Johnny Dee’s Lounge
1705 Amuskai Road, Parkville,  665-7000
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“Do you want to sit at a table or in the lounge?” asks the woman taking reservations at Johnny Dee’s Lounge. The longtime restaurant and bar is tucked into a shopping center near the intersection of Putty Hill Road and Loch Raven Boulevard. She’s not asking a preference for dining room versus bar, but wants to know whether you want to eat at a regular four-top or at one of the Danish-modern-style couch and coffee table arrangements that create small living room tableaus in the front of the dining room. At Johnny Dee’s, lounge really means lounge.
Johnny Dee’s has been in business since the 1950s (it opened as simply “The Lounge”), and the essence of the ’50s and ’60s lingers, not least because the patronage has remained rather constant over the decades. Baltimore classics like sour beef and dumplings, hot turkey, and the house specialty, shrimp salad, are menu mainstays. (Specials include other regional favorites such as pit beef.) Framed Colts and Orioles memorabilia decorate the walls in the front portion of the dining room, which feels like someone’s living room, while the back portion suggests outdoor dining with its wooden lattice and wall-mounted window frame. There used to be a garden mural on the back wall, a server explains. Now covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors rather than pastel flowers, the effect is more disco than patio.
Still, you’ll be hard pressed to find another dining room in Baltimore with such a visibly loyal following. Some taverns have mug clubs. Johnny Dee’s Lounge has tiny metal plaques. Hundreds of them. The wainscoting beside each four-top and adjacent to each olive or tan naugahyde club chair and coffee table reflects the dull shine of engraved brass squares. (I count 22 by our table.) Norty and Nancy sit here. So do Tim and Kim, Joan and Fritz, Augie and Norma. C--, whose name bears a deep groove obliterating all but the first letter, is not deceased, a server explains. Rather, she had a falling out with other members of the plaque “girls club” and no longer visits. I’ve heard tell that seated customers have been asked to move when regulars come in to claim their table, but management says this is not true. Still, the sense of community is so palpable at Johnny Dee’s that it comes as no surprise when you ask your server, a 20-year veteran employee, about an acquaintance who was a regular here and with whom you’ve lost touch, and she tells you where he’s moved, who he’s now married to, and how many grandchildren he has.
It is this familiarity—in food, in service, and in clientele—that makes Johnny Dee’s a neighborhood draw. Among the fried oysters and N.Y. strip steak, the burgers, the macaroni salad, and the applesauce, there is little to surprise. Chicken Johnny Dee (chicken breasts prepared à la française) is served with a side of stuffed shells, one of several Italian dishes offered. Manhattans and martinis, rather than bottled beer, are the drinks of choice (and are a bargain at $5 with Maker’s Mark and $5.50 with Bombay, respectively, and only $4.50 for well drinks). A jerk chicken appetizer may be the most exotic dish on the menu.
The restaurant has built its food reputation on its shrimp salad ($11.95 for the platter), a mound of peachy-pink striped curls on a bed of lettuce and toast. Johnny Dee’s rendition is crisp with celery, not too heavily bound with mayonnaise, and mildly spiced. Some palates (mine included) will favor a more aggressive hand with seasoning, but it’s easy to see why this is a favorite. The cheese-and-spinach-stuffed homemade ravioli ($12.95) is also easy to like and the texture of the pasta suggests that there is truth in advertising.
Less pleasing is a barbecued chicken special ($8.50), two very plain legs and thighs burnished with what tastes like bottled sauce. The accompanying sweet corn fritters, which bear an odd resemblance to chicken nuggets, are, however, a refreshing change from fries.
Johnny Dee’s is one of the few remaining Baltimore restaurants that serves sour beef and dumplings ($13), and serves it year-round rather than only in the winter months. It’s a dish that varies with each cook; this version uses beef chunks rather than slices and produces a gravy that’s more lemon than gingersnap. Two potato dumplings are the size of tennis balls, light, but a little lumpy. I suspect the dish tastes fresher in colder weather when more people are ordering it on a regular basis.
It seems just right at the end of the meal when you’re offered homemade rice pudding ($3.50), one of two desserts the restaurant makes in-house. (Cannolis, cakes, and pecan pie are made elsewhere.) It’s even better when the offer is followed up with the question, “Warm or cold?” (Warm, natch). Spiked with lemon rind and dusted with cinnamon, the pudding is comfort food at its most satisfying. A flan ($5), the kitchen’s other house-made dessert, is sturdy and silky, but probably just as fine without a topping of blueberries in syrup.
For a restaurant that knows its customers on a first-name basis, Johnny Dee’s still manages to make newcomers feel welcome. So don’t be afraid to break out your Mad Men duds, grab a lounge seat, and order up a Manhattan. Raising a toast to the regulars who make the Lounge what it is wouldn’t be inappropriate either.
Johnny Dee’s Lounge is open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday. Sunday, dinner only. Old School