The last great downtown diner calls it a day

You would think Little Pete’s co-owner John Koutroubas would be in coasting mode, what with his famed 24-hour Little Pete’s Diner at 17th and Chancellor preparing for its last shift.

As of May 29, at 9 p.m. – after 39 years of day-and-nighttime antics – Pete and John Koutroubas’ diner closed to make way for a Chancellor Hotel Associates’ Hyatt Centric.

On the afternoon of May 30, the Koutroubas will throw a block party, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., filled with music and Greek delicacies.

Rather than coast or ruminate on nearly 40 years of memories, Koutroubas is multi-tasking like mad: bussing tables, filling water glasses, running to the register to tend to checks when cashier Miss Billie of Philly takes a quick break.

“Isn’t this over yet?” Koutroubas said under his breath, before making a face as if to say, “I’m only kidding. I love this.”

And he does; so much so, that the brothers are continuing their search for a replacement space for Little Pete’s outside of Center City (famously, this 1,200-square-foot diner rented for $800 a month in 1978; now, it’s $10,000). But it’s this space on 17th Street with its familiar narrow kitchen near the bathrooms, its vintage cereal display – and of course classic diner fare and memories – that will be missed.

“Oh, sure, I’ll miss it,” said the unflappable Koutroubas. “What are you going to do?”

On the days before its close, regulars who have long maintained their daily dining schedule, as well as those who have left town, returned to get their last Reuben or Eggs Benedict in.

“I came all the way from Fort Lauderdale for my last bites here,” said Steven A. Wigod, an accountant and Little Pete’s regular since the diner opened. “The Chicken Athena is to die for. I have some frozen so I can say I was the last person to eat Pete’s.”

Karen Karuza, a Professor of fashion design at The Art Institute of Philadelphia, was a just a punk rock clothes horse student when she began dining at Little Pete’s.

“Like every good denizen of the night in the 80s, I was an after-hours regular here,” Karuza said. “If I wasn’t in the diner, my Sunday evening ritual was Little Pete’s delivery: cheeseburger, French fries, chocolate milkshake. I’m feeling nostalgic and sad now. I’ve sat in every booth and counter seat in that joint. It’s another loss of a way of life in Philly.”

These are the people that longtime night manager Eleni Memmos will miss most. Along with recalling Jay-Z stopping by for a bite and more than one engagement, the thing she’ll miss the most is the singing.

“Could be at midnight or 4 a.m., I love the spontaneous song,” she said, holding back a tear. “Little Pete’s isn’t the stools and the food. It’s the people. Memories will fill the void, though; happy memories.”

Longtime cashier Miss Billie – a beloved downtown comedian – will miss the laughs.

“This is where I got all my best material,” she said with a smile.

Daniel Tirado – a server at this and the Fairmount Avenue Little Pete’s since 1999 – agreed that his was forever a colorful job because of the clientele.

“There’s this one customer, Chuck the bartender, who comes in and talks with everyone, telling jokes, making the whole room into a community,” said Tirado.

Almost as if on cue, that same Chuck – a bartender at Davio’s – enters Little Pete’s, sits in his corner-of-the-counter seat, and begins his routine.

“I’ll miss doing this – it’s like ‘Cheers’ in here,” Tirado said. “Everyone knows everyone.”

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