The family behind It’s Italia has revived Original Johnny’s diner with a revamped menu and nods to the eatery’s history.
Half Moon Bay locals know that 547 Main St. has always been a diner. Throughout the years, the corner restaurant space has been home to a few different establishments and cycled through various owners, always serving traditional diner-style breakfast and lunch.
Vacant since fall of 2022, the new owners of the space — the restaurateurs behind It’s Italia, another downtown Half Moon Bay eatery — are bringing back a beloved institution for Coastside residents and visitors, simultaneously retaining a piece of Half Moon Bay history while putting their own modern twist on things. Seventeen years after its closure, Johnny’s is back.
The story of the downtown eatery dates back to the 1960s, when Half Moon Bay resident John Evan and his wife Fiorina oversaw the construction of the original building. John became the namesake of the restaurant, and they settled on the name Original Johnny’s, serving classic diner breakfast and lunch dishes.
The family business was passed down to John and Fiorina’s son Steve Evan, who operated the restaurant with his wife Ilva up until 2006. Under Steve and Ilva’s ownership, the restaurant was known for its pies that were popular with locals.
The restaurant’s new co-owner, Betsy del Fierro, moved to Half Moon Bay in 1997 and was a regular at Original Johnny’s.
“The whole community would come in and enjoy a good breakfast and homemade lunch,” del Fierro said. “It was where the community gathered.”
After the Evan family closed Original Johnny’s in 2006, local restaurant owner Bill Gevas took over and relocated his restaurant Main Street Grill in the space. The milkshakes, patty melts and classic menu items from Original Johnny’s lived on, and Gevas brought the jukebox from Main Street Grill’s original location with him. The eatery, which debuted in Half Moon Bay in 1983, unexpectedly closed last August after the building’s landlord did not renew the lease, according to the Half Moon Bay Review.
Del Fierro understood the impact of the loss of this longtime business on the community and wanted to take on the challenge of reviving the restaurant. Given her prior experience running It’s Italia since 1997 and her cherished family memories at Original Johnny’s, she signed the lease in September 2022 and began updating the space and menu.
“We wanted to honor the original and pay homage to the Evan family who built this iconic diner and let this be a metaphor for all of these other families who live in Half Moon Bay,” del Fierro said.
A passionate and dedicated team is essential when assuming the undertaking of renovating and reimagining a decades-old restaurant. Del Fierro’s two restaurants involve all members of her family: Her husband George serves as co-owner while daughters Maile and Camille are the executive chef and general manager. Growing up immersed in the restaurant industry helped del Fierro’s daughters develop the skill sets to operate restaurants despite a lack of formal culinary training, she said.
“Watching their skill sets blossom as a parent has been a thrill,” del Fierro said.
While del Fierro says operating two restaurants is both “scary” and “thrilling,” it has its benefits. It’s Italia marked its 25th anniversary last year, and with so many years behind it the Italian restaurant runs like a machine, del Fierro said. Since the eateries are just a block away from each other on Main Street, staff at Johnny’s can always grab ingredients or kitchen supplies from the It’s Italia kitchen if needed. The greatest challenge for the family was overcoming the long wait times to obtain proper permits for Johnny’s, which delayed their opening date for four months. Adjusting to breakfast service was another hurdle for del Fierro.
“I thought I was going to retire, but I find myself at 4 in the morning making pancakes,” del Fierro said about her new routine, which now involves making ricotta cheese from scratch for Johnny’s lemon ricotta pancakes.
The menu features a blend of new dishes and returning favorites from the Original Johnny’s menu and stays true to diner-style cuisine. Del Fierro obtained some original recipes from Steve and Ilva Evan as a way to carry on their legacy. The restaurant is still in its soft-opening phase, with new items added to the menu every week.
Currently, the breakfast menu includes lemon ricotta pancakes, bruleed French toast, eggs Benedict, chilaquiles, an omelet, a breakfast plate and a fried egg sandwich. Lunch offerings include a fried chicken sandwich, pastrami melt, hot dog, smash burger, grilled cheese, cobb salad and a poached chicken plate. A diner meal would not be complete without shakes and sweet treats: A chocolate sundae, banana split, root beer floats, milkshakes and scoops of ice cream are on the dessert menu. In memory of Ilva Evan, slices of rotating pie flavors also earned a spot among the dessert options.
An abundance of farms on the Coastside means the produce featured in dishes at Johnny’s only travels a few miles before it’s added to salads and omelets. Del Fierro used the network of farms with which she developed professional relationships when she opened It’s Italia to source ingredients for the Original Johnny’s menu. Half Moon Bay-based farm Daylight Farms provides fresh herbs that are sprinkled atop dishes like Johnny’s Chilaquiles, while the artichokes featured in the Sister’s Omelet are sourced from Cabrillo Farms in Moss Beach.
Half Moon Bay-based designer Kristi Will dreamed up the crisp and colorful interior design for Johnny’s with the hope of keeping some original elements from the building’s prior tenants while giving the restaurant some much-needed modernization. Will kept the blue leather booths from Main Street Grill, brightened up the space with custom white wallpaper decorated with Johnny’s hummingbird motif and installed blue mosaic tiling inspired by Half Moon Bay’s beaches. Black-and-white checkerboard flooring and yellow leather diner-style chairs give Johnny’s the nostalgic diner aesthetic that del Fierro was looking for. The space has been transformed, but locals can still sit at their favorite booth and reminisce about dining at Main Street Grill and Original Johnny’s. In a nod to the Evan family, the Original Johnny’s sign was salvaged and now hangs outside the entrance as a piece of Half Moon Bay history.
Johnny’s plans to introduce its full menu and host a grand opening on Friday, Aug. 5. Del Fierro hopes to incorporate some of the restaurant’s neighbors, such as Gulino Gelato, during this event to further support fellow small businesses in the area.
“It’s important to hold hands with our neighbors and our community as we move forward together,” del Fierro said.
Johnny’s, 547 Main St., Half Moon Bay. Instagram: @johnnyshmb. Open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.