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Midtown III, one of Center City Philadelphia’s last diners, has closed

Ray and Vivian Tafuri have called it quits, two years before they wanted to.

Coowner Ray Tafuri outside the Midtown III, at 28 S. 18th St., on Aug. 21, 2020.
Coowner Ray Tafuri outside the Midtown III, at 28 S. 18th St., on Aug. 21, 2020.Read moreMICHAEL KLEIN / Staff

Just about two more years were all Ray and Vivian Tafuri wanted out of the Midtown III before retirement.

Then came the pandemic. Their 24-hour diner became unworkable in a town without open dining rooms.

The Tafuris shut down the Midtown III earlier this month when they realized that delivery services, their only option in addition to a modest takeout trade, were eating their meager profit. Center City offices, the couple’s bread and butter, remain largely empty. The late-night bar crowd that used to fill its lounge is nonexistent.

“We were tired of the aggravation,” said Ray Tafuri, 59, who boarded up much of the building at 18th and Ranstead Streets after the protests in June.

The Midtown III’s closing leaves Center City without a 24-hour diner — a troubling sign of the times, given that about 200,000 people live from river to river, Vine to South Streets.

Down Home Diner, Dutch Eating Place, and Pearl’s, all in Reading Terminal Market, are all that’s left, as is City Diner at Broad and South, with limited hours.

South Street Diner in Queen Village, now operating for takeout and delivery from 9 p.m. through the night till 3 p.m., covers the southern fringe of downtown, as do the Broad Street Diner at Broad and Ellsworth and the Melrose Diner, serving food in a parking lot at 15th and West Passyunk. Headed north, you must go to Northern Liberties to Silk City (which calls itself a diner) or to Spring Garden to Little Pete’s in the Philadelphian, which buttons up for the night at 9. (The original Little Pete’s at 17th and Chancellor, which closed in May 2017, is now a construction site for a hotel.)

The death knell for diners has been sounded before. Even in these times, though, those outside of downtown seem to be hanging on.

A generation ago, Center City’s fewer residents supported plenty of Formica-countered, stainless-steel-gleaming, wood-paneled eateries — mom-and-pop operations as well as chains such as Dewey’s, Linton’s, and Horn & Hardart. Today, numerous competitors, even Wawa, are crowding the food space, eating downtown diners’ lunches.

There was no real competition around 18th and Ranstead Streets 35 years ago when Ray Tafuri started working at the diner. His wife had taken it over in 1983 after the sudden death of an uncle. His wife’s family back then had four Midtown diners, all assigned Roman numbers as they opened in the 1970s: The original, I, was at 702 Sansom St.; II was at 11th and Sansom Streets; III was at 28 S. 18th St.; and IV was at 2013 Chestnut St.

“It was just this place and a Chinese restaurant at the corner,” said Tafuri, who is wrapping up odds and ends at the now-darkened eatery, whose decor is original except for the booths and wallpaper. Asked to pose for a photograph inside, he paused, crestfallen. “I don’t want people to see it this way,” he said, offering to step outside.

Now, dozens of restaurants dot the neighborhood, and their immediate future is uncertain because of the lack of office workers. Comcast’s towers and nearby sites, just two blocks away, are empty, with many of their 5,000 employees working from home.

The door was locked only four times in 35 years: three times for funerals and once for some big event that Ray Tafuri can’t recall. Every day, the couple slogged in from their home in Northeast Philadelphia. Their last vacation was 30 years ago, he said, so in the short term they may take a trip. They’re planning to put the building on the market. He said he wasn’t sure a restaurant would be the best use, given the challenges of indoor dining during the pandemic with cold weather approaching.

“It’s going to get rough out there,” he said.

This article has been updated to include City Diner.