At 2:42 a.m., I approached a disgustingly adorable couple at the end of the counter at South Street Diner. Frank Mata and Marco Antonio Castellamos were drunk and hungry. After a Friday night college “kickback,” they had trekked to the city’s last spot of ritualistic late-night gathering for a meal. The pair ordered the breakfast special — two eggs, home fries, toast, and a choice of meat — with sausage. And two stacks of chocolate chip pancakes. And mozzarella sticks. Their Uber from Boston University must have cost a small fortune (still worth it, I assume).
By that time of night, the city’s only 24-hour, 7-days-a-week eatery overflowed with ravenous patrons, like Mata and Castellamos.
“This place has a lively vibe,” said Castellamos mid-meal. “And it’s the only place open, and it’s full of good people, people having a good time.”
When I met the couple, I was six hours into an odd quest. I planned to spend the night at South Street and keep a time-stamped diary of the experience. Every person I spoke with at the diner was confused by the premise. “What’s your angle?” they asked. I didn’t really have one. Instead, I was driven by nagging curiosity.
At a time when the American diner is dying, how does South Street endure? Who are the people behind its vitality? When they’re suffering from insomnia, drunkenness, and hunger, why do they come to this unassuming neighborhood joint off the highway? Why don’t we all just go home?
I arrived around 8 p.m. and settled in on a blue stool. It was “a very normal evening,” said waitress Victoria McCray. While I dipped fries in mayo, she operated the 39-seat spot effortlessly with two cooks and a server-in-training.
Between 9 and 11 p.m., McCray and I sat in the silence that usually foreshadows the slow death of a restaurant. She brewed coffee and told me about her double major at Northeastern University. She lamented Trump’s impeachment. And she served few people: an Asian man with an affinity for pickles, a raucous group of Emerson College students, and two women clad in hijabs. In the emptiness, even the cooks could afford to step away from the grill to peek at the then-tied Celtics game (at 9:50, they won, 112-107).
I began to fear that, during my earlier visits as a hungry college student, I had fabricated the appeal of the 80-year-old institution. Would enough happen at the diner for me to justify the idea that South Street was something special? Maybe it was destined for the same fate as the cohort of disappearing Boston restaurants — think No Name, Top of the Hub, and L’Espalier.
This wasn’t an absurd notion. Beginning in the 1960s, diners like South Street spiraled into mass extinction. When the novelty of waitresses on roller skates subsided, the institution withered away for many reasons: the rising cost of property; the need to raise meal prices; the shrinking appeal of lengthy menus; the destruction of the typical generational family business model; and most recently, the skyrocketing popularity of delivery services like Uber Eats, Grubhub, and Postmates.
So how does South Street stay open?
Owner Sol Sidell told me it is “because of the soul” of the place — that and comfort food. On a dark weekend night, the diner has plenty of both.
Around 1 a.m., a more romantic version of the spot came to life. Sidell turned up the jukebox. He dimmed the lights. The hosts arranged velvet ropes and a heater outside the entrance to control the crowd. South Street became a place where businessmen, inebriated friends, club promoters, star athletes, and homeless people gathered. It blossomed into what I, a Gen-Zer, imagined diners looked like in the post-World War II era.
Today, Boston houses a number of boozy brunch spots and upscale places that elevate old-school American tastes with fancy cheeses, foie gras, and caviar. I am grateful for the experimentation. But for a burger and fries at the witching hour, people default to the narrow diner. And do they ever.
Take Ana Carrillo, for example. After visiting a club, she blew out birthday candles placed atop a cluster of banana bread at 1:54 a.m. “We come here every year on my birthday,” she said, motioning to her energized group of party-goes. It was her 10th celebratory visit to South Street.
Better yet, conjure up an image of Chris Woodhall. The DJ frequents the diner three or four nights a week after spinning at Venue, Icon, or Rumba. A year ago, Woodhall walked in for the first time and shouted “I need some [expletive] breakfast.” Now he’s a regular. He likes steak and eggs.
Or envision the frenzied girl gang of New York natives who arrived straight from the airport. At 2:07 a.m., I watched them feed each other gravy fries and crumbly pancakes with their hands.
Because of its hours, the diner is also the go-to spot for oddities. Servers said it attracts the seedy underbelly of the town — schemers, addicts, and prostitutes. I did not see any — at least I don’t think I did.
I did, however, see a man with a bloody nose, presumably from a punch, mosey in at midnight. Later I hung around with security supervisor Trish Geary outside, and a woman peed across the street in plain sight. At 4:21 a.m., when a server rightfully murmured to herself about a measly tip, one man in a booth yelled about the absurdity of European cinema.
By 5 a.m., I was ready to escape the chaos and retreat to the comforts of my bed. Cabbies and construction workers started their day while my ability to stay awake dwindled. My yawns became long and frequent. The legibility of my notes suffered. My eyes stayed open thanks to a cream-heavy coffee — courtesy of server Jackie Robertson.
Only the backstory of the diner was enough to stay the attention of my nostalgic side.
For anyone with a penchant for history, like me, South Street (formerly The Blue Diner) is an archival gem. It weathered the effects of the Big Dig construction project, the criminal instability of the Combat Zone, and the real estate boom in the South End. Sidell acquired the diner more than two decades ago when he was “young, dumb, and proud to be an owner,” he said. South Street made no money for 10 years under his command, but sustained itself on Sidell’s pride of ownership. He worked 18-hour days with little staff to keep it solvent and eventually drowned in half a million dollars of debt.
To resurrect the diner, Sidell added streams of revenue. He started serving eggs Benedict, craft beer, and vegan Impossible Burgers alongside milkshakes and banana waffles, a personal favorite. He made his own hot sauce. Hotels springing up in the South End redirected their room-service lines to the restaurant for a few years. Now South Street supplies food to construction crews, and the take-out business is strong.
Sure, there are no more $5 meals on the menu. Waitresses do not talk in diner-speak, relay orders in abbreviations, or call everyone “Hun.” But I, like everyone there in the wee hours of the morning, believe South Street is still worth our patronage. It has to be.
Maybe in my sleep-deprived state, I’m being overdramatic, but I can’t help but think that in a city with rising housing costs and aging public transportation, South Street is one of the last great democratic institutions around. Its neon lights and spotted tile seem worth saving. Plus the coffee is brewed deep and dark, and the eggs are good.
Where else will the man who came in at 5:05 go to buy a to-go coffee? Where will the college kid, full of anxiety, stop after studying? Where will partiers (like the rowdy investigator-social worker couple I talked to) get their late-night fix? Where will we go when no else will take us at 4, 5, or even 6 a.m.? Just go home, you say? No way.
Though at 5:37 a.m., I finally did.
Diti Kohli can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.