Named after the late golden age actor Johnny Harlowe — its original proprietor — Dear John’s opened in 1962, was famously frequented by Frank Sinatra, and endured a successful several-decades-long run as a West side Hollywood haunt. Then in the ‘80s, Harlowe sold his Culver City steakhouse and the restaurant faltered under new management.
Dear John’s was all but in the books by the time hospitality vets Patti and Hans Röckenwagner came into the picture in 2019. Given the opportunity to resurrect the iconic institution, they dove in headfirst, bringing Michelin-starred chef Josiah Citrin along for the ride.
The only caveat? The revamp would be short-lived — developers had purchased the lot and were scheduled to bulldoze it in early 2021. Although the pandemic bought the Dear John’s crew some extra time (they recently extended their lease through April 2023), the clock is still ticking.
With a year left on the lease, here’s a peek behind the curtains of the Dear John’s revival. (Psst: go while you still can.)
Patti Röckenwagner, owner: Hans and I were not looking for a project. A friend of a friend who knew the landlord suggested we should look at the space. We took one look and fell in love. There aren’t a lot of original spaces like this in L.A., sadly — don’t we all wish someone had revived the Brown Derby or Perino’s or Scandia? — so when given the opportunity to be a part of L.A. history, we really wanted to honor it.
Josiah Citrin, co-chef and owner: I never actually went [to Dear John’s] — it was kind of out of my area when I was growing up — but I remember driving by and thinking it was the coolest-looking place ever.
Hank Kelly, dining room captain: I worked at Vito’s [in Santa Monica] for 20 years, I basically ran the place for them. I was their manager, I did all their wine buying, all their liquor buying. I thought I had really peaked at Vito’s, as far as what it had taught me. Josiah Citrin used to come in and I used to take care of him, and one night he said, “I might have something I’d like to talk to you about.” So, a two-star Michelin chef wants to talk about being his dining room captain? I mean, that opportunity doesn’t come along every day.
Vicki Fan, general manager: I’ve been in L.A. for almost 30 years. I’ve been executive chef before, I’ve been a front-of-house manager before, and I actually worked for Josiah at two different locations, at two different time periods. Interestingly enough, my husband and I owned our own restaurant in Culver City for seven years, called Beacon. And we’ve opened a ton of restaurants in Paris, New York, Hawaii, L.A. …. So when Hans approached me and mentioned that he was going to open another restaurant, and that it was a steakhouse, and said he might need some help, I was like, wait, that’s fantastic. I love doing openings, as crazy as they can be. It’s like producing a Broadway show. It really keeps you on your toes.
Patti Röckenwagner: We knew we would be the final stewards of Dear John’s and as such, we intended to give it the Hollywood ending it deserves. We tried to keep or restore everything back to what we imagined Dear John’s was like in the ‘60s — the dark room, the old-school menu, the cocktail selection… We kept everything essentially the same except the kitchen equipment, which needed upgrading.
Vicki Fan: We all really understood that we wanted to keep the tradition of Dear John’s alive, because there’s so much history here, and there aren’t many restaurants like it on the West side. So we were all very aware that this was a gem, as it was. It was faster than any opening I’ve ever done in terms of preparation. But also, it just took off.
Patti Röckenwagner: Hans and Josiah literally came up with the menu in under an hour — and not much of it has changed since we opened. It is exactly what you would expect of a classic American steakhouse and a near-replica of the original Dear John’s menu. The two departures are… we’re told the original had frogs’ legs. We tried a few iterations but didn’t think they were delicious enough to add to the menu. The other one is the addition of the Bougie Tots. It came about because we loved the idea of adding a classic caviar dish to the lineup but instead of blinis, we wanted to use tater tots as a more playful nod to ‘60s Americana. We added JLC to the dish because it’s our close friend and Hollywood icon Jamie Lee Curtis’ favorite dish.
Josiah Citrin: We just said, “what’s our favorite stuff to eat at an old-school steakhouse?” If I’m in Indianapolis I’ll try to eat at St. Elmo’s, or if I’m in New York I’ll go eat at Keens or Sparks. Wherever I am, I try to find that institutional steakhouse that’s been there forever. Every city has one.
Vicki Fan: I had to retrain my brain a little bit to really focus on simplicity. We’re not trying to reinvent the martini with molecular gastronomy — we just want good, ice-cold martinis. Glasses perfectly chilled. Everybody makes the martini exactly the same here. There’s no free-pouring at the bar. Even the old-time bartenders who had a ton of experience that we hired understood it. If Joe makes a drink on Monday, it should be the same as Sam makes the drink on Friday.
Dear John’s: It’s the Little Things
Patti Röckenwagner: Ours is two spritzes of dry vermouth from a spray bottle, three ounces of gin or vodka, stirred. Our ice is chainsawed in-house from a 300-pound clear block and the olives come from Adams Olive Ranch in Santa Barbara.
Josiah Citrin: Everything has a little twist to it. In the shrimp cocktail, the sauce has piquillo peppers and Calabrian chiles, and still a very strong horseradish. The oysters Rockefeller has beer and cheese.
Patti Röckenwagner: [The chicken Parm is] one of our most popular dishes, it’s very cinematic. I’ve seen more than my fair share of posts of people cutting it through the middle, so the cheese and marinara ooze out. We opted for the classic, bone-in Kiev style chicken Parm as it’s less readily available on menus today, and we preferred its presentation to the usual sauce-and-cheese-drenched plate.
Josiah Citrin: To me, whenever you get chicken Parm, the first two bites are great, and then it’s like a clump of blegh. [So I thought] how do you make it so you have just enough cheese, just enough tomato sauce? Because usually, it’s so much.
Hank Kelly: I go into every service with the attitude that it’s a performance. Everyone’s a player, everyone has their own personality, which we encourage, you know, to try to get to know your tables. Not everybody wants to have a conversation with the waiter, you’ve got to feel things out. So even though we’re serving the same food every night, it’s kind of like being on stage. You never know the audience. Some nights you do a play and you get a laugh with one line, then the next night you don’t get any laughs at all. When people are happy with the dinner, when they’re leaving and they say, “I can’t wait to come back here,” you feel fulfilled, like they’re giving you a standing ovation.
Josiah Citrin: I’ve been doing this in L.A. for so long, but this is the first restaurant I’ve had that has so much to do with vibe, and not just the food. It’s very exciting to see how excited people are when they come, that they have this place to hang out that’s like a clubhouse. They’re so animated, it just makes me really smile when I walk in to see everyone having such a good time — loving the food, but also the vibe, and getting lost in time. If you’re having a bad day, you walk into Dear John’s, sit down for dinner, and instantly you’ll have a smile on your face. You’re transported.
Patti Röckenwagner: We added lots of artwork, which are all original paintings from the ‘50s and ‘60s. And we hung blackout velvet curtains at the entrance and hallway to the restrooms to cocoon the room. The idea was to soften the dark room and give it texture. There’s always a fine line between paying tribute to the past and crossing over to being kitschy or cartoony. So we really embraced the “what’s old is new again” mantra. Everything — from the music, the font we use on the menus, the oil-burning candles on the tables, the old-school cocktail menu — is intended to stay on point.
Hank Kelly: The tableside Caesar salad is kind of a lost art. Josiah and Hans’ attention to detail means everything’s measured to the gram, so we have consistency across the dining room whether it’s me making the salad or someone else. We don’t want [customers] to say, “Well, when he makes my salad it tastes better,” although some people do say that, but it’s a matter of opinion, you know? I am in a tux so that gives a different feel to it, they probably think “Oh, the head honcho is making our Caesar.” I’ve been making Caesar for a long time, and I can do it from scratch without anything pre-measured out for me.
Patti Röckenwagner: The first Caesar he ever made was at his uncle’s café when he was seven years old! He’s been tossing Caesars for more than 50 years!
Hank Kelly: We had a lot of celebrities prior to when the pandemic hit, we were sold out every night, packed to the bar every night. I still feel that there are people who are a little hesitant to sit inside or crowd a bar. We’re lucky we have the outside patio, too. The outside’s great but it doesn’t have the vibe that the inside gives, you know? I mean, we tried to recreate it outside with the artwork and stuff like that, but it’s just the charm of that room — that very dimly lit room, with the perfect bar, with the perfect view into the dining room.
Vicki Fan: I call Hank “the man.” He is there every night at Dear John’s, he’s the man in the tux. And he adds that feeling of old-school charm to Dear John’s. He’s like a big teddy bear. Dear John’s wouldn’t be the same without him.
Hank Kelly: I did take care of Frank Sinatra. Before I worked at Vito’s, I worked at a place in Beverly Hills [called La Famiglia] for a couple of years. I used to take care of Dean Martin a lot too. I know that whole Rat Pack vibe, I had Sammy [Davis Jr.], Sinatra, and Dean Martin one night when Sammy was on his last legs, so to speak. You know, he was diagnosed with the cancer and stuff like that.
Patti Röckenwagner: [Old regulars] were the cohort of customers we were the most concerned about initially. It’s hard for people to adjust to change and sometimes memories of places or things far exceed reality. Happily, the regulars approved. The best compliment we received was, “it’s as welcoming as it ever was, except now the food is good.” What’s great is this group has turned out to be the most loyal, especially through the height of the pandemic. I almost started crying when I saw on Instagram a party of 10 who ordered their dinner for pick-up and had a group Zoom dinner with backgrounds they made from their favorite seats at Dear John’s.
Vicki Fan: One lady came in this month, we started chatting, and she said, “You know, this is the first time I’ve been back to Dear John’s in quite a few years because this was my husband’s favorite haunt. He passed away and I couldn’t imagine myself coming back here without him.” She told me, “He would’ve loved it, tonight was perfect.” You hear stories like that and you see her get teary-eyed and it’s just like, wow, this place is not just a restaurant, it really is a part of people’s history.
Hank Kelly: Just recently, we had The Weeknd in and someone from Billboard Magazine was with him. Julian, I think his name is Julian [Holguin]. And he said The Weeknd loves this place.
Patti Röckenwagner: We have developed a loyal following so when it’s time to go, we think we can move the party. We’re doing some scouting now … more to come.