The throwback atmosphere of Americana kitsch is punctuated with Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” streaming from the overhead speakers as people consider the menu’s burgers named for Elvis, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.
It’s lunchtime at Johnny J’s Diner, a popular 141-seat Casper spot that transports customers back to the sounds, sights and tastes of the era when Dwight Eisenhower was president and diners were comfortable places to hang out and drink shakes, eat burgers and fries and get scratch-made comfort food.
Owner Pat White said she loves that she gets to host the diner’s average 3,000 customers a week, most of them regulars.
“This is my dream,” she said. “This restaurant is an icon in the area. It’s amazing, and I am totally blessed by the opportunity.”
From Manager To Owner
White bought the diner from Casper restauranteur and businessman John Johnson two years ago. She calls him a mentor, and worked for him as a manager at the diner prior to Johnson putting it up for sale.
Johnson opened Johnny J’s around 2000, she said. And it is has been a Casper gathering place since.
Customers take a hop back into the 1950s and early 1960s by sitting at the counter, sliding into a booth for two or four, or a table for more. The menu includes a lot of period favorites and classic diner fare, as well as salads and popular breakfasts. It wouldn’t be a diner without top-notch breakfasts, like the eight omelet choices as well as pancakes, waffles and various versions of eggs, bacon and sausage.
After 4 p.m., the dinner menu features classics such as Freda’s meatloaf, liver and onions, pot roast, chicken fried steak, pasta, chicken, steaks and broasted chicken dinners.
The cooks also serve up specials each week. Recent specials have been fish tacos, prime rib sandwich and pulled pork.
Shakes, malts and flavored sodas also are available and popular. The diner sold 39,801 shakes and malts in 2023.
White believes the food and the people are what makes this retro diner a popular choice, especially on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and keeps bringing the same customers back for more.
And it wouldn’t be a diner without “a couple of amazing cooks,” she said.
Decor includes artifacts from the 1950s and ’60s. There’s a Fender guitar above the kitchen door, a red one-speed Schwinn bicycle balanced above the booths between seating areas, a poster for a Marilyn Monroe movie, period signs for Coke and Pepsi, and a Betty Boop display above a vintage Coke refrigerator in the corner.
A huge jawbreaker dispenser sits by the door and the wait staff all have smiles and call many of their customers by name.
Travis Peterson, a Fort Worth, Texas, transplant and welder in Casper, would be one of those regulars. He arrives and gives server Mason Napier a fist bump. Peterson said he tries to come in daily.
“I have been in Wyoming for about two years,” he said. “Once I found this spot — boom, it’s like mom’s home cooking, you know? The meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans are to die for. I love it. It’s good stuff.”
Napier already knows what he wants and what he will drink — Dr. Pepper.
Server Kaylyn Sell walks over and gives Peterson a hug and shares that she just got engaged.
“There’s a lot of people who come in here, they love the atmosphere and they get really personable with the servers,” she said. “There are couples who will come in and eat with us and then they will come in later and have pie and coffee. I think it is just because it so retro and there are just really good relationships built here.”
White estimates that about 90% of her customers in the winter are regulars and at least 70% in the summer when demand can hit 3,600 meals a week. White believes the home cooking, consistency and friendly staff are the right formula for continued success.
In the kitchen, for example, the mashed potatoes are all handmade.
“We peel 20 pounds at a time, we cook 20 pounds at a time, and we mash them by hand, with two pounds of butter and a half-gallon of milk,” she said. “We have a masher with a 3-foot handle on it so it reaches the bottom of the pan.”
The shakes contain Blue Bunny ice cream and real milk. A cherry Pepsi comes with the tastes of a soda fountain with a dash of cherry syrup and a maraschino cherry on top.
Smith said the burgers are also big sellers. There is the Elvis version that is served open-faced and smothered in homemade red chili and topped with cheddar jack cheese and diced onions. The Fats Domino Burger comes with cheddar cheese, bacon, sautéed mushrooms, guacamole and sour cream. The Johnny J’s Signature Burger comes with mustard, relish, diced onions, pickles, lettuce, tomato and mayo. “No substitutions on this one, don’t even try” the menu advises.
White began her food service career at age 16 at a pizza place and has worked in fast food, washed dishes, waited on tables and managed restaurants. Owning her own place was always on the bucket list. She said she thought she would continue managing for Johnson forever. When he placed the diner on the market in 2021, she approached him, worked out a business plan and was able to get financing.
Dream Come True
“I said, ‘This is the dream I have wanted since I was 12,’” White said. “My friend and I would sit there and plan where the kitchen was going to be here and the tables are going to be here and the door is going to be there. I would dress up in my mom’s old Denny’s uniforms and I would look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘How can I help you?’”
Now she is saying that daily to her own customers and leading a staff of 46. White is thankful that they seem to enjoy working at the restaurant as much as she does.
“I am truly blessed. Occasionally I have a position open,” she said. “Our turnover here is almost zero.”
Johnny J’s Diner is open daily from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 1705 E. 2nd St. in Casper.
Dale Killingbeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.