At South Philly, there is a sign that hangs above the counter. It reads: HOW TO ORDER A CHEESE STEAK.
Step 1: Specify if you want your steak with (WIT) or without (WIT-OUT) Onions. (If you are not a rookie, this should come naturally.)
Step 2: Specify Plain, Cheez Whiz, Provolone, American Cheese and/or sauce.
Step 3: Have your money ready. (Do all of your borrowing in line.)
Step 4: Practice all of the above while waiting in line.
When Corey Miller and Mike Dinwiddie decided to open a restaurant specializing in Philly cheese steaks, they wanted to be authentic but not so authentic as to be rude.
"It's like the Soup Nazi up there," Miller says of cheese steak shops in Philadelphia. "If you get in line and don't order it a particular way, you have to get in the back. Those guys do so much business, they can treat you like crap and get away with it. You'll come back anyway. You'll be there at four in the morning in 30-degree weather."
Miller, 24, and Dinwiddie, 27, hope to be that busy someday. They opened the 3,000-square-foot restaurant, located downtown near W.C. Handy Park, in August. Inside, the walls are a mix of metal beams and brickwork. In the back, there are framed pictures of Philadelphia landmarks, places like Geno's Steaks and Pat's Steaks.
"Cheese steak in Philadelphia is like barbecue down here. There are a thousand joints up in Philadelphia. They all do it a different way, and everyone has their favorite place. They all take it really seriously," Miller says.
So seriously, says Dinwiddie, that the staff at South Philly is already used to being called out by their customers.
"Everyone who comes in here who is from Philadelphia ... none of them buy it at first. They say, 'No way. You guys can't do it like up there.' We get lots of challenges."
According to Dinwiddie and Miller, they have yet to fail a taste test.
One reason is that they get their bread and meat from a Philadelphia company that has been in business for more than 100 years.
"The roll is probably 90 percent of the sandwich. If you get a bad roll, it starts falling apart. These really hold it together," Miller says.
"The cheese, the onions, the mushrooms, the peppers ... they're all chopped in," Miller says. "It gives it a more consistent taste. Instead of just laying it down, it's all mixed in so you're getting that same amount of cheese in there."
You can order American or Provolone cheese, or go really Philly and ask for the Cheez Whiz.
"People get confused," Dinwiddie says. "Cheez Whiz is cheese sauce. A lot of people hear Cheez Whiz, and they think we're getting it out of spray can. It's similar to stuff they use in nachos, like orange liquid cheese."
South Philly also serves cold hoagie sandwiches, burgers, and salads. For dessert, it features a Northeastern treat, Italian ice, in 20 flavors. It even has Tasty Kakes, another Pennsylvania specialty. ("We have a guy who has a standing order for a case a week," Dinwiddie says.)
South Philly is busiest at lunchtime, but it also does well late-night. On the weekends, the restaurant is open later to take advantage of its proximity to Beale Street.
"There's not really a lot of places downtown to eat that late at night, especially with the good bar crowd you have here," Dinwiddie says. "For people who drink, this is great sober-up food. It's even better than a big, greasy cheeseburger, and it's safer than driving to Krystal because we're right across the street from the bars."
South Philly offers daily sandwich specials and runs beer specials during Grizzlies and Tiger basketball games at the FedExForum. It takes orders online or via fax and phone and makes deliveries within walking distance.
While they remain busy, Miller and Dinwiddie are considering expanding.
"We want to grow, obviously," Miller says. "We think this concept could work anywhere, except Philadelphia."
South Philly is located at 250 Peabody Place (527-0007) and is open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.