Philly love note: Little Pete's
October 31, 2012By John Paul Titlow
Over the back counter hangs a faux-neon "take out" sign that looks like it would make any thrift shop dweller's day. As diners go, this 24-hour hole-in-the-wall is legit.
Unexpectedly tucked away in Center City's posh shopping district is something of a time warp. On the inside, Little Pete's, 219 S. 17th St., feels no different than it must have when it first opened 34 years ago. Just beyond the dated outdoor awning and the old-school cigarette vending machine by the entrance lies a somewhat hideous-looking green counter surrounded by matching diner stools.
Along the adjacent wall, there's a row of booths cushioned with that very same 1970s-style green-and-blue pattern. Over the back counter hangs a faux-neon "take out" sign that looks like it would make any thrift shop dweller's day. As diners go, this 24-hour hole-in-the-wall is legit.
Your waitress, clearly a veteran of the profession, walks up and drops off a few menus. The food is typical diner fare, easily on the better side of the grand spectrum of Philly diners. It's not quite a foodie's paradise, but that's beside the point. The menu is surprisingly expansive. The only thing that seems to be missing is the exorbitant prices one would expect to encounter in this part of town.
"What can I getcha, sweetie?" the waitress asks in a tobacco-charred Philly accent. She scribbles it all down and, before you know it, she's back with a fully loaded tray. If you had the good sense to order a milkshake, you'll be delighted to discover that — oh, hell yes — it comes with that extra tin cup of leftover deliciousness.
I first discovered Little Pete's as a newly enrolled journalism student at Temple University. My then-girlfriend and I found that its cheap menu and divey vibe made it the perfect late night stop to top off a weekend night out in Center City or — even better — to get a snack after a long day in the photo darkroom, back when that still existed. Over the years, it stuck as an occasional but reliable staple.
When I worked at a newspaper in Center City, it became one of many places to grab coffee with a colleague. After a Friday happy hour with friends at Oscar's (and perhaps a few other stops along the way), some of us are still known to stumble southwest a few blocks in a quest for sandwiches, omelets and whatever else might satiate our semi-drunken cravings.
The clientele at Little Pete's varies wildly depending on when you're there. During the work week, the hurried downtown lunch crowd fills the place with a chatter that blends just about perfectly with the sizzle of the grill, clinking of utensils and hum of the milkshake machine.
On Saturday afternoon, there might be a couple in one booth and a family of shoppers three spots down. It's pretty slow. At the counter, you'll have a pair of college students picking at steak fries several stools over from some lost soul who looks like she could tell you stories about a version of Philadelphia you'll never know.
Come Saturday night, it's a completely different scene. As one of the few places still open when the bars close, Little Pete's has a way of attracting a more boisterous crowd, usually forming a line that threatens to spill out onto the sidewalk. Quite often, it does.
I don't know what it is that draws me to places like this, but I can't help but blame my father. A Philadelphia native, Tom Titlow Sr. grew up frequenting places like Bob's Diner in Roxborough and Melrose Diner in South Philly, whose iconic theme song he would occasionally sing. When we were growing up, he'd always take my sister, brothers and me to places like this, whether it was en route to visit our grandmother in a Roxborough nursing home or as part of some Saturday afternoon excursion for the hell of it.
A few years ago, shortly after starting at Temple, I lost my dad. But it thankfully wasn't before he instilled in me a couple of things: a love of writing, an interest in photography and a knack for technology, to name a few.
He was also magnetically drawn to old-fashioned Philly diners. I don't think he had ever been to Little Pete's, but it's the kind of place he would have loved. I can't help but think that every time I polish off another chocolate milkshake at the counter, I'm honoring his memory. That's what I'll continue to tell myself, anyway.
This essay was originally published in the blog Philly Note Notes.
John Paul Titlow writes for ReadWrite, Philadelphia Weekly and other publications, focusing on technology trends and new media.