John’s Place, the oldest diner in Victoria

John’s Place, the oldest diner in Victoria

John Cantin is the founder of John’s Place, the first diner in Victoria. Opened in 1984, John’s Place started serving diner favourites like classic eggs bennies, bottomless soups, and the first Belgian waffles in Victoria. Once open for breakfast, lunch, supper and even brunch—John’s Place hosted sock hops on weekend evenings. Now, John’s Place is open from 7am to 3pm daily and has been serving some of the same classic diner food to the same customers with the same staff for almost 40 years. Adapting over time, John’s Place stays true to the diner mystique that it did from the time it opened. You may know John’s Place for its long lines of people waiting to get in, or from when it was featured on the television show You Gotta Eat Here.

The John’s Place Experience: 

John wants his customers to be welcomed like they would be welcomed by family. “The main thing is: How do you get welcomed at your aunt’s house?”  You may meet one of the full-time long-term servers Deborah and Liz, who have been staffed for 37 years. Quality checks by the staff are regular, as part of the unvarying policy since the opening. It’s a policy inspired by John’s mother, “if you didn’t like it, you aren’t paying for it. So, we take it off the bill, no charge.” John states. Deborah agrees with John’s commitment to the customers and says that’s what’s kept her working at John’s Place all these years. 

The food: 

John makes sure the restaurant serves classic diner foods, like the club or Reuben sandwiches. They’re the comfort foods he enjoyed growing up. “The items like that, I keep—they’re staples,” John says. John has been retired for 3 years. His son, Norm took over as manager, but John still watches over the cooks, manages reviews, and comes in once a week to create weekly specials from fresh ingredients picked up from local sources at the Root Cellar Village Green Grocer. Every weekday and weekend there are new specials, updated on John’s Place Facebook. The specials are inspired by his worldly travels from distinctive entrées to his brunch twists and homemade desserts, to weekly soups.

On weekdays John’s Place serves bread baskets loaded with Portofino Bread accompanied by real butter. These popular accompaniments complement the bottomless bowls of ever-changing vegetable and meat soups, which are homemade. Every weekday two new soups are created like a classic Italian minestrone along with Jonh’s personal creations like southern corned beef chowder.

On weekends, the lineups are longer as the specials change and a wider selection of brunch options are on the menu. The menu emphasizes the most important rule at John’s Place: quality ingredients, like free-run eggs and real butter. “I never used margarine, that’s just me. I couldn’t imagine,” John states, as he discloses that other restaurants might use half butter and half margarine in their dishes without customers knowing the difference. Another feature that sets John’s Place apart from other restaurants are the specific dishes made from scratch, like the savoury cornbread, hamburgers, and sausage. John emphasizes quality ingredients and is willing to pay the extra cost, rather than looking for the lowest prices. “Yeah, you have to,” he pauses, “Well no, I have to.”

John recently started selling a locally made baklava for Syrian immigrants who had requested that he sample it. “I don’t want you to come to teach me because I don’t have time, but I’d be more than happy to sell it for you here,” John recalls their conversation.  

The most popular items on the menu  

The Belgian Waffle. “One day… I made a special up for a weekend, and I mixed [cream cheese] with some maple syrup…now it’s a staple,” John reveals. This dish was highlighted on You Gotta Eat Here in 2011. After the diner was featured on the program, business blossomed and John’s place was more popular than ever. Norm, John’s son, recalls when John Catucci, the host of the show, came in and said“‘ this is exactly what I’m going for—like the local diner-style”, and that’s why we were on the premiere episode”. 

The beginning:

John’s chef journey began when he left Windsor, Ontario at the age of 17, to work as a helper at his brother-in-law’s restaurant in Detroit, Michigan. When he asked his brother-in-law about the chef’s livelihood, he replied, “It’s really not great, you don’t make a whole lot of money, but you can see the entire world for free”. John was hooked. After enrolling in Culinary School at Sinclair College, his culinary travels started taking off, from Banff, Toronto, and Quebec all the way to Germany and Jerusalem where he competed in the Food Olympics. At age 24, John landed his first job as a chef at a French restaurant in Santa Monica, California. That’s where he met his roommate, Joe. Joe was childhood friends with Howie Siegal, the current owner of Pagliacci’s in Victoria, BC. Howie invited Joe to open up a hamburger joint called “Little Sammy’s Fatburger” in downtown Victoria.

John decided to leave the US to help Joe open his new eatery. Every day on his way to work at Little Sammy’s Fatburger, John was attracted to one building as he walked along Pandora. He became enchanted by a boarded-up, 130-year-old heritage building. John decided to check it out, and called a friend in the real estate business, and asked to take a look inside. Once inside, John fell in love with the 25-foot ceilings and decided the place had a lot of potential. He applied for a lease – and before long, the place had John’s name on it. With the help of his friend Howie, from Pagliacci’s, John raised the money he needed and did all the preparations to open John’s Place. He recalls, “Immediately I went to him, and I couldn’t finish the line coming out—and he shook my hand and says, ‘partners’.” Howie came up with the name of ‘John’s Place’ right before the big opening. John has had partnerships in many restaurant ventures in the past but never had his own. The name John’s place fit perfectly. 

At age 28, John opened his first restaurant the third week of October in 1984. John was eager to give Victoria what it was missing—a diner-style restaurant. Slowly customers trickled in and soon became regulars—until John’s Place became the place to go for brunch.  

The walls:

After ten years of having only local art to fill naked walls, John decided to renovate and give the place a new appearance. John recalls, “When anybody came to John’s, they always felt like they were going to the rec room that they’d lived in—back in the old days, in the basement—that you put old pictures up everywhere.” John’s was creating its own identity. Pine boards were added to showcase old photographs, posters, celebrity photographs, and memorabilia to show just how moments and memories create a foundation for a family place like John’s Place. The largest piece of art in John’s Place is the memorial for John’s father. He had a local artist paint his father in Tiger Stadium, where he remembers spending his childhood and adolescence. “[My dad] never got to meet my kids, so I put the kids on his lap.” The journey and history of John’s life is the star of John’s Place’s identity. “I was twelve. For five years of my life, I’d go with my dad. So then when my dad passed away I wanted to do a memorial for him, so I did Tiger’s Stadium” 

“I didn’t want to work in a job where I never could enjoy my life—It was all work. My father, I watched him, he was a trucker for Ford motor company and hated his job. I never wanted to be like him and he wouldn’t let me.” When John was growing up, his father worked hard and consistently left his family to be on the road in order to keep his family living happy and this inspired John to dedicate his time, energy, and money into a place where people feel a sense of family. When it first opened, John’s Place was open 7am to 5 pm daily, and John worked every day for 3 months. “I drew a salary of $1500 a month. When things got tight I put a futon bed up in the office and stayed there”. When he opened up for the dinner crowd until 10pm, John hired more staff and started taking days off. As an owner and chef, John has worked hard for his family —and for everyone who walks into John’s Place. He’s carrying on this legacy from his father. 

Its identity

John believes that John’s Place is unique because it has personality. “It’s a character.  It’s got its own soul,”  he says proudly. “It’s something that grows, like your soul. You can’t duplicate it.” Customer’s become regulars who grow with John’s Place, as it remains true to its old soul’s roots and values as a 1980s diner. As John’s Place is constantly changing, readapting, and growing. Its menu, values, and the heart of the restaurant stay the same: it’s a family thing.  

John’s Place
723 Pandora Ave. 

Written by

Annika Olson

Intern at Tasting Victoria