working in them since he came to America at age 16 by jumping ship from a Greek oil tanker. These days, he works too hard to spend a lot of time agonizing over things like cultural history.

“Before, you drive up and down Passyunk or Snyder at night, and it looked dark,” he explains one morning. “Look like the place was closed. Now it’s nice and bright.”

After breakfast, the Melrose’s a.m. manager, Christine Holland, takes a cigarette break in the parking lot. She likes the new roof and suggests the glare of daylight isn’t the best setting to really appreciate it. “You should see it lit up at 6:30,” she says. “It looks like a stadium.”

 

SINCE 2002, Michael Petrogiannis has purchased the Melrose, the Mayfair, the Country Club on Cottman Avenue in the Northeast, the Tiffany on Roosevelt Boulevard, and Warminster West on Street Road, adding these to a little empire that includes the Michael’s Family Restaurants he’s opened in the Northeast and Bensalem and his Michael’s Café nightclub on Street Road. That’s a lot of collective memory to take custody of. The question: Is he saving the great diners of Philadelphia, or is he, you know, forsaking all that we loved about them?

Each vintage diner he’s collected was, in its heyday, the nucleus of a vibrant city neighborhood. Collectively, they’ve delivered millions of dishes and countless memories to generations of Philadelphians. Remember those crazy semicircular booths they had at the Melrose where you’d have to sit facing strangers? That night when those weird old guys offered to buy dinner for you girls if you sat with them — and the motherly waitress who offered that it probably wasn’t a good idea, sweetie? Remember the Country Club on Jewish holidays and weekend mornings, those amazing blintzes?

Remember the lines outside the Tiffany on drunken weekend nights? There’s a group now on Facebook called “I used to hang out at Tiffany’s Diner at Welsh & the Blvd late night.” One post says: “Used to get into some club on City Line Avenue with our fake ids and then go to Tiffany’s and hang out and eat. We had to fix our hair and make up in the car before we went in because if you got seated in the back, you have to walk down the aisle and all eyes are staring at you.” Another: “This is where I met my husband.”

 

Petrogiannis is the crypt-keeper for all this nostalgia, and he finds himself in a position not unlike the poor suckers who bought those Philadelphia newspapers: stewarding a venerable enterprise that everybody wishes was just as great as we remember. But customers have new options everywhere. One reason your diner nostalgia is nostalgia is because, face it, when’s the last time you went back? A businessman can’t cater to people who only come back in their memories.
A few diners around the city have reinvented. The Silk City on Spring Garden Street serves meatloaf, macaroni-and-cheese — and cocktails and blackened ahi tuna tacos. Steven Starr launched his restaurant empire by converting Old City’s Continental Diner into a martini bar, and may similarly revive the closed-down Broad Street Diner. Daddypops in Hatboro is comic-book retro. Ken Weinstein opened the Trolley Car 10 years ago in Mount Airy, offering vegan fare like Szechuan tofu stir-fry along with classic diner dishes.

Petrogiannis’s diners aren’t likely to succeed by going too foodie. His customers are still mostly working-class, more Parx than Parc. Yet his diners were changing before he ever took the keys, and this is how Petrogiannis might qualify as more of a preservationist than you think. Each diner he procured was well on the way to not being the place we remembered, because the families that owned them (the Kubachs at the Melrose, the Perloffs at the Country Club) simply ran out of heirs to the griddle who were prepared to take over. Jack Mulholland and his brother and sister — the second generation running the Mayfair — had nine grown children who might have stepped up. All nine said no thanks. “They saw how we were killing ourselves every day,” Mulholland says. “They just were interested in pursuing a normal lifestyle.”

Tom Bavas, whose parents, Louis and Maria, opened the Tiffany in 1980, says his father worked constantly — sometimes sleeping at the diner. Holidays were family workdays; Louis Bavas closed once on Christmas and vowed never to do it again. “Once, we went on vacation to Arizona,” Tom says. “We never even saw the Grand Canyon. My dad wanted to go see a diner.”

Statistics say that just 12 percent of family businesses are viable into a third generation. Kids raised in diner families have more options today, just like everybody else. And parents often don’t mind cashing out. “If you own a diner on a lot that’s big enough for a CVS, there’s your retirement,” says Randy Garbin. Last year, a beloved Staten Island diner called the Country Club (not related) became a Walgreens.

Petrogiannis acknowledges his place in the food chain. “The kids don’t want it — who we gonna call?” he says. “We’ll call Michael.”

DESPITE HIS FONDNESS for look-at-me red roofs, Petrogiannis isn’t crying for attention. “Why do you want to write about me? I’m nobody,” he said before agreeing to give a tour of his empire. He checks nearly all his restaurants every day anyway. One thing about a neighborhood diner is that sometimes you get to see the owner, and he does his best to be in nine places at once. So we walk through dining rooms and kitchens. Petrogiannis opens freezers and storage rooms, revealing meats, cakes, produce. “Clean,” he beams. “Nice.” He introduces me to age-old waitresses, bakers, line cooks, jokes with them, tells a few what to do.

Next to the Melrose counter, he asks a manager to cut some frayed strands from the carpet.

“See this rug? A month and a half old,” she says.

“What, do you want it to look new? That means no business!” he says.
Petrogiannis has put millions into renovations. Inside, the Mayfair now sparkles with colored tiles and glass pendant lamps. The Melrose’s weird shared booths are history. He’s also cut costs and staffs. If the charm of the Melrose for you was the seasoned waitresses whose badges said what year they started, well, most don’t wear the badges anymore, and the staff is younger and wears Phillies t-shirts, though they still might call you “hon.” He’s chopped health-care benefits and standardized backroom operations like food suppliers — no more fish daily off the boat, like Jack Mulholland used to buy at the Mayfair. Still, Petrogiannis has allowed each diner to keep its character and managers to customize menus. The Mayfair’s new menu includes bruschetta, and steak with chimichurri sauce.

The Country Club is barely recognizable inside since Petrogiannis spent a million dollars changing it. Jack and Miriam Perloff opened it in 1956, with a stuccoed Spanish-style exterior that Petrogiannis hasn’t tampered with. It became an institution for the Jewish community. Son Noel Perloff and his wife Simone took over in the ’80s, and business tapered. “They must have known in their heart they were gonna sell it,” says Melody Eagan, the general manager, who started there in 1980. “It needed work.”

Petrogiannis bought it in 2004 and started knocking things down. Classic diners are built from prefabricated train-car-like modules, and the original Country Club was divided into multiple narrow rooms. Petrogiannis tore down the walls, opening up a large, bright dining room. During the renovation, two women came in, longtime customers who always sat against a wall that wasn’t there anymore. “So they walk out. And here I am spending a million dollars to make this place nice, clean. I was very upset. Anyway, to make a long story short, a couple months later, I happen to be up front, and they come back. They’re shocked — ‘Oh my God, it’s so beautiful.’ I remember especially one lady, she come up and hugged me. I said, ‘You see, you got upset for no reason, you got me upset.’”

In the parking lot at the Tiffany, Petrogiannis stoops to pick up a napkin. “This is the boss’s tips,” he says, cracking a little grin.

Fifteen years before he bought the Tiffany in 2002, he worked here. Petrogiannis was born in Crete. His parents were farmers. “Poor, no rich,” he says. He was assisting the cook on a tanker, and one day in the early 1970s, as the ship made port in Marcus Hook, below Philadelphia, he never went back. “A split-second decision,” he says.

He spent a couple nights on benches, found work washing dishes in a Philly diner, and advanced to cooking as he learned English. When the Tiffany opened, Petrogiannis worked there for seven years. It’s where he met his wife — and found his calling.
“Nobody could run a kitchen like Michael,” Bavas recalls. “You have 25 waitresses, no computers. Each waitress may have four tables. If somebody’s got a prime rib and an omelet and a sauté dish, you can’t make the omelet first and let it sit there and dry out. You gotta know when to call that order. Michael was the best of the best.”

Louis Bavas would tell his son Tom and Petrogiannis that someday they’d take over the place. But the old man held on, and Petrogiannis instead jumped to buy Littleton’s Diner on Ogontz Avenue. (It’s gone now.) And Tom Bavas, a general contractor today, swears this is true: “When Michael left, he said, ‘One day I’m gonna own every diner in Philadelphia.’”

BACK IN PETROGIANNIS’S SUV, on our tour, he turns on the radio, and it plays Greek music. He switches to a news station that, weirdly, has a report on Greece’s troubled economy. Soon we’re talking about money, too.

Fifteen years ago, Petrogiannis says, in the three-mile stretch of Street Road from I-95 to Route 1, there were 63 restaurants. “Now 150. Every place that opens up takes away two or three customers a week.” We’re talking about Wawa, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, Applebee’s, Golden Corral.

So he has to hold the line on prices. But his costs are up, for oil, for seafood, for insurance. And his best customers, the ones who come every day, aren’t getting any younger. “Those old people are leaving us. They’re going up to see St. Peter,” he says. Business isn’t booming. And he hasn’t been immune to the brutal lifestyle of running a round-the-clock business. He frets. He says he doesn’t sleep well. He admits he didn’t see his two children enough when they were growing up.

It’s more than a month later when I see Petrogiannis again. A cook at the Melrose is on vacation, so the owner has decided to cook and prep for the week. He pours a pot of boiled potatoes into a massive colander, then into a mixing bowl with butter, white pepper, salt, hot milk. When the mixing machine is done, he lines up three chrome containers on a table, claps his hands, and gets out a big spoon to shovel the creamy potatoes into the containers. This is like vacation for him.

“How long is your shift?” I ask him when he’s done. “Long time. Thirty-seven years,” he says. I don’t know if he misunderstood the question or he’s joking. It works either way. And it brings up my next question: How much longer can he do this?

“I’ve got … 15 more years?” he wonders. After that, he’s not sure. “My daughter don’t wanna have nothing to do with it — she won’t even come here to eat.” His son Gus helps manage one of the Michael’s locations, but seems noncommittal about a future in diners. “I don’t think he knows what he wants. I told him to be here today — where he is?”
It raises an interesting question: If Michael’s kids don’t want his diners, whom does Michael call? Walgreens?

A few mornings later, it’s dark and quiet on Snyder Avenue. The fork and knife on the Melrose clock say 6:30. And there it is, all lit up. Okay, not actually like a stadium. But inviting, like the oasis a neighborhood diner should be. Inside, my waitress, Lucille, is in a time warp, wearing her olden-days uniform and a badge that says 1990 — she says today is her 20th anniversary. She serves French toast that’s as good as you can get anywhere, and scrapple that’s, well, scrapple. The coffee, hey, you can get better coffee in a million places these days. The check is about eight bucks. The hands on the Melrose clock won’t let me see 15 years into the future of this place any better than they can, really, take anyone back to the way things used to be. But with a belly full of comfort, I know I’m all set until lunch.   

 

 

Source URL: http://www.phillymag.com/articles/2010/11/26/the-king-of-the-philly-diner/