Nothing Can Be Finer……Then Heading to “The Diner”

Jun 3, 2010

…After “last call”, Philly has plenty of diners to head off the hangover

By Patty-Pat Kozlowski

pennqueenIt’s just after 2 a.m. and last call is over. There is only but one question that remains, and we’re not talking about, “Where the hell are my pants?”

Nope, you say to yourself and your crew, “Where are we gonna eat?” Chances are, you’re one of the lucky ones who know that “the diner” has just what you need to get your fill.

And you’re lucky because Philadelphia is one of the few remaining towns that still has a thriving diner trade. New Jersey of course will always be king of diners, but Philly, Baltimore, New York and Rhode Island are still the mainstays of diner domes where shortstakes, burgers and fries and apple pie ala mode will always be on the menu.

But before we go through a list of diners that are meccas for “after the bar” scenes, we’ll give you a little bit of history of these American icons where you sit in a booth and order chipped beef on toast or better known as S.O.S……..

The First Diner-had no booths, no sarcastic waitresses, no blue plate specials. It was actually a horse drawn carriage wagon in Providence, Rhode Island back in 1872 and it catered to the workers at the Providence Journal newspaper. A guy named Walter Scott worked for the paper and would make a little money on the side by preparing his fellow co-workers basket lunches. He left the paper business and bought a horse and carriage and took his lunch baskets on the road, visiting other businesses and factories that worked around the clock. His menu was simple: coffee and sandwiches.

Five years later in 1877, Thomas Buckley started to mass produce lunch wagons and received a patent in 1891 for his “diners”. By this time, the wagons were made with stools attached to the sides so workers could have a seat and eat their sandwich on the ledge of the wagon-hence, the first diner counter.

But with supply and demand, when the demand for more seats came about, diners went from being wagons to becoming more stationary. Call it coincidence, but someone had the bright idea to take an out of service train dining car off its tracking and plant it on a busy corner. The beginning of, “What are ya having, hon?” was born.

And that’s where Jersey boy Jerry O’Mahony comes into play. The O’Mahony Diner Company, based in Elizabeth, New Jersey started to manufacture and build these railcar diners with the sleek steel and art deco designs and is credited with making over 2,000 diners up until 1972 when they closed shop. Only 20 of O’Mahony’s masterpieces still exist today.

Where are we gonna eat?

But it’s still 2 a.m. and where are you gonna eat? This whole article could be filled with the diners of Philly and Jersey and everybody has their favorites but we wittled them down to these five that are sure bets for your after the bar closes meal. As one of my favorite drinkers told me, in her wild days, she’d finish off a night with a plate of steak and eggs. “It gave me the protein I needed and it helped with the hangover,” she belched, also giving me the advice to never ever eat cheese sandwiches with a pitcher of Sinapore Slings.

Nothing Could Be Finer…….Than The Aramingo Diner: The Aramingo Diner at 3356 Aramingo Avenue, 19134  itself began in 1957 when William and Catherine Moraitis opened its door and immediately became a Philadelphia favorite serving up famous breakfast fried potatoes, chipped beef on toast, cream of chicken soup and Friday seafood dinners in Port Richmond along Aramingo Avenue-a much travel route that linked Center City with the lower Northeast.

In 1972, their daughter Georgette married George Grigos and a new generation began at the Aramingo Diner. Grigos has ketchup in his blood and coffee in his veins as this self-made man started in the food business and worked his way from the ground up to own and operate the Aramingo Diner. At age 19, Grigos moved to New York City to attend college and complete a course in restaurant and hotel management. He knew he could not afford the top of the line schools like Cornell University or the Culinary Institute of America but he knew he had the passion and work ethic to be successful.

When he returned to Philadelphia, at the age of 21 he started a catering job at the Philadelphia International Airport and found himself managing 350 people. He excelled by making sure sanitation and safety were first and foremost.

But on a cold December night in 2006, loyal staff and customers gathered on the sidewalks and watched the Philadelphia Fire Department fight a blaze in the diner and wondered if another slice of that famous cheesecake would ever be served again.

Just in time for their 50th Anniversary, the Aramingo Diner opened its doors again in March 2007 serving up a full house of customers. Those who tried to pay for their slice of cheesecake, the diner’s signature dessert were shooed away by Grigos. “The cash register doesn’t work today,” he quipped. “Thank-you for coming back to us.”

One of the few diners in Center City Philadelphia that’s open 24 Hours-and that’s Little Pete’s at the corner of 17th and Chancellor Streets. With its cash only policy and free delivery (but very, very strict delivery boundaries) Little Pete’s is very little with only a dozen or so counter stools and a handful of booths for customers that are always filled and Little Pete’s is famous for always being opened 24/7 and serves breakfast all the time. Cheese omlettes and home fries, club sandwiches and milkshakes, ice cream sodas and greasy gotta have burgers with greasier onion rings.

You’ll never know who you’ll bump elbows and knees with, the place is that small-but suits and ties, Rittenhouse Square condo dwellers, plumbers, construction workers, cops and secretaries either take a seat or take it out. But those you hit the center city bar scene know there is only one place to eat at 4 a.m. less than one of their fancy overpriced cocktails two blocks away.

Thick cut steak fries and the best Texas Tommy dogs outside the Lone Star state as well as juicy burgers on toasted buns join the famous turkey (do you want Thanksgiving turkey or lunchmeat turkey?) club sandwiches with alotta crispy bacon wedged in between as lunchtime favorites but don’t forget to look at “Pete’s Picks” atop the stainless steel napkin holder that gives you over 20 choice specials from sandwiches to full platters.

But again, it’s the breakfast after the bars that Little Pete’s excel at. Food blogs and websites are chock full of grateful diners who just needed a short stack and sausage or French Toast and scrapple and yes, even steak and eggs to tide them over after a night of dancing on the bar. In fact, both the Latham Hotel and the Warwick across the street find their guests stepping out to grab something at Little Pete’s instead of dining in.

Everybody Who Knows Goes to Melrose-for over 73 years The Melrose Diner at 1501 Snyder Avenue in South Philadelphia has been the diner to eat at with their famous Butter Cream Layer Cake and the bags of chocolate chip, butter and oatmeal raisin cookies.

Don’t take the revolving door of customers using their take-out window as a clue to not go inside. You’ll be met with oldies music and staff that knows your name and your order. When the ownership changed hands a few years back it was a split decision between customers if it was for the better. The waitresses are still there with their brown and white uniforms and nametags and yes, you still have to share the booths with other diners! But that’s the Melrose Diner, it’s their way or go elsewhere-and some customers did to The Oregon Diner and the Penrose Diner but the Melrose, just off of Broad Street still has its loyalists and still is a breakfast go-to place after a night out at the Phillies game, a concert at Wachovia or throwing them back at any given South Philly bar room.

Their version of steak and eggs is a petite tenderloin tail with fried eggs, home fries and toast for $11.95. Go ahead, my friend, have another Pink Squirrel.

Only Christmas Closes the Dining Car-but every other day, The Dining Car at 8826 Frankford Avenue is open 24 hours a day. Patriarch Joe Morozin Sr. opened his very first eatery when he was sixteen years old. The road was paved with hard work, dedication and perseverance. It led from the GI Inn to White Way to the Torresdale Diner to The Dining Car.

The Torresdale Diner was originally located at 8828 Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia from 1960 to 1980. In 1979 its name changed to The Dining Car.

The “new” Dining Car was constructed by the Swingle Diner Company on-site in New Jersey and trucked to its current location at 8826 Frankford Avenue in 1980.

Its prominent features include black enamel, stainless steel, glass block and neon accents. As you approach its rolled top stainless steel roof and long sleek black body, you can almost find yourself looking for the rest of the train. Not wanting to interrupt service to its customers, both diners were actually operating at the same time for a short while. Some customers even picked up there coffee cups from the old diner and walked over to the new diner to sit and finish up there. Once all of the patrons were served, the “old” diner was closed.

The Food Network Channel knows this Northeast Philly diner very well and has featured it on several specials but they’re preaching to the choir. Everybody knows the Jewish Apple Cake, Apple Walnut Pie, the French Onion Soup and Mama’s Chicken and Gravy are downright awesome.

The Dining Car has always been known for its authentic diner fare. However, it has its own personal touch on American/Continental cuisine. Executive Chef Lawrence Thum, a Dining Car veteran since 1975, constantly adapts the daily blackboard specials for freshness and variety.

Chef Thum started out as a dishwasher in high school working his way through all facets of the diner until reaching the position of head chef. His knowledge of the front and back of the house is invaluable. His assistant Chef Robert High, another valued employee since 1975, is a third generation member of the Dining Car family. Chef Thum is the culinary architect of the Diner’s totally scratch kitchen. He even makes his own maple syrup!

And that’s what you top your pancakes and French toast with when you order that breakfast after the bar scene. Locals like to call The Dining Car, “the Palm of the Northeast” cause its where everybody who’s anybody likes to go-not to be seen-but to eat a meal you know will always be fantastic. And maybe, just maybe you’ll have the honor of being waited on by Elaine Kelly-who’s been a waitress there for 34 years.

It’s worth the bridge toll-Penn Queen Diner in Pennsauken N.J.- Ahh the Penn Queen on Route 130 between Pennsauken and Merchantville and just right off the Betsey Ross Bridge. It’s the best $4 you’ll ever spend to cross the river, if only for their basket of warm cheese rolls.

And don’t worry, you’re not doing a double take-you’ll see good looking tall handsome twin brothers seating you in either the counter and booth wing or the dining room.

Portions are huge, the chicken parm dinner feeds you for dinner and then a midnight snack and then lunch the next day and the cream of chicken rice soup on Sundays is divine intervention. The only drawback is that the Penn Queen takes off her crown at midnight-so drinkers need to call it an early night for their steak and eggs and western omlettes.

Now let the slinging of hash begin, of course we could not put every diner on this list and we heard people give kudos to the Mayfair Diner, the Tiffany Diner, Broad Street Diner, the Liberty Bell Diner, Ponzio’s, The Sage and does anybody remember Sherry’s under the EL on Kensington Avenue?

America has a love affair with their diners and diner food and the epitome of going to the diner after a night out is immortalized in the 1942 Edward Hopper painting titled “Nighthawks”- a scene of a corner all night diner with a waiter, dressed in crisp whites looking to refill a cup of hot joe to a few lonely counter guests. You see the scene through the window and suddenly you get the urge for what else? Steak and eggs at a 24 hour diner.

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