Tried & True: Johnny's Bar

Restaurants — and restaurant reviewers — typically chase the next hot thing, looking for the new, different and trendsetting. But if ever there was a case to be made for the tried, true and unchanging, it’s the original Johnny’s Bar on Fulton.

Altering anything about what has become a local landmark of fine dining would be heartbreaking. Luckily, brothers and owners Joe and Anthony (aka Bo) Santosusso have no desire to rejigger a formula that’s been working for more than two decades. This sophisticated little spot is a favorite of so many precisely because it stays predictably, wonderfully the same —from the faces that greet you at the door to the classically prepared Northern Italian dishes that come out of the kitchen.

The family has actually been serving spaghetti and meatballs at this location since the 1920s. But in the mid-’80s, white linens, lobster and pricey bottles of Brunelo replaced checkered tablecloths, home-style fare and cheap Chianti. That’s also when the former speakeasy and grocery store got its signature Art Deco interior — a sumptuous and streamlined look that’s all gleaming wood, metal accents, muted colors and the unforgettable leopard print carpet only slightly the worse for wear in a few spots.

Johnny’s has traditionally hosted the coat-and-tie set, but acknowledging the cultural shift, business casual attire is now acceptable, and you can even wear jeans (pressed and without holes, of course). But compromise with current fashion only goes so far. The brothers will politely suggest that those who arrive in outfits more suitable for athletic pursuits or the like dine elsewhere. The result is that the people populating the dining room look as upscale as their surroundings.

Currently manning the kitchen are 10-year veteran Tim Birkley and sous chef Joe Fall, who calls himself “a lifer.” Waiter Ricky Paletta, with old-school serving skills few bring to the table these days, has been on the staff for 24 years. He knows what the regulars want before they ask. Much of the menu —linguine with clam sauce and scampi ($27.95), pasta Putanaise ($26.95) and peppercorn beef filet ($34.95) — never varies. It’s all part of what makes Johnny’s, Johnny’s.

So I wasn’t expecting any surprises when my husband and I showed up. And happily, there weren’t any. Dinner was much like our first one here in the early ’90s: the food just as good and generously portioned as ever. We started the meal with a terrific house-smoked trout ($9.95). The mild-flavored fish was topped with a quenelle of horseradish cream and presented with toast points, capers, minced red onion and diced tomatoes. For pasta, we chose sweet red pepper fettuccine with rabbit sausage in a rich and vibrant red pepper sauce ($22.95). Shavings of sharp Asiago cheese added a nice, nutty accent.

Veal is a house specialty here, and the long bone chop is the best in town. It’s done three ways: stuffed with leeks and melted chèvre, grilled with shiitake mushrooms or, my choice, Milanese style —pounded, breaded and baked (all preparations $42.95). The moist and tender meat was topped with arugula and tomato coulis in a balsamic vinaigrette, and the combination was a delicious mouthful. Tucked underneath were potatoes au gratin made with Gruyere and cream, and sharing the plate was a soft and perfect little round of Pecorino Romano flan.

We ended with expertly brewed cups of cappuccino ($5.50) and a slice of rum-soaked tiramisu big enough for both of us and then some ($10.95).

The wine list — Bo’s baby — is large and interesting with bottles that will appeal to both cost-is-no-object connoisseurs as well as bargain hunters. All the by-the-glass selections are quality pours: We had a lively, food-friendly Steltzner Vineyards Napa Claret (2005, $10.50) and a ruby-hued, full-bodied Bel Colle Barbera d’Alba from Piedmonte (2005, $8.50).

If you haven’t been here in years, it’s time to return. If you’ve never visited, now is the time. This elegant and venerable lady of a restaurant with a guy’s name wears her age lightly and still has the ability to dazzle and charm.

Johnny’s Bar, 3164 Fulton Road, Cleveland, (216) 281-0055. Mon-Wed 5 - 10 p.m., Thu 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri 11:30 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sat 5 - 11 p.m. Free valet parking.
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