Nostalgic Diner Old John’s Brings Its Egg Creams and Banana Splits Back to the Upper West Side
Decades-oldDecades-old Upper West Side stalwart Old John’s is set to reopen its doors next week after a tumultuous pandemic year that forced the diner to permanently shutter after nearly 70 years — before getting scooped up for a revival by former employee and longtime NYC restaurateur Louis Skibar.
The diner formerly known as Old John’s Luncheonette — Skibar lopped off Luncheonette and replaced it with Diner for the reboot — is slated to open to customers on June 23 in the same spot where it has stood for decades, at 148 West 67th Street, near Amsterdam Avenue. But mixed in with the old menu favorites and nostalgic decor, customers will find plenty of updates to Old John’s as Skibar takes over the neighborhood classic.
Old John’s was long known as a well-worn spot to find diner staples like stacks of blueberry pancakes, waffles favored by famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, steaming chicken pot pie, and meatloaf and mashed potatoes. In its revival, the menu is still rooted in those familiar items, but Skibar signed on chef Grayson Schmitz and pastry chef Tanya Ngangan to consult on the reopening and refresh old recipes.
Under Schmitz’s guidance, the chicken pot pie is no longer baked separately from its doughy crust, but rather, the chicken, gravy, and vegetables are cooked together under a golden, flaky pastry crust. She also shared her mother’s own meatloaf recipe with Old John’s and adapted it for the diner. New menu additions include a saltine cracker-crusted cod and a vegetarian rigatoni doused in a broccoli pesto and served with asparagus, mushrooms, and peas.
For the first time in the diner’s history, a pastry chef was brought on board to improve Old John’s desserts and baked goods. Ngangan’s influence can be seen in items like the strawberry shortcake, a simple dessert that she revamped with the use of buttermilk biscuits and pistachio pastry cream. All of the ice creams, including roasted banana, toasted coconut, and salted peanut, are now made in house. Chocolate and vanilla egg creams, ice cream sodas, and milkshakes are also on offer. “They’re classics but with the chef’s input,” Skibar says. Once Lincoln Center reopens, Skibar hopes Old John’s will become a regular spot for after-show desserts and drinks.
As consulting chefs, Ngangan and Schmitz will be leaving the space within the next three weeks and handing the reins over to former 23-year Old John’s employee Raul Navarrete and Victor Rojas Milan to lead the kitchen, and Noelia Huisman to lead pastry.
To update the space, Skibar lengthened the diner’s bar counter to double the amount of seating available, and sectioned off the workstations behind the bar into three areas for cocktails, ice cream, and coffee drinks. In a nod to the diner’s previous life, Skibar commissioned an artist to create a wall mural of the illustrated UWS map that adorned the front of previous Old John’s menus and mounted it near the front door. The neon sign from the original Old John’s Luncheonette still hangs in its old space.
The diner is dinner-only to start, with lunch and breakfast hours to follow. The staggered rollout gives the restaurant time to find its footing with each part of the menu, Skibar says, and it gives more time for the restaurant to hire more employees, which has been a struggle amid industry-wide staffing shortages.
Reopening the diner is a homecoming of sorts for Skibar, who got his first industry job as a delivery person at Old John’s Luncheonette in 1984 after emigrating to the U.S. from Bolivia. Over his 30-year restaurant career, Skibar has opened 18 restaurants in NYC, many in partnership with chef Julian Medina, including two locations of Mexican restaurant Toloache and Kuxé in the West Village.
But it’s the diners that Skibar is particularly fond of, and he hopes to open more in the future. The restaurateur, who also co-owns Cuban diner Coppelia in Chelsea, sees potential in Old John’s to expand the diner to other neighborhoods across the city, if all goes well on the UWS.
“I think diners are a dying breed, and they are such a beautiful thing,” Skibar says. “It’s a comfortable place that you can come for breakfast, or for dinner. I think it is the great equalizer. Anyone can come to a diner.”
Old John’s is open daily starting June 23 from 4 to 10 p.m., and from 4 to 11 p.m. on the weekends. The diner is indoor dining only to start, with outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery to follow. Breakfast and lunch hours will be added in the coming weeks; eventually, the diner will be open all day, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Update, 5:45 p.m.: Old John’s is now opening to the public on Wednesday, June 23, instead of June 21 as previously stated.