For nearly four decades, the old-fashioned diner Little Pete’s at 17th and Chancellor Streets has served up round-the-clock reubens and eggs benedict to all walks of life.
On Monday, they cooked up their last meals before the site is demolished ahead of the construction of an upscale 12-story hotel.
Legions of die-hard fans of Little Pete’s turned out to pay respect to one of the last 24-7 diners in Center City.
Little Pete himself welcomed many of them. His full name is Pete Koutroubas, a Greek immigrant who started in the restaurant industry as a busboy, where he’d prop himself on a milk crate to wash dishes. That’s when he first got the nickname.
“Because I used to work at a place, and the owner was big Pete, he was like six-foot something. And there was a manager there who was Pete. And I was the bus boy. I was the little one. They used you call them big Pete, middle Pete and little Pete. So I got stuck with little Pete,” he said.
And that name, written in red on a white box-shaped sign, is what invited people in before sitting down at one of the simple booths or stools around a U-shaped counter where generations of construction workers, lawyers, electricians and politicians have been served since 1978. Little Pete’s became a city landmark in a section of the city that transformed over the years from seedy to vibrant.
“People met here. They get married, have kids. Their kids are coming here. A lot of stories,” Koutroubas said.
Waitress Margie Storn was often there, listening to the tales between jotting down customers’ orders. She has worked at Little Pete’s for 30 years. Wearing big gold hoop earrings and purple eye shadow, Storn said the late-night crowd has always been the most entertaining.
“So, they’re hungry enough that they go up to a complete stranger and take a french fry off their plate. Sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes they’re throwing french fries around. But it is what it is,” Storn said.
It is not just the airborne fries that will prove indelible to Storn. The interactions that unfold when two people from totally different backgrounds sit cheek-to-jowl have always been memorable, she said. There is even something about the smell of Little Pete’s that will stay with her.
“The greasy spoon,” she said. “The diner smell. You smell the bacon all day. Potatoes. It’s just, it feels like you woke up on a Saturday morning to eat breakfast at home.”
Storn says over the years the staff has given names to many of the regulars.
“For instance, we have a customer whose name is John, and we call him neither/either, because he doesn’t want a pickle or a chip, so that’s how we remember him,” she said. “Then there’s Peachy,” Storn said before another waitress announced, “Peachy’s here!”
“It’s just fun,” Storn said.
That inviting energy hooked Tracy Mueller early on. She came once on a lark, then returned and she felt like she was family.
“The second time I came here, the waitress knew my name, she knew what I drank, before I even sat down. She’s like, ‘Hi Tracy, would you like some ice tea?’ I love this place. It’s like Cheers without alcohol,” Mueller said.
Andy Kaplin, who lives near Little Pete’s, said removing the all-night diners from the city unravels a piece of Philadelphia’s fabric.
“What we need is affordable food that isn’t a fancy restaurant where the culinary critics are going to come and criticize and breakdown a restaurant. This food is just good,” Kaplin said.
“We need more food where people recognize that a regular bacon, egg and cheese sandwich is just as good as a $100 cheesesteak at Barclay Prime. You need a little of everything to make a city diverse, just like the people, the food needs to be diverse,” he said.
Another fan is Joe Tolstoy. He used to work a late-night shift at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. When he was finished, he’d swing by Little Pete’s for both the mozzarella sticks and the humanity.
“You could come over here and get a good meal in the morning and see some of the greatest collection of characters in Philadelphia, either sitting at the booth or at the counter,” Tolstoy said. “Coming or going. It was a great place to do some people-watching, as well as just getting a good meal.”
For others, the diner held special importance for the site’s history. In 1965, gay rights activists staged peaceful sit-ins at what was then a coffee shop called Dewey’s, which attempted to ban gay customers. After the sit-ins, the coffee shop’s management agreed to stop discriminating.
“And so, for many gay folks, this an important part of our history. And we’ve been coming here for years,” said patron Chris Barlett. “Ever since it’s been Little Pete’s, it’s really been a safe place to come after we’ve been dancing, after we’ve been out at the clubs.”
Across the street from the diner, James Graham Jr. sells umbrellas and plays Christian sermons from his small radio. But before he sets up for the day, he comes to Little Pete’s for oatmeal, with extra butter.
“Forty years I’m going over there to have breakfast most times. Nice people, the best people in the world,” Graham said.
Koutroubas said with the help of an online campaign to save Little Pete’s, its closing was stalled for some years, but with property values skyrocketing, he knew closing the doors for good was something he could not avoid forever.
“When I started here in 1978, I was paying $800,” Koutrouba said. “Now I pay $10,000.”
And that is monthly rent for a 1,500-square-foot diner with no basement, he added. Comparable properties nearby command even higher rents, he said.
Soon, the diner will be razed to make way for a 309-room boutique Hyatt hotel.
But before the wrecking ball arrives, Koutrobas, his family and customers of all stripes are throwing a block party in front of the diner on Tuesday.
“The people got used to this place,” he said. “And they’re going to miss it. I’m going to miss it.”