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The Former Small Bar Space Is Being Restored in University Heights

Johnston’s, a new restaurant and bar, will open in its place early next year

An old sign above a restaurant.
The original storefront sign.

Assuming the mantle as the latest proprietor of the iconic University Heights space occupied by Small Bar for more than a decade is John Pani, who operates Park & Rec just two doors down on Park Boulevard and ran the now-shuttered Waypoint Public in North Park under his hospitality group ELE Collective.

Small Bar closed for good in Fall 2020, with Pani purchasing the property in mid-2021. During the renovation process, construction crews unearthed a historic storefront sign, dating back to the 1920s when the site was home to a five-and-dime called Johnston’s Variety Dept. Store. In honor of the original mom-and-pop shop, Pani has dubbed the incoming restaurant and bar Johnston’s and is aiming to unveil the new establishment by early 2023.

With local artist Christopher Konecki restoring the vintage sign and creating custom murals and Mbee Studio heading up architectural and interior design, the 3,500-square-foot space takes inspiration from Mission Cliff Gardens, a once-popular botanical park and tourist attraction in the University Heights area that was closed to the public in 1929.

Serving daily dinner and weekend brunch, the restaurant includes a 2,000-square-foot patio that will be used for outdoor dining and special events. Johnston’s will retain a focus on cocktails, even serving a Bloody Mary styled after Small Bar’s signature drink.

Executive chef Peter Ziegler (Charles + Dinorah, Wolfie’s Carousel Bar) is creating a wide-ranging menu that’ll include hummus and housemade naan, buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches, and a selection of skewers, from salt and pepper chicken thighs to maitake mushrooms dusted with fennel pollen, that will be grilled over binchotan.

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