Open the front door of John’s Lunch on Pleasant Street, decaled over with a slew of Best of Halifax awards, and once you pass by the rows of red vinyl booths and galley kitchen—fries and haddock tips sizzling away in the deep fryer—you’ll come across a wall. It’s a narrow one, not much wider than three or four feet. You’ll know the one when you see it. Scrawled all over it, in pinks, purples, oranges and blues, are hundreds of messages from diners and well-wishers spanning from Sackville to Bronx, NY to Haida Gwaii, BC. “Best clams ever,” they say. “Thanks for all you have done.” “You will be missed.”
Co-owner Irene Baltas isn’t ready to read them all yet.
“When I really sit and think that it’s closing, it’s emotional,” she says, speaking with The Coast inside the restaurant she’s called home for the past 26 years. On Monday, Oct. 30, John’s Lunch will fire up its gas ranges one last time for lunch and dinner service. Then, a 54-year chapter closes. It’s already prompted floods of regulars who have come for one last meal of fish and chips, or Digby scallops or, yes, the clams. They all rave about the clams.
“We’re selling out of everything every day,” Baltas tells The Coast. “Just the stories people are telling us: One couple came in and said they had their first date here in 1970. A friend of mine, Tia, [told me] that every time she was sick as a little girl, her father would always stop here and get fries and gravy.”
“A friend of mine [told me] that every time she was sick as a little girl, her father would always stop here and get fries and gravy.”
Opened by John Sarganis in 1969, and long helmed by late restaurateur Fotis Fatouros, John’s Lunch became a popular Dartmouth haunt for fish and chips, as well as pizza, over the years. From 2011 until 2022, readers voted the restaurant the Best Fish & Chips gold-winner every year in The Coast’s annual Best of Halifax Readers’ Choice Awards. The restaurant took home Best Seafood honours from 2016 to 2019, and also appeared on John Catucci’s Big Food Bucket List on the Food Network.
Ask co-owner Katherine Hilchey about the secret to the restaurant’s longevity, and she’ll tell you it’s the way the food is prepared.
“We handcut our fish; we hand batter it and make it every day,” Hilchey told The Coast in 2022. “And if you’re using fresh product and new fresh fish, and you put a little bit of love into it, it comes out pretty darn good.”
It’s not an overly long story about why John’s Lunch is closing. It’s an all-too-common one, though: Business has become too expensive. In an industry where the margins are lettuce-leaf thin, the rising cost of food ingredients means the math just doesn’t add up like it used to. Take canola oil, Baltas says: In the last year alone, its cost rose “significantly” three times.
“You can’t change your menu prices three times in a year,” she adds.
Dennis Graham remembers the good times at John’s Lunch. Hired as a 20-year-old dishwasher in 1981, he eventually moved into the open kitchen—and then to the dish pit again—and finally, once more to the kitchen, where the soft-spoken, ponytailed cook has become something of a cult celebrity among the restaurant’s regulars.
“People will come in specifically for Dennis to make their clubhouse [sandwich] for them,” Baltas teases.
“As far as I can tell, I make them the same way as everybody else,” Graham shyly offers.
Both he and Baltas look back at the early 2000s as the best years of working at the restaurant. It was then that Baltas’s uncle, Stratos, co-owned John’s Lunch with Fatouros. Fotis’s sons, Tommy and Stephen—now of Pleasant Street Diner—worked in the kitchen with Graham. Baltas waited tables with her cousin Sophia.
“That was John’s Lunch, in my mind,” Baltas says. “That’s how I’ll always remember it.”
“Same for me,” Graham adds.
There was the time Hollywood actor Rob Lowe came into the restaurant. (“I didn’t recognize him at first,” Graham says.) There were NHL players. Former US president Barack Obama’s White House assistant chef, Sam Kass, ate at John’s Lunch. So did Saturday Night Live actor Kenan Thompson.
Baltas isn’t sure what will come after Monday. She and Hilchey still own the building and will have a decision to make about what to do with it. People have asked about franchising the restaurant before, she says, but she’s not interested.
“To me, this [place] is John’s Lunch,” Baltas tells The Coast.
At some point in the near future, there will be a staff party—and a half-century of stories to tell. But first, there are orders to take. Fish to cut and fry. Customers to serve. That, Baltas says, and a wall full of messages to read—but not until the doors have closed.
“That’ll be a Monday night thing.”