Monday, January 3, 2011

Auster's Joe Jr.'s

As we lose bits and pieces of the city, they sometimes resurrect unexpectedly in movies and books. It's always a thrill to be so taken by surprise. Enjoying Paul Auster's new novel, Sunset Park, I was happy to find Joe Jr.'s, the diner on the corner of 12th St and 6th Ave that closed in July 2009 after a passionate neighborhood battle to keep it alive.

As his character Morris Heller sits in the diner, Auster writes:

"Joe Junior's is a small place, a simple, down-at-the-heels neighborhood joint featuring a curved Formica counter with chrome trim, eight swivel stools, three tables by the window in front, and four booths along the northern wall. The food is ordinary at best, the standard greasy-spoon fare of two dozen breakfast combinations, grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches, tuna fish salads, hamburgers, hot open turkey sandwiches, and fried onion rings.

He has never sampled the onion rings, but legend has it that one of the old regulars, Carlton Rabb, now deceased, was so enamored of them that he added a clause to his will stipulating that an order of Joe Junior's fried onion rings be smuggled into his coffin before his body was laid to rest.

Morris is fully aware of Joe Junior's shortcomings as a dining establishment, but among its advantages are the total absence of music, the chance to eavesdrop on stimulating, often hilarious conversations, the broad spectrum of its clientele (from homeless beggars to wealthy home owners), and, most important, the role it plays in his memory."

Recent news tells us that South American "coffee connoisseur" Fernando Aciar is moving into the Joe Jr.'s space with something called O Café. Grub Street describes it as "more green than greasy spoon, incorporating reclaimed materials, recycled lamps, and LED lights."

The cafe is co-owned by real-estate developer Jeffrey Sitt. According to Sitt's site, the partners were "Determined to bring the authentic taste of South America to the states," so "they engendered an unprecedented line of branded coffee, organically grown and imported from Brazil. An expert in the field, Aciar hand selected the superior grade beans from each unique region of the country, while Jeffrey secured financing and space for the premier O Café shop."

Sitt is known for, in his bio's words, "gutting, renovating and ultimately condoing and renting residential spaces from Staten Island to Hoboken and various localities in between." Projects he's involved with include The Bridges and 99 Gold in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn, and some controversial, historically significant warehouses in Wallabout.

That "broad spectrum of clientele" that Auster writes about in his novel--it's vanishing. The spectrum is getting narrower and narrower, wherever you go. I often wonder: In my old age, will I even find a single place like Joe Jr's, where there is no throbbing music overhead, where I can eavesdrop on stimulating conversations while enjoying a plate of ordinary food? Or will it all be gone? And if so, what then?

Said John Waters of Joe Jr's to Gothamist, "It was my favorite neighborhood coffee shop and I'm mad that it's gone and I put a curse on the owner." In the future, such curses may be all we will have.

Read more on Joe Jr's:
Joe Jr's
Save Joe Jr's
Last Supper at Joe's

Join the Friends of Joe Jr's on Facebook


City Of Strangers said...

Hi Jeremiah,

I made it to Joe jrs a couple of times when I used to stay in the area and am sorry to hear it's gone. What's curious about that region of Park Slope is how these few relics survive - another diner or two on 7th, some cheap dive bars on 9th street and 5th Ave. I guess the Gowanus keeps it honest. Though lots of empty condos litter the area as well . . .

I know what you mean about that artisinal thing. Here in our corner of Bed-stuy, the transition from basically nothing to artisinal is kind of stunning. Sometimes, I ask myself why it isn't possible to open, say, a dive bar, or a DINER with decent food, where the poor people who still dominate this neighborhood might be inclined to go. As an ex-Montrealer, I appreciate good food but this artisanal thing is just so precious, not to mention expensive.


James Taylor said...

Does anybody know the relationship (if any) between this Sixth Avenue restaurant and the similarly-named Joe Junior's on the corner of Third and 17th? I'm putting together an extensive Manhattan egg cream review and thought you (or one of your astute readers) might have the answer! I wondered if it was perhaps a mini-chain like the Viand Coffee Shops...

Marty Wombacher said...

I live about five blocks from there and really miss Joe Jr.'s. Another great spot in the neighborhood that's gone. I wonder if they'll be an artisanal cheeseburger on the new menu? If so, it'll probably cost about thirty bucks.

Anonymous said...

@CoS: Joe Jr was in the West Village.

I'll miss the place and the many other neighborhood anchors that have been allowed to be set adrift.


Claribel said...

Hi James, I'm not familiar with the diners but according to these links, both Joe Jrs were owned by the same family at one time:

sRL said...

i lived around the corner from joes. had breakfast there etc. "77-81. i have no idea what artisnal means. sounds pretentious. throbbing music? try buying vegtables in a small mexican town @ 9am in the morning, from a truck w/a table on the street. yes you got it, speakers on full blast, gigantic speakers. they sell CDs as well, & moderate volume just wont do. this loud music is world wide. if hunreds of people per week said something (in resturants) then the trend would stop. dont eat anywhere that has loud music. dont shop anywhere w/loud music!! & someone please describe what artisnal food is?

Jeremiah Moss said...

don't know about the Sitt relation, but i wondered the same thing.

James Taylor said...

Thanks Claribel, those links clear things up a bit!

Anonymous said...

Auster must have never sampled the soups or specials of the day - all homemade at 3:00 a.m. by the aunts and uncles - so, not just ordinary fare as he states.