Last month during a taping of Knight Fight at The Gorbals, chef Ilan Hall faced off against Northern Spy Food Co.’s Pete Lipson. In the dining room above the Urban Outfitters store, feverish foodies ooed and ahead on cue as Hall revealed the night’s mystery ingredients. I can’t tell you more, because immediately upon arriving at the taping I beat a hasty retreat to Space Ninety 8’s rooftop bar where I hid out for the rest of the night.
I’m probably just scarred from two years of having to recap Top Chef every week, but this whole thing of documenting cooking like it’s the Olympics or American Idol leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Which is why it was so refreshing to watch John’s of 12th Street, a film that documents the front- and back-of-house scenes at the 106-year-old East Village restaurant with absolutely zero “pack your knives” fanfare.
Vanessa McDonnell, a programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, where the film will premiere on Nov. 12, shot the hour-long doc over the course of a month in 2013, but it unfolds as if during a single night. It starts with longtime owner Nick Sitnycky trying to figure out why his new ATM machine is making “these phone-number dial-tone sounds and roars,” which should give you an idea of how old-school the red-sauce joint is. It goes beyond just the candles on the tables — when a bartender needs to know the score of the Yankees game, he picks up a land line and dials a service for it. (To be fair, John’s has since joined Twitter.)
Halfway through the film, Mikey “Two Names” Alpert (he also goes by Myron Weiner) remembers how, when he and Sitnycky bought the place in 1973, there was a photo of 1940s actor Chester Morris on the wall (it’s still there). “My partner was saying, ‘All these famous people dined here.’ And I said, ‘Nicky, they’re all dead!’”
Alpert himself died after the documentary was filmed, which makes his mantra – “I love what I do and I do what I love” – all the more touching. Throughout the film, he cracks wise with his staff and sits down at tables to small-talk strangers (“why not have a little fun as we’re getting older?” he tells a server after threatening to bear-hug him.) But according to one half-joking waiter, there’s a moment in every employee’s tenure when “Myron does his first fucked up thing to you,” and then later the moment where “he just fucking treats you like a piece of shit,” sending you into the “dark side” for the rest of your career.
Despite that, the bow-tied waiters at John’s – all of whom are men, and many of whom have been there for decades – seem amicable enough as they roughhouse in the kitchen and use lines like “it’s cheese inside of cheese, how can you go wrong?” on patrons straight out of Real Housewives of New Jersey. (One sauced diner, recalling his glory days of clubbing at Area and Palladium, insists Madonna was messing around with his buddy just weeks before she married Sean Penn. Another remembers the days you had to wait in line to get into John’s.)
“Italians are the minorities here, I have to tell you,” a waiter breaks it to a patron. “There are two of them.”
But even if it’s mariachi music and not Sinatra playing in the kitchen, where the cooks talk about their kids’ charter schools in Spanish, it’s clear everyone is family – sometimes literally. William “Rene” Heras has been chef for 40 years, and his brother Victor has been the dessert chef for 30.
While John’s of 12th naturalisitically captures the rhythms of an average shift, it does leave you wanting a bit more exposition. As fascinating as it is to watch Sitnycky try to figure out how to fix the hinge on a door, it’d be nice to hear more from the relatively laconic operator about his years of running the restaurant. (If nothing else, he might be able to settle the debate about whether John Lennon’s ghost haunts the place.) Luckily, John’s and its staff are still there, and it’s the kind of place where they’ll happily bend your ear without a camera present. Just don’t ask for the baked clams without garlic.
“John’s of 12th” screens Nov. 12, 16, 22, 28, and 30 at Spectacle, 124 S. 3rd St., Williamsburg; all shows $5