The Decline of Lunch Counters and Diners in Center City

Lunch at a diner counter used to be a Center City tradition. Now, there are only a few left.

Midtown 2 inside - empty

An empty Midtown 2 last week. (Photo: Dan McQuade)

To a five-year old growing up in the Northeast, the lunch counter at Woolworth’s might as well have been Le Bec-Fin. Perched on a high stool, at an equal level with mom or dad, I’d watch the busy, uniformed cooks slap my hot dog on the hot grill right in front of me. It was the diner version of the dessert cart being rolled out at the famous Michelin-starred French institution.

Even now, long after it closed, I remember the experience. I wasn’t the only one who was a regular: Everyone from office workers to grandparents to teenagers flocked to the Woolworth’s lunch counters. There were three we went to: One at Knights and Woodhaven in the Northeast, and ones on Market and Chestnut streets in Center City. They were all glorious.

The Woolworth’s eateries began to disappear in the late 80s. The Far Northeast and Market Street locations were the first to go. The Chestnut Street one held on until the shuttering of all Woolworth’s in 1997. The building — 1330 Chestnut Street — is now West Elm, Blick and Lucky Strike, but the exterior still maintains the chain’s signature futuristic design.

There was a time when Center City was filled with diners and their iconic lunch counters. The two concepts went hand-in-hand and offered standard, greasy American fare cooked either directly in front of you or in a back kitchen. It was food that never changed. It was food that came out quickly. It was food you could rely on. These spots dotted the downtown streets well before gourmet taco shops and outdoor cafes became a thing. Perhaps the most-well known — the one that held on the longest — was the Midtown chain. At its height, there were four of them in Center City. Last Monday, word came that the Midtown II closed — driven out of business after 43 years. Midtown IV had closed in 2009 and was replaced by Stephen Starr’s El Rey and Ranstead Room. The Midtown I, which used to be on Jeweler’s Row at 7th and Sansom streets, was shuttered years earlier.

The owner of the sole remaining Midtown Diner, the Midtown III at 18th and Ranstead streets, told Philadelphia magazine’s Jared Brey last month she’d close up tomorrow if she could — but her mom still lives upstairs. “Tell them [Midtown II] was the best thing that ever happened to that neighborhood,” owner Vivian Tafuri said.

I don’t know if it was the best Midtown, but I was saddened to read about II’s closing. Just a few blocks from my mom’s offices, it became our regular spot when I visited her in Center City. It reminded me of my youth. And in a downtown that has changed so much, it was something that was consistent. As a lunch place, it served workers and visitors from nearby Jefferson and Pennsylvania hospitals. At night, it was both a diner and a dive bar, and jammed full of people from all walks of life after the bars closed at 2 a.m. And now that it’s gone, it’s hard to imagine it being replaced by something similar.

It is not just the Midtown locations that are closing. The Savoy, a long-beloved dining spot at 11th and Locust, is gone. Starr’s original Continental, at 2nd and Market, was (obviously) once a lunch spot, and across the street, there was a Snow White diner. There was another at 19th and Chestnut. All gone. Even the veritable Little Pete’s has been in danger, though two different hotel chain proposals have fallen through at the site.

The South Street Diner, owned by the same people that own the Llanerch Diner of Silver Linings Playbook fame since 2010, remains, as do spots like Mrs. K’s on Chestnut near 4th and Bill’s on Sansom and Juniper. But that’s about it.

The era of the diner and lunch counter is over, not just in Philadelphia but around the country. There are a lot of reasons. One is simply that the diner model isn’t as profitable anymore. Diners are often judged by their vast menus, serving everything from pancakes to steak. But serving that variety takes a delicate balance of managing inventory and goes against the current trend of serving one-theme menus (burgers, tapas, salads, etc.). Plus, coffee, which was once a diner take-out staple, is no longer a reason people stop in. There are 14 Starbucks in Center City, several Wawas and 7-Elevens, plus scores independent or smaller-chain coffee shops. Food carts sell it, too.

And running a business downtown is expensive. A CBRE Group report last September found commercial rents went up 87.5 percent over seven years. They went up 15 percent last year alone. Center City Philadelphia is getting more chains and upscale restaurants — places that have high average ticket prices and can handle those bigger monthly rent checks.

It’s cultural, too: A study from Philadelphia-founded Right Management in 2012 found that just one in five employees took actual lunch breaks. “We might infer that far fewer employees are feeling comfortable enough with their work loads and demands to actually take time away to enjoy breaks for meals,“ Michael Haid, then-Senior Vice President for Talent Management at Right Management, said at the time. “Of course, they may have lunch, but it doesn’t constitute a real break from work as they must also monitor the phone and email or do any number of other work related tasks while eating.”

Nationwide, diners are struggling. Even chain diner-style restaurants are on the wane. In their place, Americans are eating at healthier places. In Philadelphia, Snap Kitchen has opened several locations in Center City, one in the former Snow White location. Wawa is expanding. Who would open a new diner now?

And so the diner and lunch counter go the way of history. “Diners are so important because they are the greatest bastions of civility, service, and dare I say grace available to all economic strata in this country,” Serious Eats’ Ed Levine wrote in 2015. With hardly any places to even sit, I doubt the fancy Wawa at Walnut Street or Snap Kitchen can replace that.