Richard Nixon was president, and was making news for pulling U.S. troops out of Vietnam when John Giragos opened a diner on the beach in Lake Worth.
It was 1973, and Giragos had moved his family from Michigan to Lake Worth. Not much was at the Lake Worth Casino at the time; the pool and beach were the big draws. He bought a failing restaurant, and without ever having been in the food service business, went to work to open John G’s On the Beach, and enlisted his kids to help.
At first, he tried to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Over the years, realizing dinner wasn’t making as much as the breakfast and lunch, but requiring twice the work, he quit the evening meal service and “had a family life” by closing at 3 p.m.
Serving home-cooking style foods he grew up with – Detroit sliders, Greek salads and shrimp scampi – the restaurant eventually gained a following. Over the years, a Palm Beach style gazpacho, always-sold-out seafood chowder (Fridays only) and nut-crusted French toast have wooed locals and tourists alike.
Their award-winning fish and chips (fried or broiled; regular or petite), a corned beef brisket, and quarter-pound hot dogs are on the menu. Seafood Newburg en casserole is here, with clam strips, some scallop dishes and chili.
Fresh, gorgeous roses are on the tables – another little “extra;” they’re delivered from Miami twice a week.
What you won’t find here is dessert. Ever. Giragos, in an interview for their 25th anniversary, told me why: “Oh no – never. I want to turn the tables, that’s why! I wouldn’t serve coffee if I could get away with it, but we have breakfast, so you have to have coffee.”
He also wouldn’t go for credit cards. “Too much hassle,” he said, plus he wanted the service fees they would have charged to stay in his cash register.
A landmark restaurant
Cash-only didn’t deter his customers. John G’s became a destination – for tourists and locals alike. The crowds for years moved in and out as the tide ebbed and flowed outside. Older longtime customers whose photos were on the wall passed away. Their kids replaced them. The mayor held brief meet-ups for breakfast here – but he had to wait in line for Wendy Yarbrough, John’s daughter and general manager, to call him just like all the others. TV personalities, athletes – didn’t matter. “Wait your turn.” It was understood. The ones on line were polite, remarkably, many giving up their places for those on walkers – and with value prices and consistent quality, there were plenty of senior diners.
The popularity of the one-room eatery kept growing and the lines, especially on weekends, got much longer. Ten years after opening, a small room was added to the south – with a counter and walk-up window for fish-to-go boxes. Two pieces of fried fish and two corn fritters: a beach picnic for $4.
Finally, the casino allowed Giragos to add a patio – outdoor dining, closed in with removable windows, so the line and beach dunes were visible from your seat. Still, it meant even more diners, and lines continued to wrap around the building. “Only 20 minutes today – we’re lucky,” waiting diners would say. A bench held those with walkers. It was understood that being at the front of the line didn’t mean you got the next table, either. Diners were called according to how many were in the party and what tables were available.
Kids take over
In later years, Giragos wanted to slow down, and handed over management to three of his six kids - Yarbrough took over all the front of the house, and her brothers Keith and Jay manned the stoves. Their dad could be found at the counter, greeting his golf buddies, or behind the register (cash-only, please!) or walking along the line handing out chocolate dipped pineapple and strawberries to grateful diners.
Giragos passed away in 2010 just as the Lake Worth Casino building was about to be rebuilt. John G’s had to move, at least temporarily. They found a spot in Plaza del Mar, Manalapan, directly across from the Ritz-Carlton (presently called Eau Palm Beach) and reopened in 2011. Crowds quickly found them, and they’ve now got the same lines outside as before. An extra 60 seats means they’re packing that many more John G’s fans in as before. Parking is free, too – a bonus.
The Lantana bridge, closed for rebuilding, is scheduled to reopen this year, and that’s going to bring everyone back, Yarbrough said, fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, the Giragos kids keep at it, greeting everyone with a smile, flouring fish and chopping tomatoes and celery for gazpacho and razzing the customers who’ve become friends over the years. “My dad wanted it that way,” Yarbrough said when they reopened. A big round table in the window is “John’s table.” It always has the freshest, biggest roses in the center.
The big 4-0 party
For the 40th celebration this Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, John G’s will offer special deals on the menu, including the Big One breakfast for $1 (a 1-egg breakfast with coffee and bacon), and 40-cent sliders. Drawings for prizes and other surprises are planned.
- 264 Ocean Drive, Manalapan (in Plaza del Mer, across from The Ritz-Carlton)
- 561-9860; www.johngs.com
- Open for breakfast and lunch, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. daily.
- No reservations; cash only.