The closing of Little Pete’s last month was hailed as the death knell for a certain kind of old-school dining experience, one rich in banter and bacon grease. But it is still possible to gather around a Formica horseshoe counter — two of them, actually — for your scrapple and eggs without venturing beyond the boundaries of Center City.
Sandwiched between a Cosi and Stephen Starr’s Buddakan at 325 Chestnut St., Mrs. K’s Koffee is still serving up all-day breakfasts (until 3:30 p.m., anyway), still pouring bottomless refills in thick mugs, still scribbling orders on green notepads, and still taking cash only. Chipped beef on toast remains the house specialty. They also do grits, but as cashier Donna Moncrief, a 25-year veteran, informed me, it is mainly to satisfy the tourists who wander over from Independence Mall.
More pertinent, at least from the point of view of a design column, the decor has hardly been touched since Mrs. K’s moved into the functionalist glass office building in 1962. The result is that the diner remains as redolent of midcentury optimism as a glass of Tang, which seems to have been the inspiration for the paint color on the west wall.
As someone who spent her teenage years working after school behind a horseshoe counter at the Mid Island Hospital Diner, visiting Mrs. K’s was like taking a trip back in time. The brilliance of the horseshoe-counter design is that servers are within arm’s reach of everything — customers, clean coffee cups, the kitchen pass-through. Mrs. K’s color (kolor?) scheme isn’t as vibrant as Little Pete’s aspirational Verdi Pompeii or Mid Island’s classic turquoise and pink, but, then, the restaurant had twice the surface area to cover with its double-horseshoe arrangement.
The restaurant’s original owners went with a subdued gold-flecked Formica for the counter tops and a faux wood grain for the base. Ringing the counters are 52 blue-vinyl-covered swivel stools. At the back of the restaurant, the kitchen wall is covered in Chiclet-size tiles in shades that approximate all the possible coffee options, from muddy black to cream. The grillmaster, whose domain is smaller than most apartment closets, can slip finished orders through a stainless-steel window. The most fanciful decoration (other than the hand-written sign for the Early Risers Special) is a clock fashioned out of cutlery. Naturally, the counters are topped with the holy trinity of service items: sugar jars, ketchup bottles, and napkin dispenses.
The office where Mrs. K’s is located was recently acquired by MRP Realty, which has been making improvements to the 1960 building. The company recently installed a lobby connection to Mrs. K’s to make the restaurant more visible. Nevertheless, Mrs. K has been talking retirement, according to MRP’s Charles McGrath. Should that happen, McGrath told me, he wants to preserve the diner just as it is and find a new operator who will appreciate its retro-diner charms. Who knows, he suggested, it could end up as Mr. Starr’s.
A diner sips coffee at Mrs. K’s Koffee Shop on Chestnut Street, one of the few remaining classic diners in Center City.