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?

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.”