Gil Benjamin is hoping the Windsor Diner regulars will be able to appreciate Brussels sprout hash.
When the restaurant relaunches as "Johnny K's" in November, the sprouts will sit under a seared, lime-and-apricot-marinated salmon fillet – while the customers will sit on an open-windowed patio, or past the floor-to-ceiling waterfall in the entrance, or perhaps cozied up near the dual-sided see-through fireplace.
In other words, this ain't your mother's Windsor Diner.
Benjamin was hired by the Kallas family, who've owned the Windsor for 35 years now, to serve as executive chef and general manager, and to transform the landmark diner into something brand new – but with the trick of not changing it so much that their decades-earned customer base wouldn't recognize the place.
The new restaurant, named after patriarch John Kallas, will offer a heart healthy menu, tapas, an expanded wine list, two banquet/conference rooms, free WiFi, a high-tech sound system, a totally new interior and an updated exterior.
"No more greenhouse. No more leaks. Our regulars know we've always leaked," laughs Nick Kallas. "A lot of people are concerned about what’s going to happen to the diner. Everybody's curious, maybe some are a little scared, but it's going to be great. We're worried about how the regulars will handle the change, but we hope they'll see we're changing for the better."
Kallas's business partner/uncle Tom Milonas says he's been fending off rumors that Johnny K's will be a sports bar.
"We'll have a small bar with a TV, but it's not going to be anything like that and it's not going to be too fancy, either," says Kallas. "I like what Gil calls it – 'nice dining' but not 'fine dining.' We want to keep prices affordable and we want everyone to leave here happy."
And fear not, Clark, there will still be Saturday and Sunday's breakfast buffet – but with higher end and more choices, says Benjamin, plus carving stations, things made to order, eggs Benedict and more.
"We still want to be a family place," says Kallas. "We want the high school kids and the seniors. We want to have something for everyone."
Also, no menu item has increased by more than a dollar in price, says Benjamin, plus, all your Windsor favorite dishes will still be here. Any dish that they sold more than two of a day has made it onto the new menu.
"You have to understand the Greek style of restaurant management," says Benjamin. "They live to run their business, and that’s why they’re hugely successful. But when you concentrate so much of your effort on that, when you know your customers by first name, know their birthdays, you also don't have the opportunity to fully experience what rest of world is changing to. They've succeeded beyond all expectations, but the place is getting worn. Their last renovation was in the 80s and the competition has changed. They needed an outsider."
Benjamin is just that; he comes to Clark from Neptune, with 35 years of experience and several restaurant launches under his belt. He most recently worked at Beacon Street Grill in Neptune. Kallas and Milonas found him through friends of friends after interviewing some 40 candidates.
"I would call Johnny K's an American Contemporary restaurant," says Benjamin. "The menu will be heart healthy, food that’s good for you. A lot more seafood. Nothing frozen. What we want people to do is relax by the fireplace, unwind, hog a table, maybe have a bottle of wine and order off the tapas menu. Then if you feel like dinner, you can have dinner."
Benjamin says the menu will also offer more choices for burgers and a special short-rib, sirloin, tenderloin ground beef blend – plus homemade turkey, chicken, salmon and veggie burgers. "Not the veggie burgers you get at the grocery story that are like hockey pucks," he says.
Other highlights? Benjamin says seared mahi-mahi over a misu and heirloom tomato salad and of course the salmon with the Brussels sprout hash. See pictures of them and PDFs of some of Johnny K's menus in our gallery.
"I know it’s a landmark and everybody knows the Windsor," says Kallas, "but it was 35 years ago when they picked the name and went with a sort of English theme, the castle and sword, before the roof collapsed. This time, I wanted to honor my father and make it feel like it's truly my family's restaurant."
Kallas is shooting for a Nov. 1 opening and plans to donate opening day proceeds to charity. He says Johnny K's hours will likely be from 8 a.m. to midnight during the week and till 2 a.m. on weekends and they'll serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. He also plans to bring back entertainment, offering blues, jazz or comedy after 9 p.m. on select nights.
"What do I want people to say after they visit?" says Benjamin. "Thank you and we'll be back."
"I want people to know that we're still here," chimes in Kallas. "A lot of them think we left. We’re nervous. We hope we’re doing the right thing. Johnny K's is just the next generation. The Windsor Diner was here for 35 years, and I want Johnny K's to be here for the next 50 and to pass it down to our kids."