It’s always a tricky business, renovating/updating/changing-even-the-slightest-bit a neighborhood stalwart like Old John’s Luncheonette, which had been an Upper West Side go-to for nearly 70 years before shuttering at the start of the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and done with the sort of care, respect, and culinary style that’s everywhere at this fantastic reboot on West 67th Street, now called Old John’s Diner.
Old John’s Diner is the latest endeavor from Louis Skibar, who, among many other things, co-owns the Cuban diner Coppelia, and, most immediately relevant, got his start in the restaurant game back in 1984 as a delivery boy, working his way up to short order cook, at… Old John’s Luncheonette. And to further the personal connection here between old and new, Skibar made sure to bring back former staffers for the reboot, so old-timers will see familiar (albeit masked) faces when they sidle into a booth and order up an Egg Cream.
The space looks great, spruced up to be sure–the seating is all new and quite comfortable, and there’s a gleaming new marble counter by the entrance–but with many key details from the old Old John’s still in place. That includes the turn-of-the-century black and white mosaic floor, Art Deco lighting all around, the 1950s soda fountain, and the vintage neon clock in its original spot, right by the tubular pie and cake case.
Most important, the food at the new Old John’s is delicious, everything given an upgrade by consulting chef Grayson Schmitz and pastry chef Tanya Ngangan, and without changing any of its essential diner-ish character, nor raising prices too much. Chefs Raul Navarrete, who spent 23 years working in the old Old John’s, and Victor Rojas Milan will be running things in the kitchen on a daily basis, with Noelia Huisman taking over all the dessert duties.
The Tuna Melt, for example, instantly takes its place as one of the best in town. Served open-faced on a slab of sturdy sourdough, this beauty features a mound of excellent tuna salad, still slightly chilled, studded with pickle relish, then covered in a thick blanket of melted cheddar. It’s going to be tough not to order this every time, especially when paired with those first-rate fries, but I’m also eager to try a few of their other sandwiches, like the BLT Baguette, the Veggie Muffaletta, and the Old John’s Burger.
It’s usually best to ignore the entrees section of any diner menu, but just to see what the kitchen could do we ordered two such dishes at Old John’s, and really enjoyed both. The My Momma’s Meatloaf was the best I’ve had in ages–nice and dense, tangy with BBQ sauce–and perfect with the buttery potato puree and crisp French beans. A nostalgic pleasure plate to be sure.
The Vegetarian Rigatoni was also a winner, all thick and earthy with some good broccoli pesto, lots of peas, asparagus, and mushrooms, and a dollop of ricotta adding a bit of brightness. Chicken Pot Pie, Salted Cracker Crusted Cod, and a $30 plate Steak Frites are among the other “blue plate specials” here. The Chicken Soup was decent, though definitely needed the boost from those packets of Saltines on the side.
The sweets section of the menu is robust and varied enough to make Old John’s a dessert-only destination and/or date spot. The ice cream is all made in-house, it comes in flavors such as Dark Chocolate, Roasted Banana, Fresh Mint Chocolate Chip, and Sour Cherry Sorbet, and you can get it by the scoop, in a milkshake or soda, or as part of a decadent sundae, like the Salted Peanut, caramel popcorn, chocolate crumb crunch creation we devoured.
The Strawberry Shortcake was fabulous, with its soft buttermilk biscuit and cloud of pistachio cream, and the Coconut Layer Cake, served to us with a side of lovely Tahitian Vanilla ice cream, also over-delivered. Chocolate Mousse, a Classic Black Cow Ice Cream Soda, Blueberry Pie, and Apple Pie with salted caramel sauce are among the many other appealing options. And if you want some booze with any of the above, Old John’s has got you covered, with a full slate of $13 cocktails as well as a bunch of beers, ciders, and wines.
Old John’s Diner is located, as it has been for 30 years, at 148 West 67th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, and is currently open on Sunday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., and from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with breakfast and lunch hours coming soon (212-874-2700; iloveoldjohns.com)