Cape Cod Dining, Restaurants & Catering | Cape Cod Travel Guide: The ‘P’ in J.P.’s could stand for ‘perseverance’
In his youth, John Pontius catered clambakes, but not on Cape Cod—nor anywhere else along the coast. This mild-mannered but driven chef began his career in the restaurant industry catering clambakes and working in a summer camp kitchen just north of Syracuse, NY, where he grew up. He also worked in the dining hall of SUNY Morrisville, where he studied restaurant management.
After graduating from college, Pontius worked for two years behind the line at Phoebe’s Garden, a French restaurant in Syracuse. A job offer from Ciro and Sal’s in Provincetown brought him to the Cape, where he met his wife, Betsy, an elementary school teacher in Yarmouth. After stints at numerous restaurants—including the now-defunct Aesop’s Tables in Wellfleet and Davio’s and Rebecca’s, both in Boston—Pontius opened his own restaurant 16 years ago. He serves up what he calls “creative” American cuisine to fiercely loyal locals and tourists alike, often to hour-long lines out the door.
The Gristmill Restaurant in Eastham offered Pontius his first executive chef position in 1986. After four summers there, he leased a dinner business within the 28-seat Flying Fish Café in Wellfleet, and his success gave him the confidence to look for someplace to call his own. In 1991, Pontius signed a seven-year lease on a building on Route 6 in Wellfleet and opened Finely J.P.’s.
His first season might have scared off the faint of heart. Pontius opened Finely J.P.’s during Hurricane Bob, which wreaked havoc at the high point of the tourist season in August 1991. The storm knocked out power to the lower Cape. Tree limbs were strewn across Route 6. The area was completely disabled. Pontius arrived at the restaurant the next day to find the restaurant’s power—unbelievably—on.
While preparing dinner, Pontius noticed the electric company working on the lines across the street. Within 10 minutes, the restaurant lights flickered and died. He ran outside. “At the end of the driveway, at Route 6, I saw that the insulation on the wires had caught fire from a power surge,” says Pontius. He ran back inside to get the fire extinguisher, and found the restaurant ceiling covered in a thin layer of smoke. Apparently, the small fans in the refrigerator had shorted out, causing a fire. Undaunted, he thought, “Fire–fire extinguisher. Here we go!”
After dousing the fire and rescuing food from the refrigerator, Pontius managed to open the restaurant the following day, serving hundreds of people—including the power company workers—thrilled to have a hot meal. “I opened a little bit late that day,” he laughs. “I was just hoping I could pull off being open.”
Pontius purchased the restaurant property in 2003. Last year, he decided to raze the old restaurant to the ground and start from scratch. The aging building, with its outside plumbing and leaky roof, was not worth remodeling.
The new building is very different from the original, which was never intended to be a restaurant, Pontius says. The new restaurant offers more space for cooking and for dining—indoors and out. Drawing from the coastal surroundings, the new space juxtaposes yellow beige walls with dark blue exposed steel beams. The restaurant includes two split-level dining rooms and a vaulted ceiling and roof deck. The contemporary curved fish-shaped bar adds whimsy to the ocean tones of beige and seafoam green. The exposed beams, recessed lighting and tile-scored poured concrete floors continue the casually elegant and calm vibe throughout the two dining rooms. Local artwork adds a warm touch, and if you’re lucky enough to sit by the floor-to-ceiling window downstairs, you may catch a gaggle of frogs hopping on the concrete outside.
With three young children, John and Betsy don’t get out often, but when they do, they like to eat at Inaho, a Japanese restaurant in Yarmouthport. The kids love pasta and chowder. In fact, the whole family samples chowder at different venues. “They’re real Cape Cod kids,” Pontius says. “They love chowder and clam strips, and they’ll sip the salty brine off an oyster, but not eat the oyster.”
Of all the dishes he creates, Pontius prefers his rack of lamb. “I’m more of a meat eater than a fish eater,” he says. “We didn’t eat much fish growing up.” However, Pontius admits to a love of pasta. He eats pasta almost daily.
Another signature dish at J.P.’s is the Lobster Cataplana, a Portuguese dish made with a half or whole lobster, clams and a spicy Cajun andouille sausage in tomato sauce, served over rice. Other popular dishes include the grilled scallops on linguine with mushrooms and cream and the paella. Mesquite-smoky and mildly spicy, the paella is brimming with peas, mussels, shrimp, littlenecks, scallops, scallions and chicken. The simple, hearty dish highlights the taste of the seafood and satisfies in a healthy comfort-food kind of way.
In this era of the celebrity chef, Pontius remains low key. His simple philosophy is to turn out consistently delicious food. “If I’m going to be in this business,” Pontius says, “the consistency is more important than the flashy.”Back to Cape Cod Travel Guide Stories