Newall: A search for city places that are gone

Little Pete's on the corner of 17th and Chancellor in Center City. Owner Pete Koutroubas​ said the restaurant would be closing in 9 months, at the end of August.

I moved to Philly 15 years ago this week. It’s not an anniversary I mark, but I thought about it the other day while sitting in Little Pete’s, talking with owner John Koutroubas. I had stopped in when I heard the news. Final notice had come: out by Aug. 31, the iconic Center City diner to be replaced by a boutique hotel to match the one across the street.

“It took a part of my heart away,” John said.

It took a bit of my heart away, too. I had my first Philly date there. We sat at the table by the window. We threw snowballs in Rittenhouse Square. We returned for breakfast.

Little Pete’s is another bit of vanishing Philly. And it got me thinking that I’ve been here long enough now that the Philly I first encountered is vanishing too, or is already gone. Struck with a blinding, unexpected sense of nostalgia, I did the only thing I could think of. I went straight to Bonner’s Irish Pub.
Bonner’s is the corner bar at 23rd and Sansom, with its cheery mint-green facade. When I first arrived in Philly it was my spot.

I lived around the corner in a shabby apartment on Walnut Street, right next to the Sunoco station. My landlord was Eddie. No matter what I did, the heat blazed like a furnace. Eddie promised his guy was coming to fix it, so I slept with air-conditioning blasting in the dead of winter. The kitchen floors were so uneven I needed a stack of soup cans to prop the fridge closed. Mice poured in from the fire escape. Once one scurried across me as I lay on the couch.

So, naturally, Bonner’s became my second home. Center City was still years away from exploding. At the bar sat a collection of Amtrak workers and postal employees, and the early waves of adventurous kids from Penn and Drexel. Danny Bonner, the owner, always talked about renovating, when the time was right. But the time wasn’t right yet, so he let us play poker in the back dining room. Or in the President’s Room, the empty banquet space Danny kept immaculately set and adorned with framed portraits of every U.S. chief executive. They said Jimmy Carter once dined there.

One night an angry postman summoned me to the President’s Room for what I thought was going to be a fistfight over one of the lovely McGill sisters who tended bar, only to pull up his sleeve for an arm-wrestling match. He won, I think.

When I stopped in on Friday, after all these years, Danny Bonner was beaming. The time for renovations finally arrived five years ago, when University City began to explode and Center City began to boom, and the college kids and young professionals streamed over the Walnut Street Bridge, as Danny likes to say, “like cattle.”

The place has a shine now. Some weekends, the President’s Room is reservation-only, even if Danny did take down all the presidents. “They were just so dated,” he said. Even with the gloss, though, my old spot retains its charm. Everyone still talks about the ghosts that haunt the place.

I walked my old neighborhood, this time taking stock of what is no longer there: The laundromat where “Grandpa Al,” a thin, old man watched over the machines — and slept in the basement on cold nights. It’s now a nail salon, where customers are greeted with champagne.

Gone, too, is the Walnut Street storefront that housed a lovely antiquarian bookshop. Now it’s the highly regarded restaurant Vernick. My beat-up old apartment is now shiny and new. Eddie sold it.

“We are very bullish on this block,” said Ryan Sell, the president of AMC Delancey, the realty company that recently bought and refurbished my old building.

”$1,395,” Ryan said, looking around. Eddie charged me $535.

And even though new condos tower all around it, Stella and Nick Mitoulis, owners of Sandy’s Restaurant, that cozy diner at 25th and Locust, are planning on hanging up their aprons soon after 20 years. I spent so many mornings there.

It’s time, said Stella at her usual spot at the counter, while Nick slaved over the grill.

It’s like what John from Little Pete’s said: The things that vanish in this city all take a bit of your heart.