It just didn’t seem like summer without a leisurely Sunday breakfast served up homestyle at Bob’s Diner.
All was quiet for weeks at 6053 Ridge Ave., a ghostly, stainless steel stalwart with no signs of life. No smoke rising from the outdoor grill, no locals lined up for their daily eggs, meat and potatoes meals -- and no sign of the regulars who typically call the 75-year old diner home.
But in just a few short days the wait will finally be over.
After nearly half a year, Roxborough’s residents, local college students, old-timers and just about everyone addicted to the hearty comfort food will be able to dine indoors at the beloved eatery starting at 7 a.m. Sept. 8.
Perhaps no one is happier about the reopening than owner Jim Evans who, after 27 years at the helm of the diner, is excited to be coming back from a very difficult hiatus. The pandemic shuttered the 66-seat diner March 16 at 5 p.m., and Evans, 67, has been awaiting this day ever since.
“We tried opening for about four weeks for take-out,” Evans said. “We were making like $80 one day, $200 another. It didn’t work.”
That’s mostly because folks who love Bob’s Diner love the whole experience. This is a neighborhood institution, a place where people meet and sometimes end up getting married, a place where some celebrate anniversaries, and a place where others feel so vested in the operation that they make coffee recommendations.
“I was thinking about changing the coffee once and I was talking [to a sales rep] in a booth and people were straining to hear me,” said Evans. “When I got finished with him, a customer came up to me and said ‘You’re not changing the coffee, are you?’”
“When I got finished with him, a customer came up to me and said ‘You’re not changing the coffee, are you?’”
To experience Bob’s in its truest form, you can’t just order out. You have to wait for a few minutes in line on a weekend, grab a seat in a cozy booth and order the “Eye Opener,” if you know what’s good for you. It’s a few eggs over easy, some meat and potatoes on the side, and some toast and coffee to round it out. Local Ellis Coffee Company coffee, is the key, by the way.
The diner, which was prefabricated in 1947 by the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company in Elizabeth, N.J., was first installed in Center City for six months, then another six months at a former gas station at Ridge and Leverington before finding its final home at 6053 Ridge Ave., Evans said. O’Mahony made about 2,000 railroad dining cars in the first half of the 20th century.
The booths haven’t changed much in the years Evans has owned it. Neither has the stainless steel bones of the place, nor the outdoor grill that he fires up on weekends. He’s updated the ice machines and installed walk-in freezers, but the place is the same as it was years ago, when locals who are now septuagenarians can remember coming in as teenagers to hang out – and sometimes finding a little romance while they were at it.
“There are all kinds of stories like that,” said Evans, who met his own significant other at Bob’s, where she has been a waitress for 43 years. “One guy met his wife here when they were teenagers. They used to come in as separate groups of guys and girls and pass notes. I think they were married 61 years.”
Evans fell into the business a bit by accident back in 1993. His brother used to bowl with then-owner Bob Harmer. When he heard Harmer wanted to sell the diner after owning it for 13 years, his brother expressed interest. By the time Evans heard about his brother’s plan to buy the place and have him run it, he decided he wanted to buy it himself. Evans knew he had a reputation to live up to when he took it over, since it had been a part of the community for as long as anyone could remember on its tiny quarter-acre lot nestled beside the Leverington Cemetery.
“I’d done cooking in my youth but nothing on this scale,” Evans said. “But I said I’ll buy it.”
Evans learned the biz quickly and maintained Harmer’s local following, even keeping the familiar name. Sundays were and are still the busiest day, with crowds forming from 10 a.m. on. Everyone knows everyone, and even the locals who used to dine there as infants now bring their kids.
“We’re like the Cheers of the restaurant business,” said Evans. “We know probably 60 to 70 percent of our customers’ names. I think it’s the camaraderie, the hominess.”
“We know probably 60 to 70 percent of our customers’ names. I think it’s the camaraderie, the hominess.”
While breakfast is their biggest draw, with chipped beef even truckers have asserted beats any on the Eastern Seaboard, they also serve a mean burger and have an extensive comfort food menu.
Evans plans to reopen Sept. 8 with limited hours from 7 a.m. to noon for the first few weeks. Since he can only open at 25 percent indoor seating capacity, or about 16 diners at a time, he is hoping the City of Philadelphia lifts even more restrictions in the coming weeks. Like so many restaurateurs, he’d like to see business at Bob’s Diner back up to pre-pandemic levels.
“I’m hoping this is only for a week or two…and that maybe we go to 50 percent capacity,” Evans said.
Months ago, even before the pandemic began, Evans had decided he wanted to soon retire, and he placed the diner up for sale. His plans haven’t changed since the pandemic, and the diner is still on the market, but he assures locals that he will make sure the Bob’s legacy continues and that the site remains a diner if it does sell.
“If someone does buy it, I plan to stick around for a couple of months and show them the ropes,” he said. “I owe a lot to my customers and my employees. These people around here, they have been good to me. They are like a family.”
“I owe a lot to my customers and my employees. These people around here, they have been good to me. They are like a family.”
Bob’s Diner, 6053 Ridge Ave. 215-483-9002. Open 7 a.m. to 12 p.m.