Burger lovers may never agree on what makes the “perfect” burger “perfect.” (If you ask me, it’s a thin patty with craggy, charred edges, expertly flipped on a flattop and stacked high with accoutrements). But most East Enders will agree that John’s Drive-In — Montauk’s ode to ’50s- and ’60s-style “fast” food — serves up a great specimen, nonetheless.
The restaurant, which operates from the western end of Montauk’s main drag (read: Main Street), opened in 1967, the pet project of original owner John Torr. At its inception, the building, which has since seen renovations, none of which have been recent, was designed to resemble Carvel, although soft-serve isn’t the town favorite here. A few round tables stud the parking lot, but the majority of the restaurant’s seating consists of orange plastic booths tucked to one side of the restaurant. The other side is designed for waiting in line.
And wait in line — in season, at least — you must. You also must bring cash, since John’s operates in that old school currency. In 1985, John Torr sold his business to current owners Maureen and David Rutkowski. (Actually, the Rutkowskis owned the business until 2003, sold it, and then purchased it back in 2016). The Rutkowskis met at the restaurant, in fact, finally marrying in 1998.
John Torr, as it happens, was a Montauk restaurateur legend in his own right. In addition to the iconic John’s, he also opened the Crow’s Nest (once famous for its installed fish tank, the property sold to hotelier Sean MacPherson in 2009, and retains the same name) and the Montauk IGA grocery store (originally called the Sunbeam Supermarket). His impact, however, is most readily seen in John’s Drive-In, which had, debatably, the most lasting community impact.
John’s, once a seasonal joint, is now open year-round, and is, for the record, one of the latest-serving restaurants in Montauk, slinging burgers until midnight in summer, competing only with Pizza Village, the toaster oven at Liar’s, and the local 7-Eleven. When — and not if — you go, abide by the rules. Don’t linger in line, reading the signs. Commit to your order before you get to the front, or a surly cashier will sigh in exasperation. It has been a long summer, after all.
Any of the burgers are safe bets, though I’d place my money on the Big John, a six-ounce patty, craggy like I like it, served with lettuce, onion, and special sauce, and, for a few bucks extra, American cheese and bacon. French fries might feel obligatory, so skip them if you must, but do not skip dessert.
Yes, there is soft-serve, but don’t order it. Save the calories for the homemade hard stuff, where you’ll find mostly classic flavors: mint chocolate chip, coffee, Kahlua chip, strawberry, butter pecan, and cherry vanilla are some of the offerings. Shakes are a good compromise, and arrive extra-thick. And for those celebrating a summer birthday (guilty-as-charged), John’s makes homemade ice cream cakes to order. They’re available in three sizes: small, large, and, for just over $50, monster. A freezer case in the restaurant’s front also displays flying saucers —chocolate, vanilla, or mint soft serve sandwiched between soft chocolate cookies. They’re serviceable, and great for keeping in one’s freezer in case of an emergency.
If you’re not the plastic booth type, grab your burger to go. A paper bag makes the perfect receptacle when you’re chasing the sunset. Right down from the Montauket, there’s a bench overlooking the bay. I can’t think of a better place in Montauk to enjoy the most casual, satisfying meal on the East End.
Each week The Independent features a local restaurant that has stood the test of time. Each restaurant has been open for over a decade.