167 Third Avenue
New York, NY 10003
The exterior of Joe Junior looks so much like a caricature of a “classic” “old-school” “diner” that when I moved to its neighborhood, I was skeptical enough to try another diner down the block first, one with a generic name written in the looping cursive of cheesy neon. Rookie mistake.
Joe Junior isn’t just the best diner downtown, it is the best diner in all of Manhattan. The crowd is from central casting: there is a hunched-over veteran in a puffy tan jacket and plain white sneakers poring over the newspaper. A nurse in her scrubs is downing coffee before a shift. A girl with wild eyes and messy hair is uninhibitedly inhaling a plate of fries dunked in what will amount to half a bottle of ketchup (that’s probably me, say hi!).
If it’s lunchtime or dinnertime or, sometimes, breakfastime, you will go to Joe Junior for the burger: a delicious burger, beefy if slightly underseasoned at times, with a too-small bun and fries that can sometimes taste a bit like dirty fryer oil. I know that can’t sound appealing, but search for “best burger new york” and a dozen or more lists by accomplished professionals will count this one among them.
The eggs are eggs and the omelets are omelets and the coffee is bad and the sandwiches are solid. The milkshakes are delicious and served in a frosty metal torpedo-y thing, and nobody will care if you take cookies out of your purse and crush them into your glass before drinking it. And that is why you’re at Joe Junior, anyways.
You should go not to seek out the best burger or check out a “New York classic.” You should go because you are hungry and nobody cares who you are or who you’re with or what kind of weird thing you do to your milkshake. The staff will be kind and you can be as anti-social as you want and you can hang out for five minutes or five hours. To eat at Joe Junior—especially solo, at the counter—is to feel what it means to be a New Yorker, to feel alone and part of something at the same time, to be another face in an endless sea of them.
The counterman will thank you warmly for the good tip you leave him, and out you will go into the endless, churning bustle of the city, amped up on cheap caffeine from that awful coffee, ready to become whoever you came here to be.