West Lawrence bar and restaurant set for major expansion

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

A passerby peers into space that is being remodeled for an expansion of Johnny's West. When completed, the remodeled space at Sixth and Wakarusa will increase the size of Johnny's West by about 40 percent.

After 65 years of hamburgers and pizza, I’m sure I’ll need a bigger place to call home too — plus a titanium La-Z-Boy roughly the size of Texas. That’s what’s happening (minus the La-Z-Boy) with Johnny’s Tavern. While it celebrates its 65th birthday, the Lawrence-based bar and restaurant chain confirmed it is expanding its Johnny’s West location.

Johnny’s West, which is located in the shopping center at the southwest corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, has begun work to move into the former Pinot’s Palette location at 721 Wakarusa Drive. The space is adjacent to the current Johnny’s restaurant, and owner Rick Renfro plans to put it to use as new party space.

“About a third of the space will be for new kitchen space because we are selling a lot of food out there,” Renfro said. “Another third will be a private party room with a garage door, and another third will be indoor-outdoor space.”

If you aren’t familiar with Johnny’s, you must be asleep when you are driving through North Lawrence. The original Johnny’s Tavern is just north of the downtown Kansas River bridges in North Lawrence. For years it was a traditional blue-collar bar that got its start serving beer and jukebox music to shift workers coming home from jobs at the nearby industrial plants.

Renfro and a partner bought the place in 1978 and by the 1990s were expanding into Kansas City. In 2009, the company opened the Johnny’s West location, which it touted as the “grown up” Johnny’s to reminisce about the old college days.

Now that west Lawrence location actually does more business than the original North Lawrence site.

“It has been pretty steady out here in west Lawrence,” Renfro said. “North Lawrence is up and down.”

Expanding into the former Pinot’s Palette space is a big jump for the restaurant. It will add 2,400 square feet, or about 40 percent, onto the existing restaurant. Johnny’s West now will be larger than the Kansas City locations the company has built.

In case you are wondering, Pinot’s Palette — which hosts parties that involve painting and wine drinking — closed its storefront but remains in operation as a pop-up retailer. It hosts the paint parties at various locations around town, or even will come to your home. (Sure, they can bring wine and a paint brush into my house, but when I wait until a Saturday night to paint the living room …)

The Johnny’s expansion comes at a time when Renfro is contemplating an expansion of the original North Lawrence location. As we reported last week, a new set of plans has been filed that would build a series of bars, restaurants and apartments along the Kansas River levee trail near Johnny’s. Part of the plan would include a new kitchen, dining and patio area for Johnny’s. Renfro, though, has said he doesn’t plan to undertake the North Lawrence expansion unless the larger set of plans for the boardwalk concept are approved by the city.

The west Lawrence expansion, though, is more definite. Work is underway, and Renfro hopes to have the new space open in about a month. As for what to expect when it is done, the indoor/outdoor space is a big component, and the location will be able to host a lot more private events. Menu-wise, expect the same type of fare, which includes the hamburgers, the New York-style thin crust pizza, plus a whole lot of sandwiches and wraps.

The fact the expansion is coming during the business’s 65th anniversary is coincidental. But Renfro said the expansion and anniversary are both good reminders of how the business has turned into something he couldn’t imagine. Renfro has told many people that the only reason he bought the bar 40 years ago is because it was a business opportunity that would allow him to follow his true passion, at the time — rugby. The bar was a headquarters for the KU rugby team and the original location still is home to a lot of rugby memorabilia.

“The one thing I knew in life at that time was that I wanted to keep playing rugby for a few more years,” Renfro told me in a 2014 article I wrote about those early days. “This bar let me do that.”

Now, Johnny’s has 10 locations, with eight of them in the Kansas City metro. Renfro said he remembers his parents asking him when he was going to get a real job. Somewhere along the way, the bar and restaurant business became one.

“I wish I could say I had a plan and knew what I was doing,” Renfro told me recently. “But it is about putting one foot in front of the other and taking advantage of the opportunities that are in front of us.”


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