John’s of 12th Street is the kind of cozy restaurant that you could always depend on for delicious cuisine and perpetual cozy-Sunday-evening atmosphere. The staff is a family to each other; to us they’re characters in a sitcom that we’re extras in. It’s an establishment that teems with personality, the exact type of Classic New York Spot that people lament losing on their Facebook feed. So what better way to cement its place in history than with a movie? Vanessa McDonnell’s “John’s of 12th Street” does just that, in an observational documentary that captures the essence of what makes John’s so damn special.
McDonnell’s camera is present from minute-one as the kitchen staff prepares for the day and the manager juggles numerous irritants, from a half-broken front door to an ATM that insists on dialing out every three minutes. Once all is settled, the boss takes a breather and watches the rest of the staff eat breakfast, as if he’s their guardian, or making sure they’re following orders to a T. This offbeat moment lifts the lid ever so slightly: humor slowly seeps into the picture as everyone’s personalities click into place, from the older owner announcing a hug as if it’s a keynote to a waiter describing a line graph that depicts one’s sanity while working at John’s. The regular customers prove their worth, too: we linger on a man who talks extensively about his time clubbing, partying with Madonna, Fellini, and Boy George. Everyone has a story to tell, all with their own flavor and charisma. There’s never a dull moment at John’s, which gives the film a breezy quality that never lets up.
Their food also gets a bright spotlight, receiving treatment that would make “Tampopo” director Jûzô Itami display a full-teeth smile. The kitchen crew work their craft, slicing chicken breasts while gabbing about their child’s stint at a new charter school. These conversations that McDonnell captures feel off-the-cuff (obviously), but their inclusion, as in any film, gives them a sense of import that they normally wouldn’t have. Charter schools, smoking bans, and vegan menus all reference a changing society, maybe even serving as a microcosm of the city, and the debates taking place amongst neighbors in one of New York’s oldest establishments. Didactic it is not, though, as the shorthand between the co-workers is often playful and amusing.
The entire movie is a whirlwind of personality, a gate into a world you only get a whiff of as a customer. While the staff clean up and the lights go out for the night, one is left smitten by the lively characters and delectable cooking. You feel the love McDonnell has for this place, but she doesn’t aggressively force the audience to go head-over-heels for it as well — it’s a slow, subtle process of restraint, completely opposite from the saccharine and poppy schematics that other, similar documentaries often utilize. Basically, you’re going to want to head to John’s immediately after watching this film, whether you’re a NY local or an ocean away. But a long-form commercial this is not. “John’s of 12th Street” acts as both a tribute to a wonderful place and a delightfully sensual experience, a truly successful “hang out” movie that is guaranteed to perk you up. [A-]