There’s Only One Midtown Diner Left — Enjoy It While It Lasts
In a few years’ time, the eulogy for the downtown diner might be regarded as a literary genre unto itself.
They seem to disappear rapidly these days. Little Pete’s is still running, though its existence is imperiled by a planned hotel project. The Midtown IV near 20th and Chestnut was replaced a few years ago by El Rey, an upscale Mexican restaurant by Stephen Starr. And yesterday, news broke that the Midtown II at 11th and Sansom will close next week, which will leave the Midtown III at 18th and Market as the last of the old greasy spoon empire.
In my teenage years, before I moved to the city, I would often make the rounds of the Montgomery County diners, because you could sit for as long as you wanted and smoke cigarettes and drink coffee, and a lot of places didn’t even mind if you played cards. Sometimes I’d end up at the Midtown IV when I felt like making a long drive, or I’d land there after a show at the First Unitarian Church, which was around the corner. I went to Little Pete’s on the first or second night I lived in Philadelphia. The Midtown II has been in my rotation for almost 10 years. Sadly, I never made it to the Midtown I, which used to run at 7th and Sansom.
But rather than lament the loss of another cheap eatery in Center City, I’m just going to commit to patronizing as many as I can until I’m out of options. Today, I invited my colleague Dan McQuade down for lunch at the Midtown III, which is around the corner from the Philly Mag offices.
The appeal of a diner is almost too obvious to describe, but Dan and I did our best.
“The best thing about the Midtown II was that after the bars let out at 2 a.m., there was always such a crazy mix of people,” said Dan, who lives a few blocks from there. “People from the Gayborhood, people from Old City bars, people from dives in the Midtown Village area would just come into this diner and interact, and it always just seemed pretty cool. You would always see teenagers hanging out there. When you’re a teenager, there’s not too many places you can go, and diners are always the one place you can go and it’s OK if you only have $10, because they’ll let you sit there for four hours.”
I noted the range of options: I’d just ordered a BLT, and Dan had gotten pancakes and french fries.
“There’s something, to me, comforting about just the experience of being in a diner where I know I can get sort of shitty, greasy food that I’ll like,” Dan said. “I’m a real picky eater, so going to diners is always great, because I know that there’s more different types of things that I like on a diner menu than any other restaurant I go to.”
“Look at this!” the waitress said, sliding our plates onto the table.
I think a lot of people feel comfortable in diners because there are a lot of other people who feel comfortable there. The vibe just sort of snowballs.
“Center City’s getting fancier and fancier, so I guess these diners don’t really fit, even though I think they serve a wide swath of the city,” Dan said.
I’ve only been working at the Philly Mag offices for a few weeks, but today was my fourth lunch at the Midtown III. Is the food spectacular? No. Is it better, cheaper, more enjoyable and just as quick as waiting in line at Saladworks and eating at the desk? Certainly.
Dan and I hung around for a bit and talked about the diners of our youths. After lunch I took some pictures outside and then went back in to talk to the Midtown III owner, Vivian Tafuri, who was a bit defensive at first. That’s understandable, considering her uncle, Midtown II owner Gus Hionas, partially blames news reports about health code violations for a drop-off in business.
“Tell them [Midtown II] was the best thing that ever happened to that neighborhood,” Tafuri said.
Tafuri said if it were up to her she’d close the Midtown III tomorrow — it’s “no life” running a 24/7 diner, she said. But she’ll keep it rolling for now. Her mother lives upstairs and doesn’t want to move, she said.
Follow @JaredBrey on Twitter.