At the 11th hour, iconic steakhouse Dear John’s extends lease for another five years
The lease of the resurrected, iconic Culver City restaurant Dear John’s expired on May 31. But after months of concern from owners and fans, including Oscar winner Jamie Lee Curtis, Dear John’s isn’t going anywhere. At least for another five years.
A negotiated deal with the building’s landlord was struck around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, which was to be the restaurant’s final day of service.
It was “down to the wire,” said co-owner Patti Röckenwagner. “It feels like it was like a battle royale, but it got signed.”
The restaurant big on red-sauce Italian food, mid-century history and steaks from chef Josiah Citrin (Mélise, Charcoal, Citrin), chef Hans (Röckenwagner Bakery and Café) and restaurateur/brand strategist Patti Röckenwagner (The Röckenwagner Bakery Group) has lived a number of lives and survived a few close calls. The first incarnation of the dimly lit, 54-seat restaurant opened in 1962 and remained a favorite of stylish clientele for decades, including Frank Sinatra. The restaurant changed hands in the 1980s, eventually closed, then briefly became another restaurant, called Lucky’s, which also closed. But in 2019, it gained new life.
The project was originally conceived as a two-year pop-up in the space, which was slated for demolition. The trio announced their limited run from the start, a here-for-a-good-time-not-for-a-long-time throwback to the restaurant’s original, 1960s heyday with strong martinis, tableside service, red tablecloths and chophouse icons such as shrimp cocktails, steak tartare and oysters Rockefeller.
They updated some of the stalwarts by turning chicken parm into the now fan-favorite chicken Kiev that oozes mozzarella and tomato sauce, or serving caviar-topped tater tots. L.A. Times Food critic Bill Addison called it “a tableau from another time” and said its “three new owners are throwing Dear John’s an extended farewell.”
Stepping into Dear John’s in Culver City, my pupils dilate as far as they can.
“I think we’ve been given an opportunity, an obligation, to do right by this place,” Hans Röckenwagner told The Times in 2019. “It’s been an honor for me, and you know what? Until then [when the building is demolished], we’re gonna have a great time.”
They intended to close the restaurant in April 2021 but due to COVID-19, when “everyone pressed the pause button on all of their plans,” said Patti Röckenwagner, they were able to extend their lease.
Even then, the future of the restaurant’s limited run remained unclear in the face of the pandemic; a pivot to takeout with “heat-and-eat” TV-style dinners in compartmentalized aluminum trays helped keep their staff employed, and they added a makeshift patio for outdoor dining.
Business continued and as the team inched toward the spring of 2023, they knew they didn’t want the song to end. A social media post and e-newsletter blast informed fans that May 31 would be the restaurant’s final day of service, and comments poured in urging the ownership to do something, anything to keep the space.
The last few months of lease negotiations haven’t been easy. Many weeks were stressful for the entire team, including the staff who waited until the possible final day of service to hear of the restaurant’s future — though the owners hoped to employ all of their team at their sibling concept Dear Jane’s, in Marina del Rey, should the new lease fall through.
Citrin and the Röckenwagners had to make a few concessions in order to secure the restaurant’s next five years, including losing parking spaces (they plan to launch valet service soon, accordingly). The rent is also rising by “a very big increase,” an especially difficult consideration while trying to map the future during economic concerns and a WGA strike that has the potential to greatly affect the L.A. restaurant industry — especially for a restaurant like Dear John’s, which maintains a number of celebrity regulars for business dinners, premieres and other events.
They’re “keeping an eye on it” and hoping it resolves well. But, Patti Röckenwagner says, if their customers came to support Dear John’s throughout COVID-19, she’s hopeful that they can make it through anything. The decision to reopen is primarily due to — and entirely possible through — Dear John’s fans.
Dear Jane’s in Marina del Rey is the winning seafood-focused successor to Culver City’s soon-to-close Dear John’s
The outpouring in person and on social media, she says, has been huge, made even more possible by added visibility from reposts and comments by actors like Clark Gregg, Melanie Griffith, Tiffany Haddish and John Stamos. “Everything Everywhere All at Once’s” Curtis, a close friend of the Röckenwagners and the voice behind the restaurant’s answering machine, wrote what Patti Röckenwagner called “a very impassioned letter” to the landlord in an effort to get the lease extended.
“It’s really our customers who have shown up over and over and over again — even up until not knowing whether we were going to be able to stay open or not — and in a huge way,” she said. “Through COVID and through these last months of negotiating, that’s really what’s kept us going.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.