The King of the Philly Diner

Greek-born Michael Petrogiannis has built a mini-empire snapping up landmarks like the Melrose and the Mayfair. But is he saving our diners? Or sucking the soul out of them?

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.

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