In 2004, after 12 years of culinary experience in successful restaurants across the United States, Birmingham native and Chef Shannon Gober returned home looking for a way to make his culinary mark. “It was time for me to do my own thing,” he says. At the time, downtown Birmingham was a skeletal framework of large corporations and a handful of small businesses sprinkled among empty storefronts, whispers of a bustling past conspicuously obvious in the architecture and vintage signs, such as the sign above the famed John’s Restaurant.
The iconic “John’s” sign had been somewhat preserved over time, but everything else about the landmark spoke of a fading bygone era. “Downtown was not on the radar when I came back, but the opportunity to buy the John’s Restaurant property made it appealing,” says Chef Shannon, who bought the restaurant with his wife, Shana, that year and immediately began updating it. “We pay homage to the old John’s Restaurant by keeping the iconic John’s sign on the front of the building, tile work in the entrance and other small details. Pretty much everything else has changed.”
Renamed John’s City Diner, today’s eatery is a classic, old-school diner, reimagined through a modern lens. Booths along the walls and low ceilings lend a cozy feel, while contemporary hand-painted art and a bright color palette breathe new life into the space. “One look at the space and it screamed ‘diner,’” says Chef Shannon. “It begged for a comfortable yet modern menu, so we decided to update and revamp comfort food classics.”
The soul-nourishing fare features traditional Southern dishes made with local Alabama ingredients and peppered with dashes of global flavors. For instance, the original chicken and waffles can also be ordered “Hong Style,” with Alabamian honey-soy sauce syrup, crystalized ginger waffle and deep-fried chicken with Asian herbs and sesame seeds; or spice up your chicken and waffles with Nashville-style hot chicken. And for pure comfort food, try the “Not Your Mama’s Mac & Cheese,” with prosciutto, Fudge Farms bacon, pulled pork and crisp fried onions, or simply savor their famous meatloaf with all-natural Creekstone Farms beef and Beeler’s pure pork with red wine mushroom gravy and crispy onions served over smashed potatoes.
Each diner-style dish is taken to the next level with locally sourced and high-quality ingredients. The creative salads are anchored by organic, local lettuces and the creative appetizers do their job of awakening the appetite. All you have to do is read through them and your mouth will water: Hand-crafted tater tots with smoked tomato ketchup, housemade pimiento cheese with Tillamook white and yellow cheddar cheeses served with crunchy bread or slow-braised pork belly “Fancy Bacon” with bourbon-maple glaze over roasted corn grits. It’s a refreshingly new “classic diner” experience that emulates the unique culinary terrain of an emerging New South — a Southern culture that, to some people’s surprise, boasts impressively deep international roots.
The original John’s Restaurant was the brainchild of a hard-working visionary who was born in 1899 in Sparta in Laconia, Greece. At 15 years of age and alone, John Proferis emigrated to the United States, and in 1919, he landed in Birmingham, by way of New York City and Pennsylvania. The unstoppable young entrepreneur took cafe jobs, night courses in English, a wife and a job managing the massive cafeteria of the U.S. munitions plant in Childersburg during WWII. Then, in 1944, he opened his coup de grace, John’s Restaurant on 21st Street North. At one point, the 240-seat restaurant served upwards of 1,600 people a day. This meat-and-three eatery, which turned white-tablecloth each night, was a Birmingham landmark that, in its heyday, served the parents of the Baby Boomers trout almondine, prime rib, cornbread sticks and, of course, their famous “John’s Slaw” — finely shredded cabbage salad with John’s signature bright-red, French-style dressing.
The famous slaw is no longer in the restaurant, but the hungry patrons still line up. And with the new generation of customers and renovated interiors, such as the sleek bar area with TVs, comes a forward-thinking new business model. Shannon and Shana offer an annual specialty beer and wine event that is not to be missed, as well as a private dining room, which can seat more than 125 guests and features digital and video accommodations. Chef Shannon and his team, most of whom have been with him for five and even 10 years, can fully customize a menu for any occasion and any size, for in-house or off-site functions, including weddings and corporate events — not to mention their extensive contributions to and involvement in local charitable events.
“It’s really gratifying to look around our spot downtown and know that we were one of the first,” says Chef Shannon. “We came here when most went elsewhere. I think we helped kickstart the regrowth. We were downtown before being downtown was cool.”
The most visible change that Shannon made was adding the “It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham” mural on the side of the building, featuring the skyline from the John’s City Diner logo. The ’50s-era slogan, which is gaining popularity as the city’s resurgence comes into focus, seems to be a nod to downtown Birmingham’s bright past, the restaurant’s legendary history and John’s City Diner’s most promising future.
John’s City Diner is located at 112 Richard Arrington Blvd. N., Birmingham, AL 35203. Lunch is served Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and dinner is served Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and on Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. To book a catering event, the private room or to learn more, call (205) 322-6014 or visit johnscitydiner.com.
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