By Bobby Panza
Time loves a hero. For Old John’s Diner on West 67th Street and Amsterdam Avenue that hero is Louis Skibar, a Bolivian immigrant who, upon arriving in NYC in 1984, got his first job in the states working at Old John’s Luncheonette making deliveries. The Luncheonette closed to much dismay amid the pandemic in September of 2020. Skibar, now a prolific NYC restaurateur who’s opened nearly a dozen restaurants around the city, brings a new sheen with refreshed decor, menu and name to his old home place, reviving a classic Upper West Side diamond in the rough. Old John’s Luncheonette is now Old John’s Diner.
“It feels amazing to re-open Old John’s!” Skibar told the WSR. “I have always loved diners. I love the nostalgic feeling they invoke and it feels good to see the staff and the familiar faces of the neighborhood once again.” Old John’s Luncheonette originally opened in 1951 on Broadway and West 66th street, the twilight of the golden age of soda shops, before moving to its present location on West 67th and Amsterdam Ave. Walking into this new Old John’s is like taking a step back in time, when egg creams were common and the staff knew your name. It’s true, several members of the team have returned for the re-opening, including two 20+ year veterans. Clarence is working behind the bar and Kathy is still serving.
There are some new faces, too: Chef Grayson Schmitz is overseeing the kitchen and Tanya Ngangan is the dedicated pastry chef.
The Temptations, Whitney Houston, James Brown and the Byrds – Turn Turn Turn! — filled the air. A painting of the Old John’s Luncheonette menu greets you as you walk in, a page from the past as you look around and find bright new classic soda fountain stations with full bar and signage. A glass case filled with cakes and pies delights the eyes, as an engraved tin ceiling fills the skies of this time-defying diner. Karen, Old John’s GM, is the one to thank for the musical selections. They’re big 80s music fans here too.
Lionel, a waiter, age 33, got his first job in the city right here at Old John’s after immigrating from the Dominican Republic seven years ago. He told WSR, he was “happy and excited” when he got word Old John’s was re-opening. Lionel originally found out Old John’s was hiring from a friend in the DR. When Lionel arrived in Manhattan, they met up at a bodega on West 171st Street and the rest is history. “We are like family,” Lionel said — and, like the eatery’s owner, he too started as a deliveryman before working almost every job in the kitchen and serving customers today.
I went classic: a chocolate egg cream to start, which was utterly divine, as I took a moment to remember Gem Spa, the cigarette and candy shop that opened in the 1920s on the corner of Second Ave and St. Mark’s Place. The alleged creators of the classic drink, which contains no egg FYI (just in case), closed amid the pandemic in May of 2020. My other hand brought up a mojito with fresh mint a plenty.
Old John’s burger cooked medium rare held up great with juices flowing. My compliments to the sesame bun housing the 8 oz. dry-aged NY strip & chuck patty with white cheddar cheese and raw onion. Pickle on the side, I made no substitutions, I had no regrets. Glad I got the fries! Excellent crispiness where ketchup is surely appreciated, but not overly needed.
Old John’s Diner is a place that transcends time, where generations, younger and older together, can relive the golden age of going out to eat. Next time I bring my Dad for an egg cream, Lionel recommended we try the chicken pot pie.
148 West 67th Street, 212-874-2700, iloveoldjohns.com
For now, you can dine in or pickup, but there’s no delivery for another few weeks. Call for hours, which can change.