If you were a baller at Logan Square’s Johnny’s Grill as it was operated under former owner Nicholas Kalliantasis, you ordered the steak and eggs. At $10.25 it was the second most expensive thing on the greasy spoon’s wide-ranging menu (the steak dinner with potato and soup or or salad was priciest at $10.50). But Kalliantasis was forced out last spring when the building’s landlord wouldn’t renew his lease. With him went the $2.90 short stack, the $5.75 gypsy skillet, the $6.25 fried perch plate, and the last vestige of Logan Square not to sport a figurative man bun.
In its place arrives Sarah Jordan, the esteemed pastry chef whose work at Blackbird, Boka, GT Fish & Oyster, and the late Cicchetti I’ve admired many times.
My feelings are complicated. It’s strange that Jordan chose not to change the name. Conspiracists might argue that not replacing the old Johnny’s sign with something more original— like, say, “Sarah’s”—is cynical at best, outright misleading at worst. But then you’d lose that vintage sign—a veritable Logan Square anachronism that might just lure in old-timers for a double cheeseburger that’s more than doubled in price.
The burger is different, though, with smashed patties that increase in height on the heat, their mineral-rich beefiness enrobed in melted cheddar and a schmear of sharp Dijonnaise to counter the topknot of sweet pickles.
Jordan presents an abbreviated menu composed of such cheffy diner classics, some oddballs, and an Irish theme that underscores the Dublin native’s heritage—and nothing over $12. Fish-and-chips for brekkie? Why not? When I ordered it, the catch of the day was sole, and the delicate, flaky fillets held together well under a firm but not overwhelming batter. The spuds were cut thick and remained soft and creamy enough to absorb the malt vinegar. (Eat this at the counter and you’ll occasionally scent some strong and not entirely pleasant evidence of the yet-to-be cooked fish.) There’s an Irish breakfast on the menu with black-and-white pudding, back bacon, bangers (all provided by Spencer’s Jolly Posh Foods), a nicely charred tomato, and two eggs served up and runny. And there’s an Irish bacon bap (a sandwich) with Swiss cheese and piquant giardiniera slaw. The only other sandwich on the menu—the previous incarnation of Johnny’s featured 32—is a towering turkey club with thinly shaved white meat. It’s serviceable enough. There’s also a couple of salads, a bowl of oatmeal, and some tremendously fluffy buttermilk pancakes with blueberry compote ($9), and apart from a few rotating daily specials (meat loaf, chicken-fried steak), there ends all similarity to traditional diner food.
While seated at the counter one evening I had to talk myself into ordering gazpacho. In the relatively unchanged diner portion of the restaurant, it felt a little like spitting on the original Johnny’s grave (turns out he’s still alive). Thick and emulsified with olive oil until almost creamy, this refreshing soup, bolstered with chunks of fresh, sweet tomatoes, could pass in far more upscale environments than this one. Jordan, who amiably works the crowd when she’s on the grill, convinced an equally reluctant 14-year-old in my company to give it a try.
The restaurant was built out into the adjacent space that once housed a flower shop—and whose door still sports its Reader Best of Chicago sticker, giving the impression that the new Johnny’s has charged out of the gate in just six weeks. This space houses the bar, and it couldn’t feel more different than the diner with its teal walls, hanging plants, and soundtrack of Led Zeppelin, Dylan, and Hendrix pouring from a (perhaps intentionally?) tinny speaker. The bar slings novelty boilermakers (PBR and Malort, rosé and strawberry-basil vodka) and a handful of batched single-serve cocktails. Most of the craft and crap beers are in cans and bottles, while food-friendly Moody Tongue brews have taken over the taps. If you enjoy a glass of wine with your johnnycakes there are ten reds, whites, and rosés available by the glass.
Jordan’s pastry work is understated at the new Johnny’s. Addressing the twee toast craze, there’s a selection of ornately dressed $4 options, say a slice of multigrain topped with squiggles of avocado puree, roasted carrots, thinly sliced radishes, and crushed almonds, or a slice of brioche with Nutella, hazelnuts, banana, and sea salt. There’s a large (untoasted) iced pop tart with blueberry filling, and an eggy breakfast pie stuffed with vegetables and Gruyere with a flaky, tender crust. Along with a doughnut of the day, an ice cream sundae, and a dense chocolate pie with a commensurately dense crust, they’re all down-to-earth desserts that couldn’t possibly be accused of the appropriation of authenticity that’s endemic in gentrified neighborhoods. After all, you don’t come expecting Jordan’s chocolate cremeux with candied pretzels, potato chips, and beer caramel. In a few fundamental ways, it’s still Johnny’s Grill. v