It's gritty, it's simple, it's unpretentious—and it's a relic. Most of all, however, it's good. After 64 years (although the sign proclaims 65) of dishing up tasty fried grub, Johnny's Reef, continues to draw hungry seafarers as well as landlubbers to the southern tip of City Island.
With sweeping views across the Sound to Long Island and a distant Manhattan skyline, this seaside cafeteria offers a great escape amid a hot, sunny afternoon. While the weather may have turned colder, summer doesn't seem all that distant here.
To reach Johnny's Reef, one must travel the length of City Island past countless seafood places that range from grungy shacks to tony restaurants. A glimpse of Johnny's exterior back wall—a first impression for many—reveals this eatery's place on the foregoing continuum: empty five-gallon coleslaw buckets and other service discards share their space with employees on a cigarette break. Finding a parking spot can seem like a bumper car ride, especially when other drivers disregard the arrows on the pavement. New visitors should not be discouraged by outward appearances, however; exceptional seafood awaits within.
The amusement park-like ambiance plays out further inside. Resembling a midway, the restaurant's interior comprises a vast array of food, beverage, and service stations along an L-shaped counter that extends the length of two walls. Tables and chairs are arranged to take advantage of the pleasant waterside views afforded by a wall of windows.
The noisy hustle and bustle, without directions for how to proceed, could conceivably overwhelm the novice. Thus, a few guidelines here might not be amiss. First, it's important to note that disparate foods and beverages are ordered and paid for separately. Seek out the desired overhead menu, decide what to eat, and step up to a numbered station at the counter, where a helpful cashier will take your order as well as your payment (cash only). When your order is ready, proceed to the service area, and help yourself to plastic utensils, condiments, and lots of napkins. (The diner-style napkins are flimsy, wholly inadequate to the task, and will fly off the tray with every attempt to reach for one.)
Stop at the beverage station or at Johnny's Bar. Don't be discouraged by the limited list of beers posted overhead; the bartender will offer additional (and more appealing) selections upon request.
If weather permits, carry your tray to a picnic table on the arena-sized terrace, where you can catch all the action that happens outside. On a recent visit we were entertained by such divertissements as children feeding the Hitchcockian mob of gulls and hotdogging jet skiers determined to drown one another—all amid a spectacular sunset. There seems to be a wind-tunnel effect in the vicinity: if it is at all breezy, be prepared to batten down everything, including your plate and cup. If it's cool or breezy, consider staying inside; the food cools quickly in the wind.
On my visits, I usually head straight to station 4 in the fry section. Though the shrimp ($13) are rather good, I almost always order the fillet ($13), a superb fried sole that is without peer. Moments after the cashier turns and calls out, "filete," an overflowing basket (large enough to share) of fish atop a mound of fries arrives on my tray, together with a paper plate. Although a single wedge of lemon is included, I always ask for more. (This is where to make that request.) Tartar sauce, ketchup, hot sauce, and salt also complement the fish and chips well. To wash it all down, I much prefer beer to Johnny's overly sweet cocktails.
To put it simply, Johnny's fillet represents some of the best fried fish one might hope to encounter anywhere. Fresh, and fried perfectly to a delicious golden brown, the fillet is sweet and has a nearly silken texture; its breading and spicing complement the mild fish without overwhelming it. For some, it could be the sole reason to come here. The french fries are fairly thin, and quite delicious. Buried within this fresh, hot, not-too-greasy treasure, is a tiny container of coleslaw, which, especially after being heated by the fries, tastes every bit as industrial as its five-gallon container would suggest. Fortunately, the slaw is the only weak element of the meal.
As the season winds down, we've gone the long way around the island to come to a conclusion that is short and sweet: For a huge portion of super fresh, perfectly prepared fish fry at a reasonable price with a great view of the water, it's hard to imagine any place better than Johnny's Reef.
Johnny's Reef Restaurant
2 City Island Ave
Bronx, N.Y. 10464-1607 (map)
By bus: Bx29