Earning the title "destination restaurant" is both a blessing and a curse. In the plus column, it means that you've developed a product special enough to attract diners from outside the neighborhood. In the minus column, it means that you very likely need to pull diners from outside the neighborhood—especially when the neighborhood around you has so drastically changed since opening day.
When Johnny's Bar first opened, its stock in trade was feeding hungry factory workers come the lunch-time bell, explains owner Bo Santosuosso. Weekend dinners were later added to the mix. "We kept expanding our hours, tinkering with the menu, and one thing led to another," he says. "Next thing you know we went from neighborhood tavern to white tablecloth, to taking reservations."
Despite a very long history—much of it before the Santosuosso's took ownership—Johnny's Bar didn't become what it is today until around 1980. Since then, though, little has changed.
It is precisely because "little has changed" that the restaurant—located in what politely can be called a blue-collar neighborhood—has managed to outlive everything from recessions to ever-shifting dining trends. Walk in tonight and it will look, feel and taste just as it did when Ronald Reagan occupied the Oval Office.
"The reason we're still here is consistency, quality, and passionate employees," Santosuosso notes. "Every day, every night, I'm the last person to leave here."
Pulling up to the unassuming building—noticeable only for its neon sign—never fails to alarm a first-timer. But cross the threshold and that brief moment of unease is replaced by wonder. "How is it that I've managed never to come here," virgins invariably say. Packed in like giddy sardines, guests seem more like members of an elaborate bridge club than diners at a restaurant. Servers call out to patrons as if they're longtime friends - because they are. The unmistakable aroma of garlic, seafood and red wine is in the air. The Art Deco bar, mahogany paneling, and leopard-print carpet are timeless reminders of the Good Old Days.
Start with the veal-stuffed hot peppers ($10.95), a perennial "special" that for some reason still isn't on the regular menu. The meat filling is surprisingly airy, the peppers pleasantly spicy, and the house marinara bright as sunshine. Sautéed frogs legs ($13.95) are appropriately buttery, garlicky and fall-off-the-tiny-bone tender. Salads are impeccably fresh and flawlessly dressed with a vinaigrette that has the ideal ratio of oil to vinegar.
Touches like hot appetizers being served on warm plates and salads served on cold plates are more than just show; they're sensible.
With such a broad and deep Italian wine list, sometimes it's wise to admit when you're in over your head. When I mention to our server the table's preferred tastes and budget, she passes the request straight up the chain of command to the top. Owner Bo, she says, will select something nice. He does: a Super Tuscan followed, perhaps too quickly, by a Brunello di Montalcino. Not once did we have to top off our own glasses.
Johnny's menu is paean to veal, a tradition that admittedly is hardly progressive (isn't that the point?). Nearly a dozen preparations are offered, from delicate scallopini to a hulking goat cheese-stuffed bone-in chop. In the middle are medallions of veal ($35.95) gilded with foie gras and sauced with a deeply flavored demi glaze. Beef fans can't go wrong with the filet au poive ($34.95), which gets the classic treatment of green peppercorns, cognac and demi. Perhaps the best dish of the evening was, oddly, a lamb dish ($36.95) of bone-in chops that are pounded, cheese-encrusted and pan-fried into lush lamb lollipops.
There are plenty of hearty pasta dishes, like the pappardelle with veal Bolognese, or rigatoni with meatballs, both of which still rely on Grandma Santosuosso's recipe. We had less success with a seafood fettuccini ($26.95), which was loaded with shrimp, scallops and mussels in an aromatic lobster cream sauce. It's just that fresh pasta absorbed so much sauce, it nearly melded into a single entity.
It's been ages since I dined at Johnny's Bar. And at these prices it likely will be ages again until I return. But it's comforting just knowing that it's there waiting for me when the right special occasion turns up. And when it does, I won't hesitate to pick up the phone and make a reservation, because I know it will live up to my expectations.
"You don't just end up here, you make a point of coming," admits Santosuosso. "This place is a destination restaurant."