Johnny's Lunch Box may be the next legendary Oklahoma City site facing an uncertain future.
The restaurant, which dates back to 1929, is a favorite among legislators, city council members, mayors, business executives and the many construction workers rebuilding downtown.
“You can get vegetables there, you can get a balanced meal,” said former Mayor Kirk Humphreys, one of the many regulars at the Lunch Box. “It's quick, and I love the atmosphere.”
It's a place, Humphreys noted, where a long table is reserved for veteran
“You've got to be invited to sit there,” Humphreys said. “So ... you have high-powered professionals and just the man off the street.”
Those customers ordered their favorites on Tuesday — the corn beef sandwiches, garlic lemon chicken, homemade pie — unaware that the eatery may have just a few weeks left before it closes.
Owner Joe Johnston is hoping to avoid that fate, but admits he has no easy answers in sight.
When Nick Preftakes bought the building at 423 W Sheridan Ave. a couple of years ago, he told The Oklahoman he had no intention of being the one to close the restaurant.
But Johnston is looking at moving or closing as the lease expires in December with no apparent opportunity to stay in the current location.
Coincidentally, it was one decade ago that Johnston bought the restaurant after it was about to be closed by its longtime owner Aristotle “Johnny” Papahronis.
“When we bought it 10 years ago it was an icon and a legendary location,” Johnston said. “And it's even more so today. And we think it can go a lot longer.”
Broker Bert Belanger is among the few longtime customers who know about the restaurant's murky future, and is hoping it won't close for good. He recently contacted property owners throughout downtown hoping to find the Lunch Box a new home.
“It's an iconic place for those of us who have spent any time downtown in the '70s, '80s, '90s or even earlier,” Belanger said. “Joe has been able to preserve the feel and the quality of the food — and the secret recipes.”
The restaurant is a throwback to the old buffeterias — restaurants that had limited cafeteria style service, but also made-to-order sandwiches and grill items.
Booths dating back decades line the restaurant's entryway, and photos of downtown of old adorn the walls.
Johnston, a veteran in the restaurant industry who started Chi-Chi's, said business has been good despite surrounding streets being under construction as part of Project 180. He believes the customers will follow the restaurant if it reopens in a new location.
“We historically have done well,” Johnston said. “If you concentrate on the quality of the food, everything else takes care of itself. And that's what we've done.”
Johnston ruefully recalls how customers lined the block when it appeared the restaurant was about to close a decade ago when Papahronis was unable to run the restaurant full time.
“It was a big deal,” Johnston said. “And regardless of what happens this time, we plan to celebrate the life of the restaurant. Whatever it takes to show, we will want to show how much we appreciate this business.”
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