The chicken souvlaki is still there, and the cheeseburgers, and the milkshakes. The regulars still hunker down on the counter stools, the daily specials are still listed on the white board — and, best of all, everyone still feels welcome. After a period of uncertainty, when the Venetian blinds were closed and rumors whizzed around the village, John Papas Cafe reopened a few days ago in the same location on Park Place and with much the same menu, but with a new owner. A sigh of relief was audible from here to Montauk Point.
Klever Lopez, the new owner of East Hampton’s long-running diner business, has spent much of the past week answering customers’ “Congratulations!” with a smile and a thank-you. But it is Mr. Lopez — and Mr. John Papas himself — who deserve our thanks for making it work and keeping the griddle burning: Not many business people have the fortitude to resist the pressure to sell out and go chic.
John Papas Cafe is more than a restaurant. In a community where change is relentless — grueling, even — and we are a few generations beyond gentrification, the eatery represents continuity and inclusiveness. It serves not just friendly comfort food and friendly greetings when you step in the door, but a sense of belonging and, yes, community. Those are things that all the designer-name boutiques and rarified restaurants with tasting menus can never deliver. It is a gathering place all year round, for kids after school learning how to politely order their B.L.T.s without Mom’s help, for older people getting an early dinner, for late weekend breakfasts after a long night out, for working lunches of Greek salad, and for takeout to consume in the car at the beach.
Restaurants like John Papas Cafe carry something of a place’s soul: the Candy Kitchen, the Corner Bar, Shagwong, the Point, and Fierro’s, to name a few.
We here at The Star have noted over the years how frequently a reference to John Papas turns up in our obituaries as a beloved part of the weekly or daily routine of an East Hampton resident recently departed. It may be a strange measure, but it tells you how much John Papas Cafe matters to this village.