Remembering JJ’s American Diner

JJ's American Diner sign on US1 in Coral Gables, Florida
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JJ’s American Diner was a fifties-inspired diner with a great catchphrase, “The way things used to be.” The founders were John Nichols (a Coral Gables architect), his wife Lorrie, Jeffrey Howard (a Coral Gables interior designer), and his wife, Linda. Nichols’ brother Pete ran the restaurant.

The original spot, located at 5850 Sunset Drive in South Miami, also doubled as a bakery and ice cream shop. The space formerly housed the American Cancer Society Thrift Shop and the Grecian Corner Restaurant spaces.

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JJ's American Diner in the Miami Herald December 2nd, 1984
JJ’s American Diner in the Miami Herald – December 2nd, 1984

JJ’s American Diner would open to great fanfare in mid-December 1984. Linda Cicero, the Miami Herald’s restaurant critic and food editor, reviewed JJ’s American Diner in her ” Dining on a Budget” column. JJ’s received a 2-star (Good) rating, citing only the pork chops as a disappointment.

My main takeaway was that breakfast and baked goods are where JJ’s American Diner shined. I can’t say that I ever remember eating at this particular location.

JJ's American Diner in UM Newspaper March 28th, 1986
JJ’s American Diner – University of Miami’s Newspaper March 28th, 1986

Coral Gables

When their second location opened on May 22nd, 1987, at 2320 Galiano Street in Coral Gables, I was too young to drive. So it wasn’t until around 1990 that my cousin Rick brought my sister and me to JJ’s American Diner for burgers.

It might sound crazy that I remember this from 30 years ago, but I ate a Patty Melt cause it’s one of those things I can’t resist when I see it on a menu. We did return with my parents and grandparents in tow one night for dinner, and I had, you guessed it…another Patty Melt.

The Miami Herald’s way of saying, Break a Leg! – May 5th, 1989

A couple of years later (May 30th, 1989), the founders of JJ’s shot their shot with Bella Luna Ristorante Italiano (5859 SW 73rd Street). It featured wood-burning ovens and homemade pizza, bread, and pasta. It closed on Sunday, March 25th, 1990.

JJ's American Diner in the Miami Herald September 22nd, 1991
The Miami Herald – September 22nd, 1991

However, by September 1991, the location was advertised as JJ’s American Bar & Grill. Over the following nine years, Coach’s, Archie’s, and Chilango’s Mexican Grill would occupy the same spot.

After an almost 15-year run by Casa Larios, Casa Cuba by the Valls family (owners of the iconic Versailles Cuban restaurant) now serves Cuban comfort food there.

JJ's American Diner in the Miami Herald March 11th, 1990
The Miami Herald – March 11th, 1990

Kendall

JJ’s American Diner was one of the anchor restaurants in the Kendallgate shopping center on its opening on March 26th, 1990. The strip mall also featured Phar-mor and two of my favorites from that era: Sound Warehouse and Kendall 9 movie theater.

In theory, it sounded like a good idea to open there, but that Wometco nine-screen created a parking night for all in that center. The heavy competition from Chil’s and Romano’s Macaroni Grill and construction on Kendall drive spelled doomsday for them.

The space became the short-lived Todd’s Family Restaurant after JJ’s sold in April 1992. It was followed quickly by Denny’s, which has been there for more than twenty-five years.

I didn’t remember Todd’s, so I did a little sleuthing. There were two locations (the other was 19705 S Dixie Hwy in Cutler Bay) which both became Denny’s.

Aventura

The Miami Herald reported on February 7th, 1993, that a JJ’s Diner in the Aventura area was in the works. This would be the first franchised (Piero Trinchero & Tino Bottanelli ) restaurant location, with the partners already looking in Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, and South Beach for possible new spots.

Future franchisees could expect to pay a $25000 franchise fee along with a 4% of yearly sales.

The first franchised and largest JJ’s American Diner (NE 203rd Street & Biscayne Blvd) opened in the North Miami/Aventura area on April 20th, 1993. The two founders sold the two Coral Gables and South Miami locations
the following month.

A month later, the Aventura location shut down for the summer to re-organize. The new management group of owner Anthony Risk & general manager Michael Mora overhauled the management and resigned the kitchen for maximum efficiency.

JJ's American Diner in the Miami Herald October 3rd, 1994
Classified Ad in The Miami Herald October 3rd, 1994

The reopening date was scheduled for October 1st but ended up being November 1st. Less than a year later, on October 3rd, 1994, an ad ran in the Miami Herald classified about them selling everything to the bare walls.

By that time, all of the other JJ’s American Diner restaurants had closed. And it seemed like all was lost…

JJ’s American Diner 2.0

JJ's American Diner in the Miami Herald August 18th, 2005
The Miami Herald August 18th, 2005

It would take original co-owner Jeff Howard’s son Jeff Howard Jr. to resuscitate JJ’s American Diner. At the time, Howard Jr. was a manager at Johnny Rockets.

And so on August 15th, 2005, JJ’s American Diner (1450 S Dixie Highway) opened in a former Howard Johnson restaurant space that is currently a Shake Shack. Naturally, I was ecstatic and visited within a few months of the reimagined resto.

You can read my original write-up from October 30th, 2008, below. JJ’s American closed for one final time in the fall of 2009, or has it?

The Original JJ’s American Diner Write-up on Burger Beast

JJ's American Diner sign on US1 in Coral Gables, Florida
JJ’s American Diner sign on US1 in Coral Gables, Florida

October 30, 2008 – In the early ’90s, there was a JJ’s American Diner (1450 South Dixie Hwy) location in the heart of Coral Gables, where I first tried it. Not too long ago, My wife Marcela and I ate at their newer place (still in the Gables but right near South Miami), and we were disappointed.

She still brings it up to this day (and blames me for it too). I convinced Ed to go with me; I mean, any place can have an off day.

When we walked in, there was a car chase on the news, which captivated everyone in the place, all 5 of them. Unfortunately, there were more employees than customers, which is a bad sign.

You don’t need to watch Kitchen Nightmares to know that.

Appetizers Talk

Regarding appetizers, we went with the homemade chicken tenders with fries, mild spicy battered chicken wings, and the Wets (fries covered with cheese and gravy). Although I thought of the 3, the homemade chicken tenders were the best, nothing I haven’t had better elsewhere.

Now the mild spicy battered chicken wings, where do I start? Mild, spicy, and battered were the three things they were not, and the one last point, they weren’t any good. My bud seemed to love them, though.

Mild Spicy Battered Chicken Wings by JJ's American Diner
Mild Spicy Battered Chicken Wings
The Wets Gravy Cheese Fries from JJ's American Diner
The Wets

The Wets should be called the pits if you ask me. Let’s start with the lousy execution, as the fries were slightly burned, but that didn’t stop him from going to town on them.

Burger Talk

I had the Patty Melt (I’m sure you know the ingredients) and thought it tasted just as expected. Can anyone even mess one of these up? I tasted the rye bread, the onions, and the wrong cheese (it should have been Swiss), but no flavor from the burger patty.

It chose not to make an appearance tonight. Although, in its defense, the other flavors always overwhelm the burger most of the time in Patty Melts.

Patty Melt by JJ's American Diner
Patty Melt
Famous American 10 oz. Burger  from JJ's American Diner
Famous American 10 oz. Burger

Ed ordered the Famous American 10 oz. Burger with Swiss cheese, grilled onions, and bacon. We both agreed that the burger itself got lost in the flavors of the toppings as well.

JJ’s American Diner has an extensive menu, which reminds me of Big Pink. The difference is that Big Pink’s burger was worth the drive.

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