I went to Joe Junior’s because Eater‘s resident meat expert declared it to be the best burger in the city. Brette Warshaw in Lucky Peach also made a compelling case for going, although I didn’t follow her lead and went exactly because of the burger thing. I recommend reading (and watching) their pieces to get the goods on why the burger and the diner are special. But the gist is: Because they’re not. Or rather, in the simplicity of the burger and the banality of the diner, you end up with the ideal of both. In this moment when both high-end chefs and successful chains are still trying to make the perfect burger, it is not hard to find joy in a plain cheeseburger that tastes like what it is. And also in this moment when small, independent businesses are constantly being lost, you root for a place like Joe Junior’s. At new restaurants, I’ll complain about lack of space or uncomfortable chairs. At Joe Junior’s, the dirty patina of age and the ripped stool cushions make it feel real and tangible somehow. For an outsider like me, they make me think of a New Yorker’s New York, or a city that existed before Duane Reade and Chipotle populated it.
The diner in New York is still quite a foreign experience to me, and I think that’s why I loved going to Joe Junior’s. In a city of people who often don’t cook, a place that serves everything all day is understandable. You need a place where you can get a plate of eggs, a turkey sandwich, some chicken fingers. I know the importance of the diner here because of something like Seinfeld, and not because they were a fixture in Edmonton. There were a few independent diners, but the general concept for me is rooted in chains like Uncle Albert’s and Smitty’s. Same same but different. Something for everyone. Everything is familiar. At this point, the diner is not something I need because I eat basic at home so that I can eat exciting when out. But there is something to eating at a place where good food is secondary to the act of being fed, quickly and without hassle.
At 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, the small diner was not quite full, but about 85% of the patrons were dining alone. On lunch breaks or not, reading the paper or from their phone. Staring out the window. Menus are almost superfluous because everyone already knows what they want.
I’m reminded of how much my Grandma Ruby likes those chains in Edmonton or even more so, the cafe at Zellers when it was open. Yes, it was cheap, but it was the familiarity of it all. No complicated names or ingredients and no real decisions. The act of going out and not having to do dishes is treat enough. The New York diner is similar. Yes, even with horrible apartment kitchens, we could make a plate of scrambled eggs or a BLT. But when there’s a place on the corner where you’ll be left alone, why not pay the small premium for someone else doing the work?
The cheeseburger is fantastic, though. I followed Solares’ lead and made sure it was cooked without use of the plancha. When I saw a cheeseburger go off with its use, there was a noticeable difference: My burger was looser, the sear lighter even though both burgers were cooked to the same temperature. It was fantastic because, like I mentioned, it tasted like what it was, no more no less. It was beefy and juicy, and the American cheese added just the right amount of goo and salt. Sure, I love the potato bun at Shake Shack, but a totally generic white bun allows the experience to be all about the beef. It’s a glorious few moments as a carnivore as you try to savour each bite yet eat quickly before the bottom bun is completely soaked through. There is nothing special about the fries—they probably should be called disappointing—but they’re hot and crisp enough, and when doused with salt and dipped into ketchup, exactly what you want in between burger bites and to take up the remaining space in your stomach.
I wouldn’t want Joe Junior’s to be a destination for fear of how crowds (like me) would change the atmosphere. But I hope it becomes a little bit of one so that it stays open.