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South Street Diner – Philadelphia, PA

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A great resource for learning how not to run a diner.

South Street Diner – 140 South St, Philadelphia, PA 19147
Meal: Dinner / 7pm / Weekday
Cost: $22 (For Two – Excludes Tip)
Website: Can’t find one (email us if you have the URL).

I’m not a big ‘city person’. I like the concept of the bustling people, the diversity, and the way many function without owning an automobile. All that stuff is cool. Inevitably, though, I’m stuck in traffic, watching people fight/kick/scream in the street, and otherwise wandering around aimlessly as if I’m a tourist. What I need is a bunch of good Philly establishments to get me out of my funk, so I met a friend in the city for dinner. My only criteria was that we’d go to a place I’ve never been to, and we did so in the way of the South Street Diner. My friend had been there a few times and said it was generally a decent place. So far, so good.

Immediately upon entering, we were greeted warmly enough and asked where we wanted to sit. We were a bit indecisive, and eventually asked to sit away from where the hostess recommended. Unfortunately, the manager who was at the register intervened and demanded the waitress to seat us in *her section* in a very aggressive tone. It was a totally unprofessional, awful first impression for a patron that had never been to their establishment before. I stated in partial-humor that if we couldnt sit where we wanted, we’d just leave, although we did just sit down because we were rather hungry. After a few seconds, we had waters and menus. Fine, we’ll try to move on.

The menu was what you’d expect from a diner, with plenty of options and a good list of specials. For $10.95, I picked a 10oz ribeye, two veggies (I decided on fried eggplant and mixed vegetables), soup or salad, and a dessert. My friend attempted to order an omelet with a side of fruit, but was told there was no substitutions. No substitutions are pretty lame as is, but when she asked if she could just buy a fruit cup separately, the waitress told her it was ‘like $5’. Considering the cost, my friend decided against it until I looked at the menu myself and saw the fruit cup was actually just $2.95. The waitress said ‘Oh. Do you want it then?’, to which my friend agreed. This was another poor showing – giving customers bad info about the menu. I should not have to correct them on prices.

The fruit cup came and although it was indeed big, it was swimming in light syrup. Couldn’t they have drained it just a little bit? My salad was better, with a warm dinner roll on the side. We didn’t wait a very long time, so that much was keeping our spirits up. After about another 10-15 minutes, we received the rest of our order. My steak, ordered medium-rare, seemed overcooked in several spots. The cut seemed fattier than I expected, but was adequate for something from a diner. The mixed veggies were steamed and perfect, though the fried eggplant was an odd circular eggplant-flavored patty that was clearly previously frozen. The onion rings (3 medium) on top of the steak were good but fairly greasy. My friend’s omelet, made with egg whites, seemed to satisfy her although, like me, she was really disappointed in the service we were receiving. When asked for a refill on her iced tea, my friend declined, but the waitress would ultimately charge us for it anyway. After we got the bill, I pointed the error out and it was corrected.

I selected a strawberry shortcake for my included dessert. There was a very large selection that wasn’t limited to just a ‘cake of the day’ like some diners do. Unfortunately, I’m fairly certain that very little, if anything, is baked on site. Oddly, the manager (the same one who demanded we sit where we did) is apparently in charge of cutting the cakes. The waitress had to tell him my order, at which point he lumbered to the display case, took the cake in a adjacent room, and cut the slice. Why the waitress can’t do this myself is beyond me. It slows everything down and quite frankly I don’t want that guy touching my food. He did this quite a few times as we were eating, so it appears to be official policy. The cake itself was like a birthday cake; it had a canned strawberry glaze on top with super processed white icing and a plain vanilla cake. It was more ‘strawberry-shortcake inspired’ than anything else, and although it’s hard for me not to like something made with lots of sugar .. it was yet another poor example of the effort they put into their food. They should offer a lot less selections and make the things they keep from scratch.

I tossed around a score for this place a few ways. I can give them credit for giving me a middle of the road meal for $11 that included a salad and a dessert, or I can really lean on how poor the service was, from both the management and the wait staff. At the end of the day, though, the real point of the score is to reflect my likelihood to go back, and from that perspective I’m never going to return. There are far too many places to eat in the city to settle for this guy of mediocre customer service and only satisfactory food quality. Factor in all the limitations (where you can sit, how you can pay, what you can order, etc..) I wonder how this place stays in business.

Pros:

– Some good specials and reasonable pricing
– Open 24 hours

Cons:

– Poor management and wait staff (at least our waitress)
– Bathrooms were dirty
– No substitutions
– Won’t split bill
– Unusual amount of canned fruits, boxed cakes, etc..

Guru’s Score: 1.9 Chews
★★☆☆☆
Subjective rating: Go somewhere else.

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