By the time you read this the iron curtains at Joe Jr. on 6th Avenue will have come done for the last time, ending the restaurant's 45-year run of serving classic American comfort food to generations of New Yorkers. In one of those seemingly constantly occurring happenstances, a dispute with the landlord over rent have closed a business that was otherwise viable and reportedly employed over 20 workers.
I understand that landlords, just like restaurants, do what they do to make money, but at the same time I can't help but feel that we should try to preserve our cherished institutions whenever possible. Churches, museums and historical monuments are afforded special status that insulates them from the cruelty of the free market, and rent stabilization allows many to live in the city when they would not otherwise be able to afford to. Yet a business like Joe Jr., which in a sense serves as a town square for the neighborhood that it resides in—a place where rich and poor, famous and the anonymous come together—is left to the vagaries of the market and the whims of landlords. Diners like Joe Jr., by virtue of their prices, might be the last vestiges of an integrated society, a place where almost anyone can afford to eat.
I must admit that I had never eaten at Joe Jr. before this weekend. Not at the one on the West Side, anyway. There are—or were—actually two Joe Jr. diners: one in Greenwich Village and one on 16th Street and Third Avenue (the hamburger at the East Side location was my first review here at AHT). At one time both Joe Jr. restaurants had the same owner, presumably named Joe, although no one seems to know for sure. In the mid 1970s the two restaurants were split up, but the names remained the same.
So, too, did the essential way of doing things—the burgers at both places were always griddle cooked and made with fresh beef. The architecture of the burgers were identical, even down to the way the cheese was melted on the bun under the broiler. After eating the burger at the West Side location this past Friday, I wouldn't be surprised if they used the same meat purveyor. The beef had that honest chuck flavor that is the hallmark of the classic diner burger preparation. The patty, just as the one at the 16th Street location, displayed that craggy, hand formed, homespun shape, and the griddle put an impressively thick sear on the outside. Pools of juice formed in the uneven surface of the outer crust and the patty was so moist that the bottom half of the bun became completely soaked and compressed into a thin sliver. Biting in to it released a further torrent of juices that soon overwhelmed the bun's ability to absorb, leaving a large puddle on the plate. The hamburger was, quite simply, sensational.
It is a major loss to lose such an authentic hamburger, but the ramifications of Joe Jr. closing must be far worse for the neighborhood. I know how I would feel if I lost my Joe Jr. on Third Avenue.
As I realize that reviewing a hamburger you can no longer eat does not help you out if you are hungry, I hope that this piece will inspire you to go out and get a burger in your favorite diner, especially if it is as cherished and revered as Joe Jr was.