Junior’s marks 60 cheesy years

Today is Junior’s birthday — but you get the cake!
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

It’s been over 40 years since a slice of Junior’s signature dessert — a deliciously rich and creamy cheesecake — cost only 60 cents.

But that was the bargain offered on Tuesday when one of Brooklyn’s most-revered restaurants celebrated its 60th anniversary.

“It’s amazing to me that we’ve been around for 60 years,” said Alan Rosen, whose grandfather started the family-run restaurant. “I can’t take the credit. How many businesses can live that long? It’s a testament to my father, my uncle and my grandfather.”

Indeed, Junior’s has been a beacon at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge for decades, always retaining its wholesome charm — one so laudable that even a former competitor praised it.

“It’s the best of Brooklyn — it never fundamentally changed, it just improved,” said Peter Aschkenasy, who once owned the legendary Gage and Tollner which was on the other end of the Fulton Mall from Junior’s. “It is a real interracial, inter-ethnic place. That may not be unique now, but it really was 30 or 40 years ago.”

That wholesome atmosphere, Aschkenasy said, is critical to the restaurant’s success.

“Whether it’s the staff or the customer base or the food, it makes me feel good whenever I eat there!” he said.

Junior’s charming ambience stemmed from its founder’s humble beginnings.

Rosen’s grandfather, Harry, grew up working at various luncheonettes around the Lower East Side.

Legendary Downtown politico Steve Cohn (with Councilman Lew Fidler in the background) hosts the political breakfast of the year, every Friday before Election Day at Junior’s. But this week’s was the last one before Cohn retires after two decades as a state committeeman. The breakfasts, he says, will continue.
Community Newspaper Group / Aaron Short

“His mother made him squirrel away money each week,” said Rosen. “When he was 20, he bought his first luncheonette.”

And just in time for the Depression! Once the economy tanked, Harry had to sell the five Enduro restaurants that he owned — except for one at the corner of Flatbush and DeKalb avenues.

By the time the 1950s rolled around Harry Rosen knew he needed to open a family restaurant that would cater to the crowds attending the shows at the Paramount Theater — Buddy Holly! Chuck Berry! — which was across the street until 1962.

“The war was over, and everything was family-oriented in the 1950s,” said Rosen.

So Rosen rechristened Enduro as Junior’s — the restaurant that would one day become a mandatory stop for any celebrity looking for a photo op or any politician on the campaign trail. Al Sharpton has held court there. Bill Clinton stopped for dessert while campaigning in 1992. The Brooklyn political power player, Steve Cohn, has held a yearly breakfast there for at least the last two decades.

From the restaurant’s humble beginnings, Harry Rosen recognized the need for a signature dish and began scouting the cheesecake competition.

“My grandfather said if we’re going to be a great restaurant we have to serve great cheesecake,” Rosen said. “So they literally went around town, tasted cheesecakes and did experiments.”

By 1973, Junior’s was recognized as the best cheesecake joint in town by the Village Voice and New York Magazine.

Rosen added that the restaurant had seen that stretch of the Fulton Mall go through good times and bad since it first opened.

“There were some tough times in the 1970s,” said Rosen. “But we’re fortunate we’re still here. We never gave up on Brooklyn.”

Not even when nearby Myrtle Avenue was better known as “Murder Avenue.” Or when the 88th Precinct was known as one of the city’s most violent. And not even in 1994, when a string of shootings shook the Fulton Mall to its core.

Indeed, the tough times continued until the mid-1990s, when the construction of Metrotech signaled the start of gentrification of Downtown — though that caused its own controversy, of course.

“[In the late 1980s], I felt like too many retailers on the Fulton Mall were in the business of screwing over poor people,” said Aschkenasy. “All the electronics stores were forever getting fined by the city.”

But, Aschkenasy said, the Fulton Mall has since improved, with Junior’s glittering sign beckoning cars coming off the Manhattan Bridge, as well as straphangers emerging from the DeKalb Avenue station.

“Junior’s is one of those institutions that is even bigger than Brooklyn — but at the same time it is very much of Brooklyn,” said Aschkenasy. “Old businesses that survive and improve are a wonderful thing.”

And on Tuesday hundreds celebrated the restaurant — and likely put on a pound or two in the form of under-priced cheesecake.

Junior’s [386 Flatbush Avenue Ext. at DeKalb Avenue in Downtown, (718) 852-5257].