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Penn State alumni, State College residents reminisce about Ye Olde College Diner

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Not long ago, the true Penn State experience wasn’t complete without four things — attending a football game, eating ice cream at the Berkey Creamery, taking a picture by the Nittany Lion Shrine and trying the grilled stickies from Ye Olde College Diner.

Although the Diner closed in April 2018 due to its lease expiring and the property being “financially unsustainable” for owner Dan Rallis, grilled stickies remain a staple in the State College community, along with the Diner’s memory.

Found at restaurants in downtown State College and local grocery stores around the world, grilled stickies — a flattened combination of a sticky bun and a cinnamon roll — were first served at the Diner in 1929.

Chris Lindsley, a 1987 graduate of Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, said the Diner was a “quintessential” college place open all the time — where anyone could go whenever.

“You know, you don't have to get dressed up. You don't have to make a reservation, you just show up,” Lindsley said. “Nobody really cared about their appearance at that point, right. It was just we're going to eat, we know we can get good food, and we're going to hang out. And there weren't a whole lot of places in town that you could do that.”

Lindsley said his go-to order at the Diner was a mushroom and cheese omelet, home fries and a grilled stickie.

Even now, Lindsley said he usually comes back to State College twice a year and purchases a pack of stickies to bring home.

“My favorite thing [about the Diner] was just that you could go there and completely be yourself and bring anyone, and you didn't have to put on any appearances or anything,” Lindsley said.

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Lindsley said a memory he’ll never forget was the time he woke up with a bill from the Diner in his pocket and realized he never paid for his meal that night.

When Lindsley went to the Diner in the morning, the lady at the counter asked him if he enjoyed his meal, and he said, “it was great last night when I ate it.”

Lindsley said the woman went “ballistic.”

“That’s just not the impression you ever got from them,” Lindsley said. “You never heard anybody raise their voice unless it was somebody who was drunk and was doing something.”

Daniel Barbet and Farideh Barbet ran the Diner from 1980-1987 and changed the name from New College Diner to Ye Olde College Diner, and their daughter, Rachelle Barbet, first started working there when she was in third grade.

Rachelle, who graduated from Penn State in 1994 with a degree in hotel restaurant institution management, started bussing tables on busy weekends and eventually worked the cash register.

She said her dad was born and raised in France, and culturally, it wasn’t a question of if she should help out the business — it was something she did.

Growing up working at the Diner, Rachelle said she was able to develop good communication skills, which has enabled her to foster a true appreciation for good customer food and quality of food because it was her family’s livelihood.

Rachelle said she remembers lines being out the door on football weekends and being able to smell fresh orange juice from a machine when she walked inside the restaurant.

“I'm really sad that it's not there anymore,” Rachelle said. “I went by there two years ago just to see what the building was like now [and] just to walk through it and see what's there, and I still have tears coming down my face when I saw that it wasn't there anymore.”

There was nothing like Ye Olde College Diner, Nancy Antenucci said.

Antenucci, dancer at the Pennsylvania Dance Theatre and waitress at the Diner in 1982, said her experience there was “amazing.”

“It was an incredible time, [so] it was really sad to see it go,” Antenucci said. “It really did have a charm… It had a real, real beautiful community vibe to it.”

Since Antenucci was a professional dancer until she was 35, she ended up working a lot of waitressing jobs because it was “quick money and flexible.”

Antenucci said her favorite result from working at the Diner was developing a relationship with her manager at the time, Joe Hahn.

“It was life changing… he was a life changer for me,” Antenucci said. “He is the only spiritual teacher I ever really need, had or will ever need.”

Penn State 1992 graduate in the College of Communications Alex Lieb said he’d always end up at the Diner after going to the bars because of its “nice environment and waitstaff.”

“It was just a comfortable place — it was a warm place,” Lieb said. “The ambience is totally different.”

Lieb said when he was in Maryland, he bought grilled stickies, but it wasn’t the same as eating them in the Diner.

“You can have a drink in a bar, and it tastes wonderful,” Lieb said. “You can make the exact same drink at home, with the exact same glass, with the exact micro proportions, [but] it will never taste the same because it’s not in a frame, it’s not brought to you, it’s not removed and you’re not in an environment.”

Lieb said he left the Diner with good memories before he said it started going downhill.

“All the dynamics changed at school when people started getting cell phones and using the internet because all of a sudden, all the depersonalization began,” Lieb said. “People stopped hanging out, and people stopped actually talking to each other. Everything is a text, everything as opposed to back then — [when] you actually hung out with people.”

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Similar to Lieb’s experience, Richard Becker, who attended Penn State in 1968 and was the manager at the Phyrst from 1968-1976, said the Diner was a place where everyone went to get breakfast after the bars closed at 2 a.m.

To Becker, the Diner allowed patrons to bulk up on food before people went home, and his go-to order was a ham and cheese and mushroom omelet, home fries cooked well done and a black coffee.

Becker said he’ll never forget the time the owner of the Phyrst took him and his coworkers to the Diner and ordered 108 eggs.

The waitress taking their order didn’t “bat an eyelash,” Becker said — she just turned and yelled the order to the cook.

After placing the order, people in the Diner complained about not getting food and, according to Becker, police showed up and asked what the problem was, and his table replied, “What? There’s no problem, we are just having breakfast.”

“It was really sad to see the Diner go,” Becker said. “When people come back for football games, they come down to the bar and go, ‘Where’s the Diner?’”

The Diner was a hotspot downtown, David Stuemplfe said.

Stuempfle, a 1994 graduate of the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State, said the Diner was part of his daily routine, and his staple 2 a.m. meal at the Diner was a cup of coffee, a plate of fries and a bowl of French onion soup.

Still today, one of Stuempfle’s favorite foods to eat is French onion soup.

“No matter where I am in this world, having that smell and that taste always takes me back to the Diner… no French onion soup compares,” Stuempfle said.

For Stuempfle, he said “besides the French onion soup,” the best part of the Diner was its atmosphere.

“You could just walk in, you know, any time of day and just have a mix of people. There were State College residents, college kids, drunk people,” Stuemplfe said. “The atmosphere was just awesome. It was everything you could think of, of a small town diner.”

Every year, Stuempfle said he comes back to State College with his friends, and when he saw the closed sign on the Diner, he was devastated.

“I’ll forever be thankful for the time and the years that we had eating out and spending time in the Diner,” Steumpfle said. “Seeing it go was painful.”

Dori Gwinn, a waitress at the Diner during the summer of 1985 and graduate of the College of the Liberal Arts, said before she started working there, she loved going to the Diner at all hours.

After Gwinn had a difficult test, she said she’d go treat herself to a pastry and a cappuccino at the Diner.

While working at the Diner, Gwinn said she remembers Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts weekend where everyone ordered grilled stickies and scrapple, and at the time, she didn’t know what scrapple was.

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Being curious, Gwinn said she went downstairs to where the cooks were, asked what scrapple was made of and one of the cooks replied “pig parts,” and after that, she said she wouldn’t try scrapple.

Gwinn said she really loved her coworkers at the Diner, though.

“They made a job [where] you aren’t getting paid a lot of money, you’re on your feet [and] you’re running around a lot of the time a whole lot of fun,” Gwinn said.

However, Gwinn noted the Diner made her sign a statement that she’d train for free and just work for tips. Gwinn said this went on for 30 days, and she “worked for free” — since students didn’t tip.

“The Diner would find ways to keep [its] money. Servers were charged for breakage, mistakes in orders and for not tallying the check correctly,” Gwinn said via email. “I think I lost money working for them, as students weren’t big tippers, if at all.”

A 2004 graduate of Penn State’s College of Education and waitress at the Diner, Tara Laymon, said working at the Diner, and more specifically in the restaurant industry, built skills other jobs don’t provide.

Laymon said she enjoyed working with the people at the Diner the most and the unpredictability of it.

“My day to day is different every single day. And that’s my favorite part,” Laymon said of working at the Diner and her current job as a psychologist and behavioral analyst. “There are no two days that are alike… sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s what made it a lot of fun because you never knew what your night was going to be like.”

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Laymon said every college needs something like Ye Olde College Diner.

“When [people] talk about how your college experience is more than just your classes, and it’s an experience of being away from home and being in this other place, I think having that — that type of setting that you can go to at any time of day, any time of night — is idyllic for any college kid experiencing this new place,” Laymon said.

Suzanne DesMarais, a 1988 graduate of the Penn State’s College of Arts and Architecture, said she worked at the Diner when she was in high school from 1982-83.

DesMarais said working at the Diner was a “unique” experience since the owner at the time, Daniel Barbet, was a French pastry chef and Ye Olde College Diner was set up as a traditional diner.

At age 16, DesMarais started at the ice cream counter, then waitressed and worked a couple of shifts in the kitchen.

DesMarais said she met a woman while working at the Diner who became her best friend, and they’re still close.

“It was a big part of my experience in State College,” DesMarais said. “There were a lot of people I know that are connected through that place.”

Chuck Fong, professional photographer and author of “Dinor Bleu: The Vanishing American Diner” — a photographic essay that captured 43 family owned diners along the East Coast, dedicated a section in his book to the Ye Olde College Diner.

Fong said he started out by photographing diners for the fun of it until someone suggested he create a book.

He started the book around 2018, and it was published in 2019.

“I’m trying to capture human stories about these people,” Fong said. “I’m actually trying to show the inner workings of these little family owned restaurants. And I don’t think anybody’s really done anything like that because it's such a small, limited area.”

Member of the Penn State Board of Trustees, immediate past President of the Penn State Alumni Association and Director in the Corporation for Penn State Randy Houston said one of his greatest Penn State memories took place at the Diner.

Houston, a 1991 graduate of the College of the Liberal Arts, said by the end of his freshman year, he had thoughts of transferring out of Penn State and applying to music school.

However, Houston said after his freshman year, by the time he found out he wasn’t accepted to the music program, he didn’t schedule classes or apply for housing or financial aid at Penn State.

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By around Labor Day weekend of his sophomore year, Houston said he decided to take the semester off and return in the spring.

As a send off, Houston said his friends planned a farewell dinner at The Tavern, however, what Houston said he didn’t realize was his friends were actually waiting for him in Ye Olde College Diner for his surprise party instead.

“I’ve founded a student organization, I’ve been the keynote speaker at commencement, I’ve been the president of the Alumni Association, I’m on the Board of Trustees now [and] I have a lot of great Penn State memories,” Houston said, “To this day, it’s not only my favorite diner memory but probably my favorite Penn State memory.”

Houston said his favorite part of the Diner was the variety of the menu, and his go-to order was called the Mount Nittany — grilled stickies and ice cream.

“I don’t even just miss the Diner from the ‘80s, I miss the idea of a diner. Even before it closed, the Diner wasn’t what it was in the ‘80s, but it was still my place,” Houston said. “I could go there. I could relive those memories. I [could] see that menu… I just miss the fact that it’s there.”

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