Even though I live across the street from Junior’s, I couldn’t tell you the last time I ate there. The iconic Brooklyn diner, of course, is famous for two things: its cheesecake and its sign. While the sign is great, the cheesecake is merely adequate. But this week’s news that Junior’s could soon close sent me back there, and as I ate my first piece in who-knows-how-many years, I remembered that the dessert’s mediocrity is exactly what helped it to become so popular.
Junior’s cheesecake is an incontestable member of the unofficial New York Food Hall of Fame, right alongside Grand Central Oyster Bar’s pan roast, Katz’s pastrami, and Peter Luger’s porterhouse. But unlike some Hall of Fame foods, Junior’s cheesecake is not a transcendent edible paragon. It tastes pretty much like you’d expect: sweet, creamy, a little tang. It tastes like every cheesecake ever. Apart from being too dense, its main defining feature is that it meets, but does not exceed, your expectations. It’s passable and pleasant and remarkably undistinguished.
The real draw is what you might call the Canned Cranberry Sauce Effect: People around the country will profess to loving canned cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, even though they know they could very easily make "better" sauce themselves in a few minutes. It’s not about the quality of the cranberries; it’s about the comfort and nostalgia that come from familiarity.
It sounds simple, but it’s really quite powerful. Something appealingly unexceptional can provide a great deal of pleasure. It’s the same reason people go to chain restaurants or watch Guy Fieri’s TV shows. The canned cranberry sauces of the world demand minimal effort. As a consumer, you just turn your brain off and enjoy.
That’s not to say Junior’s cheesecake is as bad as, say, Olive Garden pasta. People do have a long-standing and well-established fondness for it: A 1981 Times report on a fire-related closing of Junior’s mentions at least one New Jersey resident who at the time made a point to pick up the "celebrated" dessert whenever he was in the city. But the Junior’s brand has grown considerably in the last few decades, and the company makes far more cheesecakes now than it did in 1981. Today, with high-quality food more available than ever, does anyone really believe you can still buy the world’s absolute best cheesecake on QVC? Of course not, but it’s right there, and if you’re in the mood for cheesecake, it’ll do.
It’s unclear what will actually happen with the original Junior’s restaurant, but the cheesecake will obviously live on, unchanged, probably forever. It will continue to taste more or less the same as it did in the ‘60s, and the ‘70s, and the ‘90s, and yesterday. And even though it will never be great, Junior’s cheesecake will always be … eh, you know, fine. In that sense, it will never let you down.