jahns
The last location of Jahn's — est. 1897 — is in Queens. Photo: Molly Tavoletti

The ClassicsNew York

The Queens Diner That Has Provided Six Decades of Memories For Its Regulars

By

There are two things that almost always come up whenever you mention Jahn’s — pronounced like Dan’s, but with a J. The first one involves a behemoth sundae, called The Kitchen Sink, made with more than two dozen scoops of ice cream, slathered in whipped cream, and topped with maraschino cherries, sprinkles, and a sugar cookie, lit ablaze for effect. They say it feeds eight, but the truth is probably closer to 24. 

The other thing that also comes up is that this Jahn’s is an endling. The 61-year-old restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, is the last known specimen of a chain of ice cream parlors originally founded by German immigrants in 1897 in the Bronx.

At one point, there were nearly 30 Jahn’s spread out across New York, New Jersey, and even Florida. But today, and since 2007, the only one that remains is in Queens, just a few blocks away from where I’ve lived for the past six years. 

For me, Jahn’s is the faithful spot that still feels like it’s from another era. A place where I can always grab a seat at the counter, under the Tiffany-style lamps, for a weekend breakfast of over-medium eggs, potatoes, and bacon, along with an endlessly refilled cup of coffee. Where I can always slip into one of the bright red, diamond-tufted booths for an after-dinner dessert of apple pie à la mode. 

But for many thousands of others — including owners Nick Moukas and his brother, Peter — Jahn’s has been the place where they have celebrated birthdays, reunions, graduations, Little League games won and lost, proms, and so much more for six decades. 

Memories like Mihaela Serbanescu’s. “We are a family of immigrants and we’ve lived in Jackson Heights since 2000,” she wrote. “We discovered Jahn’s later, after our second son was born, and we made a tradition out of going there every Saturday morning for breakfast. We would have a quiet, nice meal, and a good time to talk with our boys. Some days, they would each bring a book to read, and even if there wasn’t much talk, it was a great time together. Now, when they are back from college, we go there and eat.”

New York University professor Suketu Mehta, whose family immigrated to Jackson Heights from Mumbai in 1977, said that for him and his family, the Kitchen Sink at Jahn’s represents “the promise of the New World” for much of Jackson Heights’ immigrant community.

For Rebecca Blackwell, Jahn’s was the scene of her first lunch out without her parents. “I felt so grown up.” And it’s still a place she returns to now as an adult. Blackwell lived in Jackson Heights from 1975 to 1992, and again from 1999 to 2007, before moving to the suburbs. “I miss Jackson Heights terribly and visit every chance I get.” On a recent visit to Jahn’s with her best friend and their children,  she says, “The owners were as welcoming as they were back in the day and our kids loved the burger, fries and most especially the sundaes.” 

Or the upstate couple who, years ago on a cold Saturday night in February, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by going to Jahn’s and ordering the exact same things they ate on their very first date at Jahn’s in Brooklyn: a banana split and a hot fudge sundae. “They found out one still existed so they drove down,” Nick recalls. “They had 50 beautiful years together. It touches you. It made a lot of memories for a lot of people.”

The chicken nuggets were the big draw for Maria Jacome-Durand’s son some 20 years ago, who also “loved going up to the register to pay the bill because the person behind the register always made a big deal that he was ‘treating’ his parents.” She, her son, and her husband were once featured in a calendar that the restaurant used to give out each year, which had photos of regulars. 

As a child, James McMenamin, a lifelong Elmhurst resident who’s now VP of the Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society, grew up going to Jahn’s with his mother and sisters in the 1970s. “Times were far different in the 1970’s — the community, the familiar spots in the neighborhood, etc. — but here in 2020, one thing remains constant: Jahn’s,” McMenamin wrote. “I’ve come by a few times during the pandemic and ordered takeout, and entering that door, and approaching that counter still fills me with a sense of the past and a misty sense of belonging.” 

***

That this particular Jahn’s has managed to be the chain’s sole survivor is because Nick and Peter’s father, Tom, was determined to change with the times to keep the business alive. Tom bought Jahn’s in 1970, after working at the restaurant, a franchised location, since 1960 as a waiter. Both Nick and Peter worked at Jahn’s as teens and returned to work at the restaurant as adults.

When ice cream sales sank in the 1980’s, Tom decided to transition his Jahn’s from an ice cream parlor into more of a diner, serving everything from breakfast to Greek specialties like spanakopita and pastitsio (he was born in Ikaros and immigrated to Chicago in the 1940s). Tom retired in the late ’90s and since then, Nick and Peter have shared management of the restaurant, but Tom still visits the restaurant from time to time.

The pandemic has also forced Jahn’s to change with the times, to adjust with outdoor dining and more limited hours. And to contend with so much loss, both of beloved regulars and of fellow restaurant workers in the neighborhood.

“We know quite a few customers who passed and people who lived in the neighborhood who passed,” Nick tells me. “There’s a Colombian bakery restaurant next to me [La Casa de Los Antojitos]; the owner of that place passed away. Across the street, the shipping place, that owner passed away. The delivery guy from the Colombian steakhouse, a really nice young guy, late 20s, early 30s. He passed away. It hit hard.”

Still, Jahn’s stayed open, even as the coronavirus outbreak hit Jackson Heights and neighboring Corona and Elmhurst particularly hard. 

“Some customers never stopped,” says Nick. “They kept coming in. ‘Anything I can do?’ Thanking us for being open. It means a lot.” 

When I ask Nick how he feels about the future of Jahn’s, and how it was already a challenge for diners — with their extensive operating hours and even more extensive menus — to survive, he says, “It’s getting harder and harder to run but, you know, we’ve been doing it for years. I look at it like we’re still around because we’ve been doing things right.” 

He admitted that it’s not always easy. “You hope you do the right thing. We’re human, we make mistakes sometimes, too,” he says at one point.  

Despite all the challenges, Nick says he is still committed to keeping Jahn’s around for at least as long as he’s able to. 

“I love being with people,” he says. “It’s exciting. You never know what the day has in store for you. You tell your stories, people tell their stories. It’s nice. You know what I mean? It’s like you know, in your profession, how many people do you interact with during a day? For mine it might be hundreds. They’ll tell you some beautiful stories and some great memories.”

***

Jahn’s: 8104 37th Ave., Queens

Deanna Ting is a Resy staff writer. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow @Resy, too. 

Discover More in Local Scene