One final cup of coffee: Closing day at Little Pete's

Pablo Asiain (left), who has been working at Little Pete’s for 14 years, fills up a customers cup of coffee on the last day of business. Waitress Elizabeth Milano has been a waitress for the Koutroubas family for 22 years

The line snaked out the door: people hungry for pancakes and home fries and a healthy dose of nostalgia.

Little Pete's, the Center City institution, served its final cup of coffee Monday. The diner at 17th and Chancellor will be razed this year to make way for a hotel.

The Koutroubas family plans a block party on Tuesday, but Monday was the final day of normal operations. Inside the narrow space, the clink of glasses and the low hum of conversation took on a special meaning. Around the U-shaped counter and at the narrow tables, people told stories, took photos, and offered hugs and thanks to John Koutroubas, who waved customers to seats and bused tables stoically.

It was a spring day, but overcast, and that seemed fitting.

"Everything changes, and not always for the better," said Lew Snitzer, 70, who faithfully came to Little Pete's three times a week for the omelet he could never quite duplicate at home.

For a group of friends a few tables down, Little Pete's was a staple: When they were in college, it was the place they went for late-night milkshakes and french fries. More recently, it became the spot for weekly "boys' brunches" -- days to reconnect even as life got more weighted down with careers and responsibilities.

"It's about 70 percent experience, 30 percent food," said John Holback, 29. "I'm not knocking the food, but the experience is so, so great."

Abbe Klebanoff and Fred Eric wanted their usual table, but the wait was too long, so they settled for a spot at the counter. They reminisced about the first time they ate as a couple at Little Pete's.

After Klebanoff's eight-week ukulele course ended in early 2009, she went on a date with the instructor, Eric. They started the night with a movie, went to listen to live music at the now-closed Tritone, then found themselves at Little Pete's.

"We came here," she said, "because we didn't want the date to end."

Eric had moved to Philadelphia in the '80s, when the city was flush with diners.

"Now, in the middle of the night, it's hard to find something to eat, something less fancy-schmancy," said Eric, 55.

Zach Miller of Mountain View, Calif., came to Little Pete's for the first time on Friday. He arrived in Philadelphia late, and the diner hit the spot, he said.

Traveling around Center City, he saw many ambitious places to eat, but Little Pete's drew him back. It had character, from the staff who have been around for decades to the cigarette machine and the smell -- millions of cups of coffee brewed and sipped, thousands of pieces of scrapple ordered and eaten.

"Other restaurants are fetishizing the food and the coffee and the single-sourced yada yada, fill-in-the blank," said Miller, 31. "There's a certain authenticity about this place that other places are manufacturing."

Edward Thorpe took photos of Little Pete's from every angle: He wanted to remember exactly how everything looked. The restaurant, he noted, was the site of an important event in LGBT history. In 1965, when the spot was Dewey's, a group of people staged a sit-in for LGBT rights, eventually winning service and national attention.

It meant much to Thorpe personally, too. He started coming to Little Pete's in 1985, "back when there were cheap apartments on Pine Street," and has never stopped, even though he now lives closer to the second Little Pete's location in Fairmount.

"The first night I did acid, I came here — I remember the egg yolks wiggling on my plate," he said. "I found out a friend died here. I found out friends were getting married here."

Jake Bukowski has been spending time at Little Pete's since he attended Masterman in the '90s. At one point in his life, he found himself there almost nightly, after work or a night at the bars. Now 34 and the chef at Heffe Tacos in Fishtown, Bukowski craved one last meal at a spot that had been a constant in his life.

"I get it -- people move on," said Roya Bukowski, his wife.

"But it's sentimental," said Jake Bukowski.

Koutroubas plans a vacation after closing up shop. Then, he'll spell his brother at the remaining Little Pete's location -- Pete Koutroubas hasn't had a vacation in 11 years. Pete wants to open in another location, perhaps Fishtown or Northern Liberties. John says no -- Center City or nothing.

Another customer came over to offer a handshake, to tell Koutroubas how much the restaurant meant to him.

"I knew this day was coming," Koutroubas said. "But right now, it's sad."