Thursday, March 30, 2006

Remembering Uncle Virgie's and Other Old Neighborhood Luncheonettes

One of the staples of local South Philadelphia culture is the neighborhood luncheonettes. Those places as we know them are mostly gone, but some still survive. My wife has worked for 20-plus years now at Nick's T&N Luncheonette on Moyamensing Avenue, and it's a place like Cheers on TV where "everybody knows your name". Nick and the gang make great steaks and other sandwiches, and although I may seem biased because of my wife, I suggest you pay them a visit. You'll like the food and the people.

Back in the 60's and 70's though, a different type of luncheonette ruled the land. All of them had the metal signs above their storefronts from either Coca-Cola or Pepsi (the only one I know of surviving with this type of front is Carmen's at 11th & Wharton). They all had at least three booths to compliment the stools at the counter, and all of them had jukeboxes with the latest in rock music, with lots of kids or young adults hanging around.

Uncle Vergie's at 17th & Oregon was one of those luncheonettes. For the entire decade or so that I remember them being there, Uncle Vergie and Aunt Millie ran the shop from opening to closing time. Both were great people who didn't mind kids making noise or hanging around longer than it took to eat their fries and have a Coke. This is the place where many of us had our first cheese steak or our first burger. We didn't know McDonald's or Burger King back then, and this was even before Geno's (20th & Moyamensing, long gone) became popular here and then faded away. My brother, sister, and I along with a few friends were the younger of the grade school kids hanging around there, most of the others were in their late high school years or older.

Maybe Uncle Vergie was a little too tolerant, this was back in the 60's when drugs were becoming a recreational thing and the older guys were experimenting. Still, he didn't make a fuss and toss them even though it was general knowledge that there were many there who were high. It was never an issue until one night near the end of his career. After closing, the older guys would hang out on the corner, or in the apartment upstairs. And then one of them ran afoul with a local gang, marring the peaceful atmosphere that we knew. Arrests were made, some were injured, and it wasn't the same place anymore.

Maybe we didn't do a whole heck of a lot there other than eat junk food and listen to music such as Steppenwolf, The Guess Who, the Stones, and other now-classic rock bands played on 45 rpm records in the old jukebox (kids, ask your parents to explain how music was played with a needle). But it was our place to go. The place and the people either had characters or were characters. It wasn't the mass produced plastic interiors of today's fast food joints, it was homey. You don't find that too often anymore. Still, if you want a feel for it, go sit at the counter at T&N and strike up a conversation with Nick or the others. You won't find the booths or the jukebox and the soda makers have long since stopped cladding such shops in their logos. But it's close enough.

...Ralph & Josie's - Bancroft & Shunk Streets
...Frank & Tessie's - 18th & Shunk Streets. Tessie wore a house dress and was alleged to have placed more than a few hoagie rolls under her arm pit while cooking up a steak, sending the customers elsewhere.
...Millie's - Still going after all these years at 15th & Shunk
...Does anyone remember the name of the luncheonette at 16th & Oregon where Spectrum Realty now sits?


Kevin Karns said...

Hey Brian,
The luncheonette at 16th & Oregon was also Josie and Ralph's but the sign just said Josie's.
Josie's closed around 1970 or so and moved to Bancroft and Shunk where she finally gave Ralph name recognition.Remember the window washer guy, always carring the ladder would hang there.Rumor was Josie served him more than a cheesesteak.

Brian said...

Thanks Kevin!

I just couldn't remember the name, only that a luncheonette was there in my younger days and that they had a waitress there who had a bad reputation. My mom would alternately call her "Pinky" or "Pincushion" (moms should stay out of the nicknaming business).

Kevin also reminded me that Mr. Ed's took over Ralph & Josie's when they retired. I had forgotten that.

Mark noted the trouble when Mr. Ed came in and brought in pinball and other game machines. There was a "there goes the neighborhood" atmosphere when they came, and petitions cirulated like mad. All for nothing, Mr. Ed's lasted only a short time, and the property has since become a duplex apartment.

Brian said...

It's been a number of years since I've posted this one. Since then, Nick has added a couple of booths at T&N, along with a new counter.