Johnny Mac’s, an old-fashioned bar and grill, puts own spin on old favorites

Over the years, readers have emailed now and then to tell me about Johnny Mac’s — about the meatloaf, the corned beef and cabbage, the friendly and personal service.

Through it all, though, I for some reason couldn’t quite get a handle on the concept (and these days, as you know, everything has to have a concept). Was it primarily a restaurant? Was it primarily a bar? Was it some sort of hybrid?

After a visit, I know: This is an old-fashioned bar and grill, much as you’d find in metropolitan areas in the North. And yes, that’s a good thing.

The “old-fashioned” tag fits because Johnny Mac’s has been in business in Henderson since 1983, and in the Las Vegas Valley that qualifies as downright venerable. That is, of course, a double-edged sword, because while they honor tradition, restaurants must, with few exceptions, provide fresh touches now and then to keep people interested. And Johnny Mac’s does that, too.

Exhibit No. 1: The wings we had. Wings are a specialty of Johnny Mac’s; if memory serves there’s a Buffalo (N.Y.) tie in there somewhere. (And I’m not talking about the huge buffalo head that hangs on one wall. I didn’t know buffalo could get that big. It was actually daunting, kind of intimidating. But I digress.)

I’m also not talking about traditional buffalo wings, which aren’t a fresh idea, and Johnny Mac’s does indeed offer wings in traditional styles. But then there’s the garlic-cilantro. And the watermelon barbecue.

Watermelon barbecue. Well, why not; I’m practically addicted to the peanut-butter wings at a little place in upstate New York, which are not only unusual but uncommonly tasty. And so it was with the watermelon-barbecue wings at Johnny Mac’s. No, I won’t claim to discern any clear watermelon notes (although that’s probably a good thing, too), but the fruit added a sweet, refreshing aspect that put the barbecue sauce at the right spot on the seesaw.

Our 1 pound of wings ($10.25; 2 pounds are $19.25, on up to 10 pounds for $49.95) were on the large side; we got eight wings, and the menu says a pound averages eight to 12. So they were not only correspondingly meaty but also had been fried carefully to crisp the skin beautifully, while the meat stayed tender. Considering all of the wan, microwave-warmed wings we’ve encountered lately, these were a real treat. And the house-made blue cheese dressing on the side was fab.

As was the pizza, another specialty of the house. Neither thick nor thin, it sort of split the difference with a medium-thick, slightly stretchy crust. We stayed simple on this one, and our 12-inch tomato-basil ($14.95) contained just those two items, plus garlic and mozzarella. Simple, natural ingredients, they were shown nicely to advantage.

Slightly (but only slightly) disappointing was the shepherd’s pie ($11.95), which was a special that evening. Maybe I was just disappointed because the famous Monday night meatloaf wasn’t available (our server explained that the guy who makes it was off), but while it had a number of laudable components — fresh-tasting whipped potatoes, well-seasoned beef, reasonably crisp-tender vegetables — the filling was cloaked in a gravy-ish liquid that appeared to add salt and not much else.

Service started extremely slowly, but I was impressed by the teamwork. Our server, we were told, was held up with a large table, and while we waited both the hostess and a runner took our drink orders and another server stopped by periodically to let us know we weren’t being overlooked. Our server brought us water as well, along with abject apologies and assurances that things would get better from there, which they absolutely did, her sense of humor and upbeat attitude contributing to an overall pleasant experience.

We hadn’t complained or expressed any displeasure; they just knew, and that’s as it should be.

But so often is not.

Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Email Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com, or call 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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