Three years ago I wrote that the re-opening of Johnny’s Reef restaurant on City Island in the Bronx signaled a return to normalcy after the deprivations of the pandemic. There, under blue skies and beside the lapping Long Island Sound, thousands of people come here every day and night to gather on the outdoor patio or under a new summer roof to feast on impeccably fresh seafood—steamed or fried, with corn on the cob, frothy piña coladas and ice cold Coronas.
Afterwards, some will head up to Orchard Beach for Salsa Sundays.
Having myself returned to Johnny’s last week, I found it as bustling as ever, set at the very tip of that remarkable one-mile finger of land jutting out into the Sound and within sight of the bridges and skyscrapers of Queens and Manhattan. City Island, called by the local Indian tribe Minnewits, is a still maritime neighborhood with 19th century captains’ and yachtsmen’s’ houses tucked along the main thoroughfare and side streets. It was here that from 1935 to 1980 a dozen America’s Cup yachts were built.
Johnny’s Reef was opened by the Karikas family in 1974 as an open-air seafood cafeteria of a kind now rare in New York or even New England. Open from March 1 till end the end of November, it is thronged by Bronxites—Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, Italians, Irish, Jewish, Albanian, Slovenian, as well as people from Manhattan, Queens, Westchester and Connecticut, along with foreign tourists who have heard about its All American largess. It is as close to being in a true melting pot as any institution in the five boroughs.
You can sit inside or under the canopy or in the sun after getting a tray and ordering from number of veteran counter men and women whose facility in getting your order to you within seconds has always amazed me for its efficiency and the guarantee, by virtue of turnover, of very fresh seafood. You get your drinks at another section—beers still go for just three to five bucks a bottle—and with your appetite in full tilt sit down to share your food with friends and family.
Johnny’s menu is long but focused: All the seafood may be ordered fried or steamed, from crisp, golden shrimp ($17) and scallops ($23) to fillet of sole ($17), porgy ($17), snapper ($22), whiting ($17), frogs legs ($12) and softshell crabs ($29). There also are Littleneck clams ($13 for a dozen), Cherrystones ($13), linguine with clams ($18), onion rings ($5) and a first-rate lobster roll ($24). There are also chicken wings ($13), fried chicken ($11) and a hamburger for five dollars. Having checked my article from three years ago, I see that most of these prices haven’t budged from 2020.
It’s always difficult for me to decide what to order, so I bring my family and one of us gets the sweet shrimp, another the sole, another the calamari—all come with a mountain of excellent French fries—but this year I ordered a lobster roll, which is actually two frankfurter rolls piled high with lobster meat, mayo and seasonings. At a time when a lot of places are charging upwards of $35 for a far lesser example, Johnny’s is an amazing bargain.
The secret of the fried items is in the delicate balance of batter to flesh so that the crisp, golden crust is not in the least oily and allows the true flavor and texture of the seafood to come through. This is especially true of the nonpareil onion rings: Bite into others’ and you often get oil-soaked batter with little taste of onion; bite into Johnny’s and the onion is sweet and has its own velvety chew.
The rest of the island has a slew of restaurant, mostly Italian, most serving seafood similar to Johnny’s but rarely with the same focus. They bank on banquet crowds and catering, and it too often shows in careless volume cooking. And every season there is turn-over. Still, there is the charming City Island Diner, done in clapboard and shingled roof, with a menu of America downhome fare like roast beef dinner, pastrami on rye, chili, meatloaf, a range of omelet and breakfast favorites. (It’s also open year-round.) There’s a modest Chinese eatery, as well as the handsome Ohana Japanese Hibachi Seafood Steakhouse. Ray’s Café has good Mexican fare, and The Black Whale is a comfortable tavern with outback patio evocative of the island’s seafaring heritage. If you’re in the mod for chicken and waffles, head for Archie’s. And everyone sooner or later drops into Lickety Split for its homemade ice creams and milk shakes.
I grew up just south of City Island, so it was very much a part of my family’s summer rituals. For anyone not as lucky, visiting this historic village across the bridge from New York’s largest park, Pelham Bay, puts any stereotypes of the Bronx to rest. Here, all is greenery and water, reeds and leaves, winding roads and Orchard Beach, boat slips and fishing docks. And Johnny’s is a very beloved part of all that.
Johnny’s Reef Restaurant is located at 2 City Island Avenue, Bronx NY. 718-885-2086. Open daily.