This story was originally published in the June 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
It’s mid-Friday afternoon and John Mastoris is escorting diner patrons to their seats, handing out menus, handling costumer transactions, dealing with a work shift change, and sitting down to answer questions. And this is one of the down times at Pat’s Original Diner at 1300 South Broad Street in Trenton.
“It’s a landmark,” says owner Mastoris, a cousin to the family that owns the famed Bordentown diner.
But this Mastoris is talking about what makes his Trenton diner significant. That includes longevity. “I don’t know many restaurants or diners being in business 80 years or so,” he says. “I have people in their 90s who come here and say, ‘I was here when I was seven or ten. My father and my grandfather brought me here.’”
Another factor is more basic. “The food makes a difference,” he says. ”We have very good food. And the staff makes you feel like a friend.”
His argument is supported by Yelp’s four out of five stars review based on friendliness and comfort food.
But no reviews are needed to support the claim that it is one of the busiest places in the city. Open 24 hours, the 114-seater attracts locals of all employment status, city visitors, business people, Saturday night bar closers, Sunday morning churchgoers, artists and writers, and home-grown Trenton politicians. Regulars to this bring-your-own-ambiance eatery include mayoral candidate Paul Perez, current Trenton City Councilman George Muschal, and Mercer County freeholders stopping in to have an after-session meeting.
As Mastoris matter-of-factly reports during an interview in the side dining room, “We had (United States) Vice President Al Gore come here when he was running for president. A couple of weeks ago, ex (Hamilton) mayor John Bencivengo was here. Mayor Tony Mack was here a couple of times a week. And (City of Trenton spokesman) Mike Walker just came in.”
Asked about costumer volume and income, Mastoris simply says, “There are thousands of receipts per week.”
That includes the tab for what he says is the diner’s number one best seller: Greek omelet for breakfast ($7.25 with toast, home fries, and coffee). His menu hits list continues with stuffed cabbage and stuffed peppers (both $9.99), Swiss steak ($9.99), chicken Marsala ($11.95 with two vegetables and salad or soup), and the daily “made-from-scratch” soups ($2.99 per bowl). Not mentioned is the standby: a cup of Lucas brand coffee (around $2 with refills).
Mastoris says the culinary credit goes to his chef, George Narvaez. “He’s been here since the early ’90s. He started as a dishwasher.” Then there is the Mastoris seal of approval: “I taught him.”
Asked where and how he learned his trade, Mastoris provides a quick bio. “I come from Andros (a Greek island in the Aegean Sea). My father was a merchant marine. My mother was a stay-at-home wife.”
He says he got in the restaurant business by becoming a waiter. “My cousin was next to the next head chef in the Hilton Hotel in Athens. He came to (Andros) to buy his own business. He wanted somebody to help him out. I started as a waiter. Then I became a line cook and then a chef. I went to cooking school to learn the basics.
“In 1988 I came to the States because I met my wife she wanted to come here. She was a Greek American (and a diner waitress). She lived in Burlington,” where they and their two adult children live.
Mastoris says his first job in the United States was in northern New Jersey at a Kenilworth diner owned by one of his cousins. “Then I moved down here and worked for a couple of diners.” That included Michaels on Route 1 and Mastoris. He also worked in diners in Bucks County, Cherry Hill, and the Burlington Diner, where his father-in-law worked.
“I came here broke, so I didn’t care. I needed the money,” he says.
Then in 1994 he began working at Pat’s. “A distant uncle owned the place,” he says, mentioning the Panajitou family still living in Hamilton. They operated the diner for 35 years.
Mastoris says it was while he was at Pat’s he took a chance and bought a diner in Philadelphia, but in 2001 he changed plans, bought into the Trenton business, and become its sole owner in 2008.
It was then he also became part of Trenton history and mystery (no name Pat was found in any records at City Hall or in the Trentoniana Collection).
“I don’t remember his last name. He passed away a couple of years after I was the owner,” says Mastoris about the original owner, George Kohlmayer. He was connected to the location from 1926 to the 1950s. “The place was originally a corner store. He started with hamburgers and hot dogs. Then there was the guy after that. His name was Angelo (Fruscione). He brought in the train car. They say he made it a pasta house.”
“Then in the 1970s my uncle came in, Gus Panajitou. He was with his brother-in-law, Jimmy Ydreos. A couple of years later, Jimmy left, and Gus brought in his brothers, Kosta and George.”
It was the brothers who built the dining room in the late 1970s and then the window seating that extends from the original dining car wall in the 1980s.
In addition to maintaining a Trenton tradition, Mastoris also employs approximately 20 full and part-time employees to keep the business going.
Yet there are challenges. “The biggest expense is gas and electric,” he says. “It’s $5,000 or $6,000 a month. Everything is on 24 hours.”
Other challenges include cleaning a facility that doesn’t close. “We clean around 3 or 4 o’clock at night, after the bar crowd leaves, or sometimes between 3 and 6 (in the afternoon). I close a section,” he says.
Then there is dealing with various personalities, including customers and employees, and disruptions caused by the economy, such as recessions. “Business goes down, and it’s a challenge. I have the mortgage, insurance, and need to keep the help. It’s a rough time.”
“Right now,” he continues, “Our challenge is the taxes. (The City of Trenton) raised the taxes. We’re doing good, thank God. But I’m in a neighborhood that is not (very affluent). So it is hard to raise prices. The last time I raised my menu prices was seven years ago. Our taxes went up about 30 percent. “
Nevertheless, Mastoris says despite the taxes and some of the problems — dwindling jobs, state workers abandoning the city at night, social and employment problems — he likes Trenton.
“I like the people around here,” he says. “They’re friendly. They’ve been good to me. I came here as a new owner, and they did not turn their backs to me, they supported me. So that is a plus for me.”
Before rising and heading to the door to seat a group of Latina women, he says, “I hope for a better Trenton and that sign on the bridge, ‘Trenton Makes, the World Takes,’ will come to life again.”
Pat’s Original Diner, 1300 South Broad Street, Trenton. Open 24 hours. 609-392-2024.