Twenty-some years ago, University of Kansas rugby player, Pat Roberts, walked into a bar. Back then, this bar opened at 7 a.m. and closed at midnight because of state laws. Located in Lawrence, KS, the bar—or tavern, if you will—was situated near local factories making it a haven for the workingman and college students alike.
“The factory workers would work the midnight shift and get off at 7 a.m. and that was their time to drink,” says Roberts of Overland Park, KS—he’s now one of the five co-owners of Johnny’s Tavern, a locally-owned restaurant chain.
However when it came to KU game day, Roberts said that factory workers weren’t the only ones taking up seats at the bar. The college students would also wake up early and pack the place. Roberts says that there was even memorabilia to prove it.
“You used to see people with bumper stickers that said, ‘I opened Johnny’s Tavern,’” Roberts says. “The place would be full of bikers, construction workers, shift workers and college kids. That’s normally not a good combination but it never seemed to cause a problem.”
In college, Roberts worked at Johnny’s Tavern—which was named after its founder, “Big John” Wilson, in 1953. Roberts remembers when two former rugby players bought the bar from Wilson in 1978, mostly so their rugby team could have a place to hang out. He jokes the boys had been kicked out of every other bar in town!
The two new owners added a grill behind the bar and that’s when Johnny’s first burger was born. This item is still on the menu—look for the ’78 Classic burger.
“We’d be pouring beer with one hand and flipping burgers with the other,” Roberts says.
Now Johnny’s Tavern is serving up tradition at nine different locations across Lawrence, Johnson County and Kansas City areas. Keep in mind the original bar was only 3,000 square feet—the newest one in Shawnee measures in at 7,300 square feet.
“Our newest Johnny’s Tavern is our best one,” Roberts says. “Every one we build is better than the last one. The Shawnee location is our 2014 version.”
Each individual restaurant has its own set of daily specials, menus and style—some have private party rooms, others have trivia nights and karaoke. However, all of taverns have one theme in common.
“We pride ourselves on being a family-friendly sports bar,” Roberts says. “You can get good food and a cold beer in a family atmosphere.”
Speaking of food, Johnny’s is now known for more than just their burgers. Roberts highly recommends the Simmons Wings (which are coated in a BBQ and hot sauce mix) and the BBQ Chicken Pizza (topped with dollops of cream cheese).
“I’d put our pizza up against anyone in town,” Roberts says. “We make a true New York-style pizza—everything is made from scratch. It’s kind of an art form.”
Roberts is especially proud of Johnny’s food and for good reason. He says that anyone can run a bar—running a good kitchen is what’s tough.
“The best compliment I get is, ‘You guys have the best bar food,’” Roberts says. “People are surprised at how good it is.”
It’s even more delicious when your team is winning, of course. Each Johnny’s has anywhere between 30 and 65 television screens which makes it the perfect place to watch the big game. Johnny’s is an official watch party spot for the KU Alumni Association but if you’d rather not rock chalk, that’s OK too.
“We’re pro Big 12,” Roberts says. “Because of our roots in Lawrence, most of our department is made up of KU fans, but K-State fans are awesome, too. And at our downtown location we have a good Missouri following.”
Whether its a SEC, NFL or MLS game, he says that if there’s a relevant game on, Johnny’s will be playing it. Oh and we mustn’t forget Kansas City’s favorite Major League Baseball team.
“The Royals season was unprecedented. I had heard stories from guys in the 80s who talked about their bars being packed on a Tuesday, but I never thought that would happen in my lifetime,” Roberts says. “The whole city benefited from it. I hope it happens again.”
In the meantime, with March Madness around the corner, basketball is the sport on everyone’s mind. Roberts says it’s officially busy season for Johnny’s—the anticipation is high and fans are getting excited as the games matter more and more.
Keep in mind that none of the locations take reservations. So what’s Roberts’ advice for game day at Johnny’s Tavern?
“Get here early and come hungry.”