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Last call at the Midtown III: Haunting Center City’s only 24-hour diner and cocktail lounge

Diners are almost universally beloved, their companion cocktail bars too often overlooked. But the Midtown III's bar is worth a visit: It's a place to belong, if you don't have anyplace else.

Bartender Ellen Erickson pauses between patrons, at the bar at the Midtown III, on South 18th Street October 22, 2018.
Bartender Ellen Erickson pauses between patrons, at the bar at the Midtown III, on South 18th Street October 22, 2018.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The 1 a.m. glow of the last 24-hour diner in Center City is a fluorescent beacon guiding in stray souls. So, as I stagger up 18th Street, I will not be distracted by the flashy upmarket meta-diner down the block, the Continental. (Can it even be called a diner if it doesn't open until 10 a.m.?) My destination is the real deal, one of those unpolished artifacts held over from a different moment in Rittenhouse Square's history, before it became quite so rarefied, so Stephen Starrified.

It's called the Midtown III, though these days the "III" is vestigial. It's a lone survivor of a small family empire created in the 1970s by Greek immigrants, the line of which appears to have ended with Vivian Tafuri, 63, through no desire of her own. One of her uncles died suddenly in 1983, leaving her in charge of this place, to her everlasting chagrin. Only after she met her future husband, Ray, 56, a former contractor who became the handyman, electrician, plumber, and chef, did the work become bearable.

Diners are almost universally beloved, their companion cocktail bars too often overlooked.

So it's with a moment of regret that I resist the colorful vinyl booths, the scallop-edged, marbleized Formica countertop, the plastic cloches shielding puffy yellow muffins and tall layer cakes, the 24-hour-a-day brightness. Instead, I hang a right, into Midtown's cocktail bar. It's the yin to the diner's yang, a narrow room dappled in perpetual twilight. On a Friday night, it's peopled with off-duty staffers sipping shift drinks and regulars who've made this their communal living room. The bartender's eating potato salad, as is customary. The television keeps up a constant patter, whether tuned to the evening news, Eagles football, or hockey.

It's the kind of place you have to catch at the right time. At its very best, it's like a neighborhood bar, scooped up by a giant crane from some corner in the Northeast. It's a place to belong if you don't have anyplace else.

They took in Travis Hopkins, who moved here from Oklahoma about a year ago. When he's not in the mood to drink (he's a shots guy), they serve him ice water in a tall, rippled glass with a plastic straw. He's made friends here, like Maria Boyd, who was sitting in a booth nearby. "It's a family," she said.

It's like visiting family, too — maybe someone's 1970s den, decorated in a symphony of wood paneling (three different kinds!), drop ceilings, brown vinyl booths, framed photo montages, and cheap plastic vacation souvenirs. Other than the bottle of Hpnotiq on the shelf, the Victory Hop Devil in the beer fridge, and the handwritten list of very-2018 prices posted on the wall, it seems not much has changed in 40 years. In keeping with the old-school decor, I order a Manhattan, which is made with not-very-good vermouth and a chemical-red cherry.

Ellen Erickson, behind the bar on a recent afternoon, said the III is her favorite of the Midtowns, calmer than the II, where she worked for 30 years, where she witnessed first dates, proposals, even a death right there in the dining room. ("It wasn't the food," she added hastily.)

The low-key III remains a sustaining force for staffers like Laura Mitchell, who's worked there for 27 years and who has no intention of ever retiring, and for customers like George Feeley, a 78-year-old in dapper seersucker who explains over his midafternoon ice cream sundae that he has no kitchen at home. And maybe even for Vivian, who swears she'd sell it in a heartbeat if her mother didn't live right upstairs.

Even now that it's the last of its kind, Vivian doesn't think much about the legacy. "Do I take pride as a survivor?" she said. "I dunno. I'm just here, working hard."

Midtown III Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge

28 S. 18th St., 215-567-5144

When to go: During an Eagles game if you want a lively crowd. Otherwise, the bar's open  11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday to Saturday and 1 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday.

Bring: Your anonymous sources and secret liaisons. You won't run into anyone you know here.

Order: Bartender Ellen Erickson said her specialty is a vodka martini ($10), though a lager ($4) is always a safe bet.

Bathroom situation: No more or less glamorous than one might expect.

Sounds like: This might be the city's lowest-grossing Touch Tunes machine. It's almost library-like in the diner and a bit more raucous in the bar, but at 84 decibels, it's still easy to carry on a conversation.