"It's fresh, it's real," said David Bryson, owner of Johnny's, which is about a week away from opening its doors to diners at 4019 N. Damen Ave.
"We're making casseroles that you used to make 60 years ago — before Campbell's," he said.
Think tuna with artichoke hearts, linguine, peas and cremini (not cream of) mushrooms. His one nod to kitsch: French-fried onions, a step up from the Pringles his mom used to top her casseroles.
Bryson hit on the idea for Johnny Casserole three years ago as a way to parlay his love of the one-pot dish and his collection of casserole cookware into a business.
A graduate of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, now Le Cordon Bleu, Bryson said he was immediately drawn to regional, Americana-style cuisine and the slow food movement.
"I was going to do a food truck, but that fell through. A buddy of mine said, 'Why don't you deliver?'" he recalled. "It's an easy way to start out with no money."
As a delivery service, Johnny Casserole — the name comes from Bryson's days as an ensemble member at the Factory Theater, where the actors would take on parts like "Susie Reporter" or "Joe Fishmonger" — has been something of an on-again, off-again enterprise. New parents make up a large percentage of the fan base.
The stars aligned for Johnny's to settle in North Center with a dine-in space when the storefront on Damen Avenue, formerly home to Espresso Thy Art, came up for lease.
"This neighborhood was not on my radar. I didn't think I'd be able to afford it," said Bryson, who lives in East Logan Square.
"I came in and said, 'Are you kidding, this is available?' There's an espresso machine. There's a pizza oven. There's a back patio. It was insane. It ended up costing as much as a truck would have."
Short of agonizing over paint colors, Bryson has sunk precious little time or money into remodeling the cafe, which was all but turn-key. Now that he's finally secured his business license from the city, Bryson is looking toward a July 22 grand opening.
Eat-in customers will find a rotating selection of casseroles available daily, served cafeteria-style, along with soups, salads and Big Shoulders coffee and beans. For breakfast, Bryson will offer various stratas and his North Woods French toast casserole. Seasonal crisps and cobblers will round out the menu.
Though Bryson expects pickup and delivery orders to form the bulk of his business — with the storefront essentially serving as a giant ad for take-and-bake — he is looking forward to one aspect of owning a restaurant.
"I'll finally get to see people eat my food," he said.