By David Bjorkgren
Special to the Hellenic News of America
The owners of Little Pete’s diner are adjusting to life with just one restaurant as they lament the closing of their diner at 17th and Chancellor Streets in Center City Philadelphia to make way for a hotel.
That closure, back in May, reduces the Little Pete’s dynasty to just one diner at 2401 Pennsylvania Ave. near the Philadelphia Art Museum. Another Little Pete’s on 19th Street, had closed several years earlier.
“We have the third one, thank God,” said Pete Koutroubas, co-owner of Little Pete’s with his brother Ioannis (John).
The Center City diner that seemed permanently stuck in the 1970s had been a city landmark for 39 years. It opened in 1978 in what was a former Dewey’s restaurant. Some of its seven vinyl booths, stools, and signs were turned over to the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, in an effort to preserve the diner’s physical remains, according to a May 30, 2017 Philadelphia Inquirer article.
Even as the area of Center City changed to serve more upper crust tastes, the diner remained, unchanged, until last May.
“I lost my baby,” lamented Pete.
Back on a rainy May 30, 2017 the diner threw an outdoor block party with a free lunch and Greek music for all of its customers to thank them for their support over the past 39 years. It was their last hurrah after officially closing the day before.
The diner was located on the ground floor of a building housing a run-down garage. Chancellor Hotel Associates is replacing the building with the Manhattans-style 13-story, 309-room boutique Hyatt Centric hotel, set to open in April 2019.
“I’m upset to lose the best spot but the big fish ate the little fish,” Pete said. The Center City restaurant opened when he was 20 years old and “anybody who was hungry, I fed them,” he said.
The siblings estimate they have served millions with their diners, Greek Americans and non-Greek Americans alike.
They plan to be around for several more years at the Fairmount Park location as they continue to plan for the future, “God give us the love,” Pete said.
The two brothers said a new restaurant is not out of the question if they can find the right location and can afford today’s high rents. They both agree they want to stay in the city. Pete is thinking Fishtown or Northern Liberties but John is insistent they stay in Center City, perhaps the Rittenhouse area.
“There’s a new generation. We have to warm them up and get them into the next store,” Pete said.
The diner has been a staple for local customers who just want a simple meal, friendly service and good company as they gather around the Formica horseshoe counter that fits 19 people. Known for its 24-hour breakfast, the diner’s menu offers traditional fare from bagels, egg platters, hot cakes and waffles, to sandwiches and hoagies. For dinner, there’s everything from liver and steak, to pasta and seafood. Of course, customers don’t have to look hard on the menu to find Greek foods like a lamb gyro sandwich, Greek salad, Greek wrap, spinach pie, and stuffed grape leaves, olives and Feta cheese as a side dish.
Looking back, they have no regrets. “I’m happy that I had a good life on 17th Street,” said brother John Koutroubas, 57. “I grew up there but it has to come to an end. It was good. I respect everyone that came into the place.”
“I feel the same way. I want to thank everybody that stopped there over the years. I grew up in that place also. I stayed there all 39 years. I never left,” said brother Chris.
Peter, John and Chris came to Philadelphia in 1972 with their sister, Peggy, and parents, Kostas and Vasiliki (Bessie). Peter was just 14.
Back in Greece, the family lived in a house near a river and grew cherries, raspberries, walnuts, chestnuts, apples and pears, using animal-drawn plows, according to a Jan. 4, 2015 Philadelphia Inquirer article on the family.
Though downtown Philadelphia was suffering from a plight in the 1970s, eateries run by Greek Americans were thriving. Pete’s first job was in 1973 as a dishwasher at Day’s Deli, 18th and Spruce streets, earning $3 an hour. He also took work at Eagle II at Broad and Locust streets, working 15 hour days while training at Philadelphia Park to become a jockey, according to the article.
He gave up on that pursuit in 1978 and signed a lease at 17th and Chancellor Streets to take over the former Dewey’s burger and shake restaurant, renaming it Little Pete’s. The family poured their hard work into the restaurant to make it a success.
John has been in charge of running the diner since 1989. He remembered the middle of the 1990s as a bad time for the diner because people were afraid to come into Center City, according to an interview he gave May 30, 2017 to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The restaurant siblings have lost both their parents. Their father died in 1998 and they lost their mother in 2003.
According to the article, the diner has seen its share of celebrities, including Dustin Hoffman, Dr. J. football players, Bruce Willis, Joey Bishop, Pete Sampras, Musician Todd Rudgren, and Mayor Nutter.
The location of Little Pete’s was an important event in LGBT history when, in 1965, a group staged a sit-in for LGBT rights, demanding service. The restaurant at that time was still Dewey’s. The group eventually received service and national recognition.
The impact of closing the Center City diner was not lost on Philadelphians. Sam Przbylski Jr., one of Little Pete’s cashiers, had worked at the diner for 10 years and his mother had worked there for 37 years. His grandparents ate dinner at the 19th and Chestnut location at least five times a week, he told the Inquirer in a May 30 story.
Marisa McClellan told the Inquirer that she saw the same waitresses during a recent visit to the 17th Street store that had waited on her grandparents years before. Her grandparents had since passed away and the 19th Street diner had closed, but the waitresses and the menu were the same.
The success story of the diners over the years is also the success of the American Dream for these Greek American immigrants. “This is part of this country. You work hard and you succeed,” Chris said.
“God bless America, the greatest country in the world,” John exclaimed.