Regulars make the best of the last late night

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You could tell from the multiple chants of “Keep it open!” that rang out across the room, repeated on refrain. Saturday was a historic night for Northeast Philadelphia.

After 57 years of 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, 364-days-a-year service (closed on Christmas), The Dining Car has changed its hours. Effective immediately, the Frankford Avenue icon is switching to a schedule of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

From midnight to 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, late-night regulars paid their respects, hugging waitresses between spoonfuls of French onion soup. About 40 patrons were sprawled throughout the diner every hour, coming from the bar, nightclub, Phillies game and pro wrestling matches. Amid a melody of clinking silverware, oldies music and drunken laughter, customers paid their bills with full stomachs and heavy hearts.

Jim Wirsz and Sean McMenamin were stunned that they were able to find a spot in the parking lot.

It was a somber occasion for the longtime friends. Nostalgia brought them to their favorite diner: Wirsz first came after a Who concert in July 1989, and McMenamin stopped by after many a shift at the old Orleans movie theater. Over an omelet and steak sandwich, the Cardinal Dougherty graduates discussed their upcoming 30-year reunion and all the changes since then. Movie theaters were demolished and department stores shuttered. Now another staple of their youth would cease to exist.

Jim Wirsz and Sean McMenamin dig in for their last late-night meal Credit: John Corrigan / Billy Penn

“It’s sad,” Wirsz said. “This place is family-owned, serves a great product, has a good client base and there are great people working here.”

Although the diner won’t be leaving 8828 Frankford Ave., it’s now a grave to many locals who came only after hours.

A change 10 years in the making

“Back in the day, you would stand in line for 45 minutes at 2 o’clock in the morning,” said owner Nancy Morozin, 61. “When I built this second room, you needed a card to get into it. After 11 o’clock at night, if you had the card, you could jump the line and come in.”

Second generation Dining Car owner Nancy Morozin in the attached bakery Credit: Danya Henninger

As chair of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and an active member in Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in the food world, Morozin studies industry trends. The amount of late-night eating options in the city has grown since the 1980s, she noted, and now include options that range from chain restaurants to convenience stores to online delivery services.

As a result, the attraction of the The Dining Car’s all-hours accessibility dipped dramatically.

“There is still a fair amount of increased business during the days and afternoon, but in the past 10 years, late-night business has been totally flat,” Morozin said.

“When I turned 50, I started thinking about if I’ll continue with the 24-hour program and follow in my father’s footsteps,” she added. Her father Joe Morozin — who at 93 still dines out with his daughter weekly — opened The Dining Car as the Torresdale Diner in 1960.

The menu from Joe Morozin’s first restaurant, on Brown Street in 1945 Credit: Danya Henninger

Round-the-clock business was still strong into the 1990s, per former waitress Denise Montgomery, who was back for the night as a patron. “You used to have to pay when your food came to the table because people would dine and dash,” Montgomery said. “If you walked out with less than $150, it was a slow night.”

Smoking ban: Good for health, bad for business

There are no more lines outside the door, though, just the lit end of cigarettes glowing in the dark.

Paul “Pepe” Morozin, Nancy’s cousin and the overnight manager, said the city’s ban on indoor smoking was the biggest factor in the stagnation of late-night business. “The bar crowd went elsewhere to smoke after drinking,” Pepe said. “The same thing is happening with the soda tax. People blaze new trails to get what they need and have no reason to come back.”

Paul ‘Pepe’ Morozin Credit: John Corrigan / Billy Penn

Pepe has worked at The Dining Car since 1961, starting as a dishwasher and later becoming a cook. He’s seen a lot of familiar faces over the years, and even watched a few drunken customers doze off into their cream chipped beef.

“One guy fell asleep at the table so his buddies decorated him,” Pepe says. “They put straws in his nose, lettuce around his ears, kale on his eyebrows. I didn’t have a camera around, so I grabbed a mirror and woke him up. He said, ‘That’s what I get for hanging around with assholes.’”

In the decades he’s been manning the cash register, there have been few violent confrontations, Pepe said. After high school dances, football games and theater productions, students come in to celebrate and relax. Around the 3 o’clock hour, it’s been tradition for bartenders from The Taggart House and Jimmy’s Timeout to gorge on mozzarella sticks after work, shouting light-hearted jabs at each other across the diner.

The crew from the Taggart House Credit: John Corrigan / Billy Penn

“About 98 percent of the people that come in are just having a good time,” Pepe says. “As long as you understand that, there isn’t a problem.”

Although he’s approaching retirement age, Pepe plans to stay just a bit longer, doing repairs around the diner now that it won’t inconvenience patrons at night. Other overnight staff members are taking different shifts. Morozin maintains there will be no job losses.

‘Unless I find the fountain of youth, that ain’t happening’

However, some workers aren’t available during the day, like beloved waitress Jane Turzanski.

For 19 and a half years, Turzanski has been busting chops and doling out advice, establishing a motherly relationship with patrons. “She was the most real one,” said-late night regular Shannon Boo. “If you were being too annoying or whatever, she would be straight up with you in a respectful way.”

Turzanski originally applied for the job because she couldn’t sleep at night after her husband passed away. Her coworkers and customers soon became extended family. “Some of these adults grew up with me,” she said. Though Morozin has vowed to keep her on the schedule somehow, Turzanski can’t commit right now. She has taken a few weeks off (her birthday is after Labor Day) and then plans on looking for another graveyard shift job.

“I cried a couple times tonight, but I had a good run,” Turanski said.

Former waitress Jane Turanski (far left) with some current Dining Car staff Credit: John Corrigan / Billy Penn

The change is more bitter than sweet for many regulars unsure of where they’ll now end the night. Several patrons have vented on social media, feeling blindsided by the announcement that was plastered inside the diner’s menus.

This isn’t the first time Morozin has been taken to task for a business decision. She recently took pepperoni cheese bread off the menu because it wasn’t selling well enough.

“Well, I got hate mail saying ‘Dear Pepperoni Bread Killer,’” Morozin laughed. “If they care enough to give me hell, I appreciate the feedback. Two weeks later, it was back on the menu.”

Unfortunately for late-night eaters, there’s no backlash that will reverse the change in hours. “Unless I find the fountain of youth, that ain’t happening,” Morozin said.

As the sun rose Sunday morning, and the overnight shift workers said goodbye to each other, it marked the end of an era.

“It’s the things you can’t talk about that are the legacy,” Montgomery said. “Who you hooked up with and what you did earlier in the night. It’s a shame for young people who won’t have that.”