The neon glow of late-night diner signs has beckoned to Pete Koroneos his entire career.
Koroneos, the owner of the Broadway Diner on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore, has spent a lifetime working in restaurants. Specifically, restaurants that are open late.
But the restaurateur recently decided to shorten the hours at the diner, long known for its 24-hour eats. Now, the restaurant is open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays only. The rest of the week, Broadway serves food from 7 a.m. to midnight.
“I used to like it — it was fun, the excitement,” Koroneos said of the late-night dining business. “But now, it’s a lot of headaches.”
Nationwide, the average restaurant was open 6.4 fewer hours this year compared with 2019, according to an analysis of the most recent data available by Datassential, a market research firm focused on the food and beverage industry. The study found that Maryland restaurants were hit even harder, reducing their operations by 7.9 hours on average. And diners, many of which operate around the clock, have more hours available to trim than most.
The reasons for the shift are many: Businesses cite difficulty hiring staff, rising operating costs and changing consumer habits in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other explanations.
“Restaurants would rather close early than give substandard service to their guests,” said Marshall Weston, the president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, an industry advocacy group.
Though the pandemic shifted the way many of us patronize restaurants — with takeout and delivery options exploding in popularity over the past three years — Weston said he thinks diners are still interested in grabbing a bite to eat at 11:30 p.m. or even 1 a.m.
“I think that most consumers statewide are falling back into their patterns that they followed before the pandemic, and unfortunately a lot of businesses aren’t able to match up with that, because of not having enough employees or other post-pandemic logistical issues that they’re having with their business,” he said.
‘It’s not like it used to be’
At diners that were once a haven for meals no matter the time of day or night, the change might be the most jarring. Restaurants like the Broadway Diner serve a cross-section of the city, bringing in customers of all demographics, from the up-late party crowd to early birds seizing the day, brunchers to business lunchers to families out for dinner.
“I tell you right now, it’s not like it used to be,” said Koroneos, who opened the Broadway Diner 18 years ago.
The restaurant shares a name with another Broadway Diner, run by his family on New York’s Long Island, where Koroneos got his start in the hospitality business.
“That’s what we knew at the time: You either went to school or work,” he said. “I went to the restaurant business.”
Koroneos moved to Baltimore in 1982, and dove into the restaurant industry here, operating several locations of Crazy John’s, a late-night sub shop that still has a storefront on The Block in the city (Koroneos has since sold his portion of that business).
“I was young; I had a lot of fun,” he recalled of that time in his life. “In the daytime, we had all the people from the city, and at night you had all the people from the nightlife. It was people all the time.”
He also ran Zorba’s Bar and Grill, a Greektown staple that serves grilled lamb chops, tzatziki and dolmades until 2 a.m., before eventually selling that, too.
In 2004, he opened the Broadway Diner on a plot of land near the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and an access point onto Interstate 95. The retro-style restaurant building, featuring a shiny chrome and glass exterior, and a bright neon sign, was prebuilt in New York, then transported south in 19 pieces and assembled on-site.
In the fashion of many classic diners, Broadway features a menu that’s thick as a Bible, as Koroneos puts it, and specializes in all-day breakfast as well as a vast selection of Greek food and American staples. His favorite dish is the banana pancakes, so sweet they don’t need syrup.
When the Broadway Diner opened, it was one of several 24-hour joints in and around the city.
“It wasn’t one place, 24 hours — it was a lot of places, 24 hours,” Koroneos said.
Today, only a handful of round-the-clock spots remain: The Honey Bee Diner in Glen Burnie is one, and Valentino’s Restaurant, on Harford Road, offers 24-hour grub on the weekends, but only for take-out (the restaurant is currently closed to in-person dining as it goes through a round of renovations). Others, like the Towson Diner, the Double T Diner in Catonsville and the Nautilus Diner and Restaurant in Timonium, have scaled back their hours.
‘They just want pancakes and good food’
Sip & Bite, another one of the city’s iconic diners, has had to evolve to keep up with changing customer demand, said co-owner Sofia Vasiliades. Her husband, Tony Vasiliades, is the third generation in his family to run the Boston Street diner, which was established in 1948.
The Sip & Bite has had “plenty of face-lifts over the years,” Sofia Vasiliades said. In her 15 years at the diner’s helm, she’s also helped to diversify the menu, adding ahi tuna and avocados alongside heavier classics like home fries and gravy.
The restaurant, a neighborhood institution that draws doctors, lawyers, blue-collar workers, students and more, had to reduce its hours during the pandemic. Once open all day and night, the Sip & Bite is now open for breakfast and lunch on Mondays through Thursdays and later hours, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Sunday, the diner has a 7 a.m.-to-7 p.m. schedule.
Vasiliades said COVID-19 was behind the change in hours.
“I feel like the pandemic shifted a lot of habits,” she said. “You can order everything to your door within two hours. The pandemic changed the way people shop, eat and drink. It hurts small businesses.”
The diner is short one or two servers, and she’s having trouble finding people to fill the roles. Many of the Sip & Bite‘s current staff have worked there for a decade or more.
Fareedah Griffin, a server who has worked at the diner for seven years, said the Sip & Bite encapsulates a part of the city’s spirit.
“It is definitely Baltimore,” Griffin said. “Yes, people like glitz and glamour. But at the end of the day, they just want pancakes and good food.”
Though the pandemic dealt a blow, Vasiliades and her family have plenty of experience rolling with the punches. Running a diner has always been the kind of job that’s required a certain amount of flexibility and readiness for whatever the day (or the night) may bring. She hopes her and Tony’s sons will take up the mantle at Sip & Bite one day.
“You have to be cut out for this line of work, and navigate to keep up,” she said. “Some days are easier than others. But the restaurant is a passion of ours.”
At 64 years old, Koroneos is looking ahead to retirement. He said his son, a doctor, does not want to take over the Broadway Diner whenever he decides to step down. Whenever the time comes, he expects he will sell the restaurant and step away from the hospitality industry altogether.
“You cannot get stress out of your body if you still own a business,” he said.
In the meantime, Koroneos said he’s heard from regulars who want to see him expand the diner’s hours once again.
“A lot of customers are begging me to open up seven days,” he said, but “I can’t find people.”
Lately, he’s also had to contend with inflation and supply chain shortages, pushing him to make the decision to raise prices across the menu seven months ago.
In some ways, closing the Broadway Diner down on weeknights has complicated the task of running the restaurant.
“For me, it was easier to be open 24 hours, because every shift they would clean, the door was always open,” Koroneos said.
He’s hoping some of the pandemic’s challenges will ease up before he decides to leave the business behind.
“It’s very tough right now, the way we all live,” he said. “I’m hoping that I get a couple years, that the prices will go back to normal and people start going to work.”