My chicken al limone with spaghetti. Photo from Jay Miller.
The East Village is one of the best neighborhoods in the city for alternative lifestyles so it’s no surprise that it’s a hub for outlets catering to alternative diets. There are great gluten-free places like Tu-Lu’s Bakery and vegan eateries like Lula’s Sweet Apothecary. Even S’MAC has gluten-free and vegan options.
But I never thought I’d see an Italian restaurant with a full vegan menu.
John’s of 12th St. sits—you guessed it—on 12th St. … right next to Angelica Kitchen. John’s has been there since 1908 and is a local landmark: It’s where Lucky Luciano called a meeting with an opposing mob boss only to gun him down right outside. I’m sure they didn’t have a vegan menu before 1976, when Angelica moved in. Angelica Kitchen is one of the best and most popular vegan eateries in the entire city but they don’t take reservations and the line is super long during prime mealtimes.
So it was probably a smart business move for John’s to realize that there was an entire untapped market literally next door; adding and advertising a vegan menu to hungry plant-eaters was a natural choice.
I’ve been to John’s twice, once with Jacob and Josh and once with a bunch of ravenously starving friends after a soccer game. The restaurant is bigger than it looks at first glance; a back room houses a number of tables and a really cool model of the Alps with candles at the “peaks”, the melting wax creating an awesome “snow” effect that looks very convincing from a distance.
The first thing I noticed was that the garlic bread was listed as $1.95 per person rather than a regular flat fee. It turns out that John’s gives you unlimited garlic bread and charges you by the number of people at your table.
Unlimited garlic bread for under two bucks per person.
And it’s good. I’ve had the regular garlic bread and the vegan garlic bread but couldn’t tell much of a difference between them beyond the regular having a slightly fuller flavor. This is one of the best garlic breads I’ve had in a restaurant and they just keep it coming. When all is said and done I had what amounted to my own personal bowl of garlic bread for $2 because we got so many refills.
That said, my actual meals were neither memorable nor underwhelming. I’ve had the chicken al limone with spaghetti and the fettucini alfredo. The latter had a great, creamy sauce with extremely well-cooked pasta but was a simple dish reminiscent of my childhood, only better-cooked. The former was a very solid dish that was entirely predictable, the chicken cooked perfectly with just the right amount of lemon flavor.
I love Italian food but it’s generally neither the most adventurous nor least familiar cuisine. That’s OK; old favorites are great. And that’s why I went to John’s and ordered what I did. John’s set its meals apart by preparing simple dishes extremely well and pairing them with amazing, amazingly cheap garlic bread.
And just to note: My vegan friends ordered the grilled Portobello mushrooms with polenta and the vegan ravioli with tomatoes, spinach, and tofu. They said it’s no Angelica Kitchen, but they were very happy with their meals—especially the vegan garlic bread!—and would eagerly go back.
John’s of 12th St. (302 E. 12th St. b/t 1st & 2nd Aves.) is a fantastic option for vegans, non-vegans, and mixed groups. All their food is good and the garlic bread, vegan or regular, is a show-stealer at under $2 per person. Go there. They’re open starting at 4 PM every day and will serve bowl after bowl of scrumptious garlic bread until 10:30 PM Sunday, 11 PM Monday through Thursday, and 11:30 PM Friday and Saturday.