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Joni's Diner open for breakfast, lunch

Newly-opened eatery draws lunchtime crowd, diner fans and the curious

ENJOYING A FAMILY MEAL, Noah Rebicek, 3, his mom, Sara Rebicek, right, and aunt, Bethany Sturgeon, left, all of Twin Lakes, take in a lunchtime repast at Joni's Diner. Sara said she drove past the diner over the last 12 months and was consumed by curiosity. Curiosity satisfied. She said the food was good. CHRIS SCHULTZ/REGIONAL NEWS.

January 07, 2014 | 03:13 PM
Joni's Diner needed a larger "Closed" sign.

It was 5 p.m., well-passed closing.

A small closed sign was in the front door. But light still streamed from the diner's windows as owners Joan, Kelly and Shaye Yunker and the Joni's employees were cleaning up both in the kitchen and around the counter.

It was the end of the first full day for Joni's. For nearly a year, residents and passersby were intrigued by the building's slow transformation from silvery transplant to, finally, a completed eatery.

Joan and Kelly are the wife and husband team of diner owners; daughter Shaye is the diner head cook and manager.

A visitor carelessly parked in the empty parking lot for a quick visit with the owners about the diner's first full day of operation.

Shortly thereafter, another car pulled in. And then another. And then a small caravan appeared.

Being conscientious owners, Kelly and Joan dutifully went to the doors and told the would-be customers that the diner was closed, but would open again the next morning.

And they patiently listened to the statements of polite disappointment, fielded questions about their diner, and listened to stories of other diners visited, or diners once owned or diners planned for other locations.

BEFORE CHOWING DOWN, Regional News Sports Editor Ben Stanley adds some color to his bacon cheese burger, last week at Joni's Diner, 111 Well St. After nearly a year of waiting, the 1950s diner, relocated here from Connecticut, had its first full day of business on Jan. 2. CHRIS SCHULTZ/REGIONAL NEWS. (click for larger version)
They also heard promises that the late visitors would return again, when Joni's was open.

And then the Yunkers kindly returned to talk to a curious visitor from the Regional News.

It's been more than a year since the Lake Geneva Plan Commission granted a conditional use permit to the Yunkers to locate the diner in Lake Geneva.

Joan, who is the Joni on the diner's temporary sign, said the Yunkers did a soft opening with friends and family the last weekend of December.

"It went well," said Joan.

Opening on New Year's Day was difficult because many of the diner's employees had made previous plans.

However, with just a few servers on staff, the diner did open from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. to greet 2014, she said.

On Thursday, the diner operated at its normal hours, 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

And the rush started.

Visitors to Joni's at lunchtime found the diner almost completely filled. The hum of human conversation harmonized with the radio playing '50s hits in the background.

The counter seats and narrow booths were filled with customers.

Joni's Diner isn't precisely what the diner customer in the 1950s experienced.

It evokes, rather than recreates, the original diner experience.

However, much of the diner is as authentic as possible.

The exterior is as traditional as possible, with an original stainless-steel shine.

The diner was one of several different designs built in the 1950s by the Jerry O'Mahony Diner Co., Elizabeth, N.J.

Only three of this design of O'Mahony diners are still in service today, Joan said.

Many diners now in use have been moved or renovated, many of them multiple times.

There is no diner network to help owners remodel, repair and reopen diners, Kelly said.

"But there is a cult of diner people," he said. "Some people plan their trips around a diner."

They make pilgrimages to familiar diners, diners they just discovered and old diners in new places.

On their first full day, one of Joni's 160 customers was a woman who tracks diners across the country, Kelly said.

"There's a high level of devotion," he said.

The booths, seats and stools are all original, although they've been reupholstered.

Table and counter tops are as authentic as possible, said Kelly. The shine of stainless steel marks every edge, and mirrors on the walls gives a sense of added size.

The interior colors in Joni's are muted.

"What we wanted is a muted look. We wanted a soft feel to it," Joan said.

Some might remember diners differently.

The 1950s were more about the food than the décor, said Kelly.

According to online sources, some diners used reds, yellows and blacks as interior colors. Some used tile on the walls in a simple black and white design.

While some original diners had barrel ceilings to more resemble the interiors of railroad dining cars, Joni's ceiling is flattened, with recessed lighting.

Kelly and Joan said they are more about making memories with the food and the diner atmosphere.

Kelly said they want to build memories, so years from now, even those who may have visited just once, might say: "Remember when we went to the diner in Lake Geneva."

Right now, the sign to Joni's is temporary. Kelly said he and Joan are working on getting the diner's original pole sign up.

Since 2010, Lake Geneva has allowed only monument signs, but the Yunkers hope they can convince the city to allow the more traditional pole sign.

"It's a work in progress," said Kelly.

Meanwhile, the Yunkers may have a 1950s beauty on their hands, but they still have to live in the 21st century.

Joan said a Joni's website is in the works.


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