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?

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.