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An iconic Los Angeles restaurant made famous as Frank Sinatra’s hangout is getting a dream revival. The catch? You have only two years to check it out.
Restaurateurs Hans Rockenwagner and Josiah Citrin have rebooted Culver City eatery Dear John’s with updated American fare. But when their lease expires in April 2021, the building will be razed to make way for new development.
"We saw the potential to have some fun," says Rockenwagner, characterizing the space as a time capsule. "There’s such a nostalgia about the place."
The two are acting as the final caretakers of the spot, which served as Hollywood’s hottest watering hole in the ’60s. Actor Johnny Harlowe originally opened it in 1962, reportedly with money from Ol’ Blue Eyes and strategically located close to Sony Studios on Culver Boulevard.
Despite an unassuming exterior, it soon became a watering-hole for the Hollywood elite, with Sinatra often in the corner playing the piano against the dark brick walls.
Rockenwagner and Citrin are staying true to the restaurant’s traditional chop house roots, with a menu featuring steaks, sand dabs (a type of fish), chicken parmesan, and iceberg wedge salads, along with old-school cocktails named for people and songs of the Rat Pack era.
“There’s certain touches to it that you can certainly sense that it’s an updated version, but it doesn’t sway too far from the classic,” Rockenwagner says.
For his part, Citrin hopes the spot can serve as a refreshing break from the constant innovation and trend-chasing in the L.A. restaurant scene.
“It’s so different from everything else going on,” he reflects, noting that creating the menu was the easiest and most fun part of the revival; he and Rockenwagner wrote it the first day they decided to team up.
“We’re not trying to do food that is mixing cultures and flavors. We’re just going back to the classic American food, but then using great California produce and meat.”
There’ll be a classic Caesar salad tossed tableside and creamed corn and spinach served as sides, along with sirloins, filets, and a 16-ounce prime New York strip steak.
Rockenwagner’s baked goods – breads, crackers, desserts – will have a prominent place, too. Cocktails are a bit more modern, including the “Hemingway,” with rum, grapefruit, maraschino, and lime, and the “I Get a Kick Out of You,” made with tequila, jalapeño, hibiscus passionfruit, and chartreuse.
Bringing it back
Rockenwagner wasn’t interested in doing a ’60s throwback when he was first offered the space by a friend who knows the owner.
He changed his mind after he and his wife Patti, an entertainment exec and partner in the endeavor, toured the eatery – located only five minutes from their house – and saw its potential. Plus, he says, it was the perfect chance to team up with Citrin, an L.A. dining scene veteran and owner of Santa Monica’s highly-acclaimed Mélisse and Charcoal Venice.
Getting the spot back in shape required minimal cosmetic tweaks to remove neon signage from the previous tenant, a mezcal-and-shrimp-taco joint named Lucky’s. (The original red-and-white Dear John’s sign had been left intact out of respect.)
To restore the ambience of the original restaurant, Patti Rockenwagner curated about 80 pieces of original 1950s and ’60s artwork from the collection of area gallerist Robert Berman – a mixture of portraits, abstract images, and scenery in deep, rich color. New, waist-high partitions give the tables the privacy of booths without taking up much space.
As for live entertainment, the owners are still figuring out the best configuration for the space, but they have a corner with piano and microphone ready for action. In the place’s heyday, Sinatra was known to play occasionally, and such famous friends as Gregg Allman, Chad Everett, and Barbra Streisand would stop in.
Hotelier and restauranteur Jeff Klein, known for the Sunset Tower Hotel on Sunset Strip, says he thinks Dear John’s will thrive in the city’s restaurant scene since there are so few old-school spots left. Still, the two-year window does seem short.
“I’m so impressed that the restaurateurs want to go to all this trouble for something that I don’t think will generate a large return for them financially,” he says. “They’re basically giving a gift.”
Rockenwagner and Citrin think the venture is worth the trouble: They got a low rent, compared to market value; there were few overhead costs since they didn’t need to do any construction work; and Dear John’s has a grandfathered liquor license. In addition, the space is small, so they didn’t need to hire much staff. Patti Rockenwagner says she thinks the place can be profitable if they budget well.
The two-year timeline does come with some advantages.
“In hindsight, it’s kind of marketing genius,” Rockenwagner says. “It makes people want it more.”