Restaurant Reviews

Review: Neighborhood Diner John's Cafe a Not-So-Greasy Spoon

From early breakfast to late lunch, John's Café doesn't pretend to be anything but a neighborhood diner serving basic, filling meals with a few Greek offerings mixed in. There's no pomp or circumstance and no bullshit. John's is a quick, bustling grub hub happily settled on Lowest Greenville Avenue with regulars at the common table discussing city goings-on, trading newspaper sections and comparing meal notes. Breakfast is the shining star at the not-so-greasy spoon, but at any time of day this family diner sticks to simple dishes that feel like home.

A kindly, demure relative of mine always said the mark of something inherently good is not having to "pile a bunch of crap on top of it." (Or something to that effect, anyway.) Perhaps it was having that adage repeated throughout my childhood or just a natural affinity for simple dishes like those made fresh at home, but I agree. I also apply this theory to restaurant décor, service and, God forbid, themes.

Walk into John's, and the lack of pretense is almost shocking—no faux retro build-outs, just clean booths and tables and some framed news clippings and sentimental photos on the walls. Head to the counter and order from the back-lit menu. If there's a rush, keep your fingers crossed that by the time you pay someone will get up and you can snag a seat either at your own varnished table or at the community tables down the middle of the restaurant (it's a neighborhood place, remember, so make a friend). Not to worry though, a seat will open up by the time your food is ready.

Now, before moving on, let me say that I could blather on and on here about how John's Café was wronged when developers razed its original location and put a bank in its place, but that's living in the past, and John's has a new-ish home on the same street just a few blocks south that seems to suit it just fine. Don't get me wrong, 30-plus years serving neighbors is something to be proud of, and if John's was no more I'd be throwing greasy spoons at a deposit window right now, but I'd rather discuss the diner's trademark "Just Good Food" than cover it up with more details about some bank's bully antics.

What does deserve detail is breakfast. John's pays great attention to the most important meal of the day with expert use of a griddle and a keen eye on value. For little more than a fiver, diners can fill up on the daily breakfast special: two eggs, hash browns, a choice of bacon, sausage or ham and toast or biscuits. There's no extraneous styling, no unnecessary garnish. The special is a no-frills hangover remedy on a plate.

My companion opted for the ham. It was a quarter-inch slice with savory brown searing and no flab. The hash browns were fair—some outer crunch framing a bit of inner sogginess. The biscuits, though, were light and fluffy and brought to mind those that my grandma...I mean, that aforementioned, outspoken relative, once made from scratch. They yearned for—but didn't require—the slathering of butter and the peeling open of packet after packet of jelly.

As I said before, simple food is best, and dishes become real treats when they can be guiltily savored without adding anything the cook didn't put on the plate. Already sweet in nature, the pancakes and French toast at John's Café were such treats. Syrup stood idly by as we took our test bites (it should be a sin to drown a pancake in syrup before sampling it), and it stayed away.

The cakes were steaming hot, golden brown and incredibly fluffy. The batter was sweet, but not heavy—a natural sweetness more like that of honey than of pounds of refined sugar. The short stack was plenty to pair with an egg or side of meat.

The French toast rivaled for best in chow. Four triangles (a perfect amount—that six-piece trend is out of control these days) arrived after submitting to a flurry of powdered sugar and cinnamon. The triangles weren't overwhelmed with eggy batter, but still moist. The edges were crusty from the griddle while the centers were so tender, cutting into them was like piercing the butter squares that came teetering on the side of the plate. Thanks to the sweet dusting, the syrup once again stood sad and lonely, used only for a pity dribble on the last bite of some superbly crispy bacon.

Lunch didn't fare as well as breakfast, but then, that would be very hard to do. John's Café offers a range of greasy spoon classics from grilled cheese to roast beef sandwiches to daily lunch specials. (Breakfast is still served after 11 a.m. for a bit more green, crowded grill permitting.)

The cheeseburger was, as my dining buddy said, "comforting like a Dairy Queen when you're in the middle of a road trip." It was a simple exercise in lean patty, warm bun and fresh veggies. The condiment application (choice of mayo or mustard) wasn't heavy-handed. No frills, no problem.

Onion rings were crispy and golden brown and left traces of grease on the lips but not on the plate. The thick cuts of onion already made for a big bite, but even thicker batter doubled their size—big, straightforward rings for the serious diner patron. After detecting an odd faux-garlic/possible MSG/season salt flavor on the French fries, it was mutually determined that the onion rings were the better choice.

My plate lunch steered me into deep-fried territory. I ordered the chicken-fried steak and was given instructions to help myself to the salad bar while the kitchen had its way with my entree. I approached the sneeze-guarded area and found possibly the most basic of "salad bars" in Dallas—lettuce, dressings and croutons. (At least I didn't ruin my lunch with a convoluted heap of greens.) I'll forgive the bottled dressings thanks to the freshness of the lettuce mix.

The plate arrived with a fried steak covered in yellowish cream that appeared and tasted like a cross between white gravy and chicken gravy. A skin quickly formed on the top, but the flavor was homemade instead of pre-mixed and powdery, as is often the case in turn-and-burn diners and high school cafeterias. Thin, fairly tender and way too big, the steak was generous for the price. The side of Texas toast allowed for breaking the monotony and getting a little childish by fashioning mini chicken-fried sandwiches.

And there are other favorites among the regulars. Amid the hubbub of the dining room during one visit, some diners discussed the virtues of roast beef sandwich versus the gyro, one man noting the gyro's hearty size and citing owner John Spyropoulos' Greek heritage as insurance of a solid, traditional experience each time he eats one...which is several times a week. Other Greek noshes include a chicken gyro and a gyro omelet. And, oh, the baklava. The sticky sweet layers of phyllo, honey and other goodness mustn't be missed.

John's Café itself isn't much to look at. But a short stack and a side of bacon can appear downright heavenly and taste even better thanks to a tightly run grill and the obvious mantra that simple, straightforward home-style food is what people come back for. Regulars don't need a parsley sprig or a creepy special sauce. They don't want any of that crap piled on what's "just good food." And will be for a long time. You can bank on that.

1733 Greenville Ave., 214-874-0800. 7 a.m.- 3 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. $-$$

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Merritt Martin
Contact: Merritt Martin