Part of the magic of longevity in the restaurant business is learning how to roll with the punches. Such is true of John Papas Café, the East Hampton diner that owner John Papas opened in 1992. On October 22, 2017, the restaurant suffered a devastating electrical fire, which gutted the kitchen. A report from the fire marshal concluded that the fire began with a malfunctioning steam table cord. The odds were not forever in their favor.
Still, through Hades and high water, Papas and his crew were able to rebuild, reopening the hailed establishment that December, two months post-catastrophe.
Prior to his tenure as a restaurant owner, Papas worked, for over a decade, at Estia’s (then in Amagansett, now in Sag Harbor on the Bridgehampton Turnpike). Before that, he cut his teeth at Bridgehampton’s Candy Kitchen, where he worked as a dishwasher.
East Hampton needed, it turns out, its own version of Estia’s or Candy Kitchen, a breakfast and lunch haunt suited to the appetites of average, everyday people. Faced with an uptick in upscale, it was incumbent on someone to embrace the reliably delicious, a job pretty well suited for greasy spoon veteran John Papas.
Yes, John Papas Café gets as busy as anywhere else in the summer months, but it’s also a respite, in winter, for hungry East Enders looking for a down-to-earth meal. And yes, you can expect to see celebrities hanging out here, too, casual ambience notwithstanding. The décor has not changed much since the restaurant’s inception (even the rebuild looks mostly the same), and the owner famously blames Alec Baldwin for this stuck-in-time nature of the beast. If it’s good enough for Papas regular Alec Baldwin, one must surmise that it’s good enough for anyone who isn’t Alec Baldwin.
Of course, John Papas Café offers far more than just American diner cuisine. Calling upon his roots, Papas includes a wide array of Greek specialties in his menu, including souvlaki, gyros, moussaka, spinach pie, pita pizzas, and, of course, Greek salads. These dishes are supplemented by traditional diner fare, of course: hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, BLTs, all manner of eggs cooked to one’s breakfast-sating desires, bacon, sausage, short stacks, and more.
At dinner time, an additional category, pasta, appears on the menu as well, as does shell steak, rib eye steak Diane, chopped steak, London broil, and other 1960s steakhouse classics. It would be nearly impossible to park oneself in a green booth and find nothing appealing to eat. In fact, too often, the opposite is true, as it is at most diners — there are so many choices, so how is one to choose?
But choose one must, although the good news is that you can always come back. That may be one lesson apparent in the café’s recent reinvention, post-fire. Even after the worst possible scenario has played out, John Papas Café rises like a phoenix from the ashes, dusting itself off and flipping those eggs in short order. The restaurant has been open nearly three decades, with no sign of slowing. The clientele, happy to wait in the crowded doorway for somewhere — anywhere! — to sit, still returns, week after week, to this, their favorite spot.
They come and they come back, regardless of the prices (this is the Hamptons, after all, and yes, you will pay $11 for an omelet, and that may or may not bother you). Alec Baldwin’s green booths have been replaced, of course. Such is the way of fires. The spirit inherent in John Papas Café, however, remains a true original.