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From The Kid’s Table: Diners are for Regulars of All Ages
Beyond the burgers and shakes, it’s the bones of a diner that make these universal restaurants so uniquely special
Welcome to From The Kids Table, a new, personal essay series we’re beta testing. On some Sundays we’ll ask writers to share childhood memories about dining out. For our second installment, Emily Wilson writes about the enduring power of diners by recollecting weekends at her family’s favorite Greenwich Village greasy spoon. We hope you enjoy, and would love to hear your feedback in the comments below.
I started going to Joe Jr.'s when I was 10 years old. That’s when my family moved to 10th Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Neither I, nor my parents, remember which of us discovered it. It was just one of those neighborhood spots that new residents learned about quickly, and old ones were already regulars at. We’d always go for lunch on Saturdays after little league basketball games at P.S. 41. My sister and I would be clad in our jerseys and shorts, our faces still blush from sport. There were other kids and their families from the league too, including competitors we had just won or lost to. By the time we all got to Joe Jr.'s, what happened on the court was behind us. Sportsmanship was the name of the post-game.
“The thin patty’s innermost layer was pink, its edges crisped-up by the superbly seasoned griddle, then covered with a glistening slice of melted cheese (in my case, cheddar). The bun was soft, the condiments self-serve. It made for the perfect weekend indulgence.”
My dad liked the split pea soup flecked with bits of bacon and my mom would order a salad with a scoop of tuna fish on top. For us kids, Joe Jr.'s was a place for burgers, medium rare, and classic milkshakes. The diner was on 12th Street and 6th Avenue, and they made a mean cheeseburger. The thin patty’s innermost layer was pink, its edges crisped-up by the superbly seasoned griddle, then covered with a glistening slice of melted cheese (in my case, cheddar). The bun was soft, the condiments self-serve. It made for the perfect weekend indulgence. So that was my order, every time: a cheeseburger with fries. And sometimes a milkshake.
On certain Sundays, we’d catch an afternoon movie at Regal Union Square followed by an early dinner at Joe Jr.'s. There was Catch Me If You Can, Tuck Everlasting, and our family favorite: The Lord of the Rings 1, 2, and 3. Dinner at Joe Jr.'s was quieter, but the menu was the same. We’d still order cheeseburgers, fries, and milkshakes.
Equal to the food was the sensory overload of Joe Jr.s, all of it still palpable to me. The air was thick with grease. Every table and bar seat was fixed to the ground. And its clientele, Villagers of all age brackets, was entirely local. The owners were Greek, and the to-go coffee cups were emblazoned with the iconic Greek lettering: “We Are Happy To Serve You.” I don’t remember seeing any celebrities among us at Joe Jr.'s, but it was a legendary Greenwich Village spot with an impressive 45-year run. So it makes sense that David Byrne, Cameron Diaz, and Ethan Hawke were known to dine there, too, according to a Times story on the closing – Joe Jr.’s being the casualty of a lease dispute.
The term neighborhood spot gets thrown around a lot, but nothing fits that bill better than a diner. While some diners make certain items better than others, they’re all kind of the same, which is why any given diner is particularly special to the residents of the neighborhood it serves. What better place, then, for a kid to become a regular than at their neighborhood diner? Joe Jr.'s was an extension of my home. It’s where I would take friends for dinner when they were sleeping over unless they wanted pizza or Chinese delivery.
When I had my first boyfriend in 7th grade, the most romantic place I could think of taking him was Joe Jr.'s. Bringing him there was akin to baring the depths of my middle school soul. I would charm him, I thought, by bestowing in him the magic atmosphere of Joe Jr.'s. It worked. We went together often, and every time, we’d order two cheeseburgers with fries and split a milkshake.
Then in 2009, Joe Jr.'s closed, leaving a gaping hole in my heart. It was a monumental loss for Greenwich Village and, frankly, the city as a whole, which today has been wiped of so many of its time-worn canteens with their quick, friendly service and massive menus of simple fare. As former New York Magazine food critic Adam Platt wrote in 2017, “Like most mass-extinction events, the Massive Diner, Coffee Shop, and Greasy Spoon Die-Off has been unfolding slowly around us for decades, in plain sight.” He, too, was a regular at Joe Jr.'s. His order? A BLT with extra mayo.
(An aside, but an important one to note: this Joe Jr.'s is unrelated to the Gramercy diner of the same name, on 3rd Avenue. Lore has it that the two diners shared an owner at some point several decades ago, but by the time I was frequenting the Greenwich Village greasy spoon, their connection was long severed.)
I live in LA now. But I was back in New York last week and feeling nostalgic. I wanted to visit tried-and-true spots in lieu of new places. For the same reason, I was sure to hit S&P Lunch, the storied Flatiron sandwich counter formerly known as Eisenberg’s and recently revamped by the contemporary sandwich masterminds behind Court Street Grocers. I went on a Thursday at noon with a high school friend, and we ate sandwiches on squishy rye bread (the “Fifty-50” with egg salad and tuna salad for me, pastrami with mustard for her). We caught each other up on our lives over a shared order of cottage fries. Around us, the room was abuzz. Short-order cooks griddled up hot dogs and sloshed them with chili and cheese. Servers doled out steaming bowls of peppery matzo ball soup. Heaping salads of iceberg lettuce appeared next to the case of raspberry-raisin rugelach on the counter, only to be swiftly whisked away to a back-room table.
“S&P works so well because the bones were already there. It doesn’t feel new because it’s not; it’s been around for decades. In 2023, there’s no such thing as creating a diner from scratch. It simply doesn’t make sense without the sepia-toned walls, the faded leather bar stools, the nonchalance of the longstanding staff.”
I was reminded of Joe Jr.'s. In fact, my dining mate was another Joe Jr.'s regular back in her day. The two of us had never eaten there together—we met the year it closed—but we had grown up only a few blocks apart. “It was my main zone, they knew me very personally. Was a place I was allowed to go by myself,” she texted me later on as we reminisced.
S&P delivered on its premise so well that I went back a few days later for my last meal before heading to the airport. I had a tuna melt this time, the order Eisenberg’s had long been famous for. S&P nailed it. The menu at S&P is appropriately lengthy, and still, all of the food is executed on a high level. The service is affable and efficient. But mostly, S&P works so well because the bones were already there. It doesn’t feel new because it’s not; it’s been around for decades. In 2023, there’s no such thing as creating a diner from scratch. It simply doesn’t make sense without the sepia-toned walls, the faded leather bar stools, the nonchalance of the longstanding staff.
As Platt painstakingly puts it, diners are a dying breed in New York on account of “skyrocketing rents and land values; ever-rising food prices; the spread of a more expedient, highbrow and lowbrow coffee culture; the gentle, inexorable aging of a whole generation of neighborhood ‘regulars’; the difficulty of keeping an ancient, sprawling, ten-page menu in tune with the changing tastes of the times; and the challenges of passing on a family business to a new generation of proprietors, many of whom have the benefit of a college education, and might prefer frittering their days away in barista bars to breaking eggs over a hot stove.”
We have to hang on to—or rather, regularly visit—all of the diners we still have for as long as we can. RIP Joe Jr.'s. Long live S&P Lunch.