RESURRECTING JOHNNY'S IN CALISTOGA

In the 1930s a restaurant and bar called Johnny’s opened in the Mount View Hotel. Fifty years later it closed its doors, but it will soon come to life again.

“Things just sort of fell into place, and I’m very happy to be reopening and re-energizing a piece of Calistoga’s history,” said Michael Dunsford, co-owner of the Calistoga Inn and the new co-owner of Johnny’s bar and restaurant.

The new eating and drinking establishment will be located in what used to be the Barolo Bar and Grill and JoLe, the two restaurants that recently closed in the Mount View Hotel. It was a surprise to many that the popular restaurants that had been operating in the space for nearly 10 years closed their doors. However, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Everything changes and nothing stands still.”

The new restaurants will be loosely modeled after the one originally created by Johnny Ghisolfo.

“Johnny built the hotel in 1919 and opened the restaurant in the ‘30s,” said Dunsford, who is also the vice mayor. “He also served as mayor and was on the city council. I’ve heard that he was even called ‘Mr. Calistoga’ because of his commitment to this place. When I talked to Michael Woods — owner of the Mount View Hotel — about our concept to revive Johnny’s, he really, really liked it, saying that it would provide his guests and the town with more amenities and services so we worked out a lease. We expect to open in late March.”

Dunsford’s vision includes creating a two-sided restaurant, a bar with pub-style food on one side and what he calls a California-style restaurant on the other.

“We’re really excited about Dunsford’s vision on this new project,” said Woods. “It’s great that he wants to bring back a little of our history to the downtown, and it’s clear from what they’ve done down at the Calistoga Inn that they know how to create an atmosphere that’s comfortable and has high standards.”

The new Johnny’s will be opened for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“We’ll serve an excellent breakfast and lunch on the bar side, where we’ll also have about five televisions so that people can just come in and watch a game and relax,” Dunsford said. “On the other side — where JoLe used to be — we’ll be serving dinner.”

Nicolas Montanez, Calistoga Inn’s executive chef and Dunsford’s partner in the project, will oversee the food side of the venture.

“We’ll have a chef du cuisine at Johnny’s and Nicolas will still be the exec at the Inn, but he’ll come up with the menu and direction,” Dunsford said.

Like California itself, the cuisine will represent a variety of influences.

“On the bar side we’ll be serving things like sliders, fish tacos and wings, which will go well with the beer that we plan to make on site,” said Dunsford. “On the restaurant side, we’ll be serving a mix of old and new that will change from season to season. In the winter we might have stews and roasts, whereas in the hot summer months we’ll feature our excellent local produce, focusing more on light and fresh. Because Calistoga and the valley have been created by so many ethnicities, we want to showcase that by including classic dishes from a bunch of different cultures, including German, Italian and Asian.”

According to Dunsford, Johnny’s is intended to be a place where locals love to go and tourists can get a window into Calistoga, its history and people.

“Whichever side of Johnny’s our guests walk into — the bar or the restaurant — we want them to feel comfortable, well taken care of and able to relax,” Dunsford said. “Johnny’s will be down to earth, genuine and not pretentious. It will be a place where people can be themselves and hang out with friends.”

“As I learn more about the original Johnny’s, it inspires me,” said Dunsford. “We’ll be resurrecting Johnny’s and with it, a little bit of the best of Calistoga.”

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Originally published in the Weekly Calistogan, January 26, 2016