When you take a ride up Frankford Avenue — past the fancy beer halls, the coffee shops, and the ironic facial hair — the old King’s Highway turns from hipster to Teamster, and from coffee house to … well … Clown House.
It’s a greasy-spoon diner crammed into the front of a Philadelphia rowhome, outfitted with bathrooms on the second floor, where you have to compete with the apartment dwellers who share the space. Make a wrong turn and run into an octogenarian watching repeats of Suddenly Susan — if you’re lucky.
To everyone who has ever worked a job where the long hours and daily drama become a vortex of frustration and exhaustion, you know the value of a good place to share breakfast with a friend on the way to work. Among many typical breakfast spots, Pete’s Clown House is something special.
What is it about the Clown House? Among the regulars, belly-up at the grill like us, it’s a different kind of place. Is it the fact that no one can definitively explain where the name came from? Is it the frenzied staff, bumping into each other, sometimes inexplicably wearing Magic Marker mustaches, firing back friendly potshots at the regulars while avoiding a collision of coffee trays? The home-made signs on the walls? Or the monster truck parked outside — what’s that about?
The food, despite being as satisfying as any greasy spoon diner, doesn’t seem to be what brings the customers. It has a kind of un-pretentious lack of self-consciousness that has become rare to see in a place trying to sell you something. We would suggest that a restaurant can’t offer a daily breakfast special of two eggs, hash browns, toast, juice and coffee for $1.99, as the Clown House does, without being an honest kind of place.
It has the feel of Cheers over hash browns with a side of scrapple.
It is also something of an oasis. The Clown House is located on Frankford Avenue, too far north to be part of the gentrifying development and too far south to be under the Market-Frankford line commercial corridor. The neighborhood is crisscrossed by railroad beds from nearly every angle. Abandoned buildings dot the area. And the old North Catholic High School, once the world’s largest Catholic High School for boys, looms nearby, closed since 2010. On gray days the area looks a little extra gray.
But as the smiling bozo face on the sign indicates, things are a little different in the Clown House — if only for just an inexpensive breakfast, where, as you like, you can either be left alone or get into a brawling debate about the Phillies. It’s not a bad place to start the work day.
The Clown House doesn’t take itself too seriously, and really, you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously either. That’s the special sauce in the $1.99 breakfast special and what keeps us coming back.
East Falls resident George Matysik is a scrapple enthusiast born and raised in lower Northeast Philadelphia and a member of the Daily News People’s Editorial Board. Doug Moak has lived in Philadelphia for 11 years. He lives in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood and collects used books.
A version of this essay ran previously in Philly Love Notes.