[Sidebar] April 2 - 9, 1998
[Food Reviews]
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Johnny B's

Down-home funkiness, and an out-of-this world brunch

by Bill Rodriguez

1388 Cranston St., Cranston, 944-4650
Open Tues-Fri, 7 a.m.-2 p.m.
Sat & Sun, 7 a.m.-1 p.m.
No credit cards
No access

The first time I heard of Johnny B's Diner, Gary, my friend and fellow food maven, was looking stricken. "They stopped serving dinners at Johnny B's," he exclaimed in not quite a keening cry. (Still, I must admit that the image of him beating his breast in sackcloth and ashes did flicker to mind.)

It seems the owners of the tiny building that houses Johnny B's were opposed to the wine and Demon Beer patrons were bringing in. So they told the proprietors to stop the practice, and, as a result, no more dinners on Friday and Saturday evenings at Johnny B's.

At one time, John Esposito had waited tables and David Baccari had chefed at the modest but first-rate Plaza Grille on Federal Hill. Now, at the Cranston diner they opened in 1990, modesty has been replaced with downright funkiness. (The restaurant is named after Johnny Baccari, David's father, by the way.)

On the night we visited, John was handing out leftover Xmas candies at the door, and we felt like we were walking into a scene out of Big Night Meets The Wizard of Oz. Knotty pine walls were decorated with everything from turn-of-the-century wedding photos and an autographed Connie Francis publicity shot to a poster-sized Kate Smith picture and a 1940s pinup calendar. Prior to our visit, we'd been informed by fellow brunch supplicants that on weekends, it was unusual not to find a line. And before we even tasted a bite, we understood why.

As our luck would have it, we were seated within 10 minutes beneath a white plastic polar bear head sporting a tiny blue cowboy hat and Mardi Gras beads. Weekend-only brunch choices were on a nearby chalkboard, most costing only about $6. These included such interesting-sounding possibilities as French toast on custard with raspberry sauce and such welcome standards as a Greek omelet with Feta and spinach.

I had an omelet ($6.25) that was packed with leeks and potatoes and topped with Provolone and, wonder of wonders, rich and tangy sun-dried tomato sauce. But despite my satisfaction with my choice, I would have derived even more pleasure from my partner's strata with chicken sausage ($6.25).

She pronounced the dish "very sausagey" with spices. And the strata itself was a savory fried bread -- a kind of French toast that was herbed and spiced rather than sweetened. On both plates, the home fries were as we like them, with lots of crispy bits.

Weekend brunch is all day, with no lunches served, but sometimes brunch items are available into the week at breakfast and lunch, until fixings run out. Satisfied as we were with the brunch, we couldn't not come back to check out their lunch opportunities.

Having been tipped off by a few previous patrons, we knew to sit at the enameled metal table at the end of the room, where regulars have taken to leaving and exchanging messages in the two drawers. "Have you guys seen Huntley?" one inquires. On the back of another piece of paper torn from a placemat, a SBF was looking for love.

And for interesting food, I bet. The corn chowder ($1.50/$2.50) here was milky rather than creamy, with an elusively pleasant undertaste. And when I asked our waitress, Lynn, what regulars

especially liked, she said the grilled chicken ($4.95).

Bingo. Lynn had made little lip-smacking sounds as she'd mentioned the roasted peppers and Provolone, and I knew that she was a good and decent person. Indeed, the chicken was delicious -- juicy and wonderfully smoky. (It's a charbroil gas grill, using briquettes.)

My partner had the fish & chips ($5.25), which had one piece of lightly battered cod and a nice and sweet coleslaw.

And you gotta love a place that has the following request on its menu: "Limiting or omitting the use of tobacco is often appreciated" rather than an outright ban. When you see guilt versus edict being employed for moral persuasion, you know the cooks have been raised in the right kitchens.

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