There was a time when Johnny O’s on 35th street was busy 24 hours a day— and surrounded by other working class joints doing the same kind of business. That was when 35th street was dominated by factories like Spiegel, working shifts around the clock, and businesses like Johnny O’s pumped out hot dogs, burgers and coffee for the workers at these plants. It hasn’t been like that for a long time, but a new audience has begun to appear, and recently owner John Veliotis— Johnny O himself— marked a milestone in Bridgeport’s revival: he quietly reopened the grill on the side of his business which had been shut down for almost 20 years.
Veliotis, who runs the business with his son Pete, is about as close to a born South Side hot dog man as you can find— he sold hot dogs from a cart in front of Spiegel at age 12, and by 16 had an empire of two carts in front of the old Comiskey. He opened the first Johnny O’s in 1959 on 31st street, and moved to the present location in 1970, which included a bar, a packaged good store, a sitdown area entered from Morgan and a walk-up window along 35th. Besides slinging dogs, he was also a singer, cutting two records under the name Johnny Powers in the 1960s and achieving a Comiskey Park hot dog seller’s dream when he was invited to sing the national anthem there.
But the recession in the early 1990s led Spiegel to close the 35th street plant made famous on TV game shows (“Spiegel, Chicago 60609”), and other plant closings soon followed. A few businesses survived on baseball season business, but they were definitely leaner years, and in 1993 Veliotis closed the bar— “I didn’t like the crowd it was attracting late at night by then.” Still, Johnny O’s continued doing a 24-hour healthy business not just in hot dogs and burgers, but in South Side specialties like the breaded steak sandwich covered in classic Chicago Sunday gravy (red sauce simmered with, usually, neck bones), or the curious south side sandwich the “Mother-in-Law,” a Depression-era cheaper substitute for a chili dog in which the meat is replaced in the bun with a tamale smothered in chili (apparently good enough for your mother-in-law). Rediscovered and popularized by culinary historian Peter Engler, the Mother-in-Law would earn Johnny O’s its 15 minutes of national fame on TLC’s “Best Food Ever,” where it ranked #6 on a countdown of the 10 best sandwiches. (We’d vote for the breaded steak, personally.)
In the last few years Bridgeport has taken off as a residential neighborhood; Johnny O’s seems a million miles away from the hip coffeeshops and restaurants popping up in the area, yet from its Morgan side you can see the awning of Pleasant House Bakery up the street (and you’ll pass one of their gardens on the way there). With business for its classic, no-pretentions food picking up, in January Veliotis reopened the bar side, not as a bar, but as an extra grill on weekends and game days. In his 70s, Veliotis still holds court in the classic style in his dining room, greeting a steady stream of old customers from the neighborhood and making new customers slightly overwhelmed by the number of ways to enter the restaurant feel at home— and serving as a living connection to the neighborhood’s past.
In fact, his future plans involve not only sticking around, but improving his place in a way that recalls the neighborhood’s history. When the 80-year-old Ramova Grill closed a half mile or so away, Veliotis tried to snag the diner’s vintage booths and counter stools, but they went to the social service center Benton House. He did get one sign, and his ambition is to fix up his dining room with reproductions of the Ramova Grill’s classic diner look. At Johnny O’s, the more things change, the more they stay the same.