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Cardella: The Melrose

The news leaked out. The Melrose Diner is going to be demolished. These days, the end of another diner is normally not big news. And for a lot of us, the Melrose Diner died the day — 15 years ago — it was sold by the Kubach family. But its closing is another reminder that nothing lasts forever. There is no better-known business in South Philadelphia. None more loved. There was a time I thought I’d live forever, and so would the Melrose.

Iconic celebrities are often referred to by only their first names. It’s a way of paying tribute to their fame. Sinatra is “Frank.” Ella Fitzgerald is “Ella.” And the most famous diner of them all is simply “the Melrose.” I don’t care who you are in South Philly or what your profession. Be you priest, mobster, doctor, lawyer or Indian chief, you went to the Melrose. Whether you went there after Sunday Mass, after a midday shopping trip or 2 a.m. to have the steak and eggs because you were hung over, “Everybody who knows goes to Melrose,” the jingle said. And all of us who DID have our own Melrose stories to tell.

In 1956, the Melrose moved from its original location at 1610 W. Passyunk Ave. to its current location at 15th and Snyder. Diners were the thing back in the day. A pastiche of neon and stainless steel where comfort food was king. The low-backed booths meant that you were never really dining alone. My soon-to-be wife and I were reminded of that fact one night when we got into an argument in one of those booths. A woman in the next booth interrupted us to say, “He’s right, honey.” We laughed too hard to continue our argument. That was the Melrose. Everybody involved in everyone else’s conversations. The seating forced community.

It seemed as if once you became part of the staff at the Melrose, you stayed. It was rumored that the then-owner, Richard Kubach, took exceptional care of his help, even to the point of loaning them money. The all-female wait staff knew their customers, including the solitary men who always sat in their same seats at the counter if they could manage it. The men always ordered the same thing. The waitresses already knew ahead of time what that would be. Restaurants always have their regulars, but at the Melrose, everybody was a regular. And the diner was always open. 24 hours a day. Closed only for Christmas.

The Melrose raised the level of American comfort food to high art. Every diner serves apple pie, but only the Melrose would insist on specially soaked apples from Washington State. You like chopped steak, the Melrose sourced their steak from a place in Colorado. You might have ridiculed the chipped beef served in Army mess halls, but you loved the Melrose’s version. The crab cutlet was to die for. Prices at the Melrose were a little higher than at other diners in the area, but the Melrose wasn’t just any other diner. And you could never pass on dessert there. The Melrose’s in-house bakery turned out seasonal cream pies, carrot cake with real cream cheese icing, apple pie drenched in a delicious vanilla sauce that’s never been duplicated. And of course, there was the classic butter cream layer cake that became THE birthday cake in our family. Even the damn water they served was the best. Filtered on the premises.

The cleanliness of the old diner was legendary. Mr. Kubach saw to that with the stern eye of a Prussian general. One observer, whose job took him into the kitchen of similar operations, told friends he never saw anything like the pristine condition of the Melrose kitchen.

A neighbor who worked at the Melrose knew my mom had recently entered a nursing home. He never failed to give me a bag of chocolate chip cookies for her every time I visited the Melrose.

The Melrose didn’t do a lot of advertising. It didn’t have to. But that catchy jingle (“Everybody who knows goes to Melrose”) became a fixture on Philadelphia radio in the 1960s. In fact, the Melrose was one of the sponsors on our own college basketball broadcasts back then.

Time passed. In another context, Springsteen sang — “Well everything dies, baby, that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” The diner was sold in 2007, and it tried mightily to come back. But for some of us, it was never the same. In all fairness to the current owner, he had a helluva tough act to follow. In 2010, the diner ended its 24-hour policy. Recently, word leaked to the media that the famous old haven will be demolished next month. In its place, expect apartments. And a hint that maybe a smaller version of the Melrose will resurface.

The Melrose was a reminder that sometimes you can find warmth and love in the strangest places. From the outside, the Melrose was just a diner. But the Kubach family made it unique. And wonderful. No one was special who walked into that diner, and yet, all of us were special.

And so it is that anyplace be it school, church or diner can be a place that brings us together, if even for an hour over a slice of pie and a good cup of coffee. And the memories of that place can defeat time. Remind us of a time when America was a better place.

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