Old John’s Luncheonette — a comforting, decades-old diner on the Upper West Side that closed in October amid the pandemic — is making a comeback under new ownership.
NYC restaurateur Louis Skibar, who has opened 18 restaurants in the city over the past 30 years — including both locations of Mexican restaurant Toloache, as well as Chelsea Cuban diner Coppelia — will reopen the storied uptown diner in mid-to-late February, he tells Eater New York. Expect plenty of updates to the neighborhood stalwart when it returns: Skibar will be keeping the diner’s name, but has assembled a new team to lead the kitchen and plans to refresh some of the restaurant’s old-school interior designs.
Skibar also has a personal history with the restaurant. It was the first place in the city that he worked after emigrating from Bolivia to NYC in 1984. He started as a delivery person and worked his way up to short order cook. Years later, he was a co-owner in the restaurant for a short time when it re-opened after a seven-year hiatus in 1997. When the restaurant’s lease expired earlier this year and the most recent owner left, the building’s landlord reached out to Skibar to see if he was interested in taking over the diner.
“I’m very excited,” Skibar says of the project. “To bring this back, it feels very special.”
For the revival, Skibar has signed on chef Grayson Schmitz, a former Top Chef contestant whose past experience includes stints at fine dining restaurants like Jean-Georges and Wallsé, to oversee the kitchen. The diner will also have its first-ever dedicated pastry chef in Tanya Ngangan, previously the co-owner of seven-year-old West Village patisserie Bisous Ciao, which shut down in May.
Crowd-favorite dishes like the blueberry pancakes, the Belgian waffles, and the chicken pot pie will remain on the menu, but Schmitz has plans to update the recipes, Skibar says. Ngangan is building a morning pastry program where everything will be baked in-house, and plans to recreate classic diner desserts for Old John’s including sundaes, ice cream sodas, and egg creams.
While the interior won’t be visible to diners until indoor dining is allowed again, there are some extra surprises waiting for longtime regulars when restrictions lift. Skibar plans to modernize the dining area with a shiny new front counter to anchor the room, and he’s adding three more stools to fill out the bar. The restaurant will seat 40 people at full capacity.
Skibar is aiming to open the revamped diner in mid-to-late February, he says, smack in the middle of NYC’s pandemic winter. He’s constructing a heated outdoor space with individual sections outfitted with booths and subway tiles, modeled after Old John’s retro interior, and will be offering takeout and delivery at the start as well.
It’s a challenging time to open, Skibar admits, but he says that he negotiated some rent breaks with the landlord and he’s optimistic about the neighborhood’s ability to sustain a restaurant like Old John’s. His restaurants in tourist hotspots like the Theater District have been struggling, he says, but his spots in more residential neighborhoods, like the Upper East Side, have been doing well enough throughout the pandemic. He’s banking on the same trend playing out on the other side of Central Park.
“People pass by and wish us luck,” Skibar says, recounting how passersby have referred to the diner as the ‘Cheers’ of the Upper West Side as they pass the renovation work. “It’s a nice feeling, especially in this time.”