Volume 79, Number 41 | March 17 - 23, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Notebook

Joe Jr. was a diner with that extra-special flavor

By Ed Gold

One of the saddest moments on coming out of a hospital stay that lasted three months was seeing the “Store For Rent” sign at a vacant store at 12th St. and Sixth Ave. which had been occupied for more than three decades by Joe Jr. and run by the Hondros family, which turned the modest eatery into a Village institution.

A lot has been written about some of the attractive dishes, but much of my experience was rooted more in the personality of the staffers, who treated regular patrons like we were almost members of the family.

For years my friend Ron Schneider, a former president of School Board 2, and I had lunch in the place, he favoring the Greek salad — no cucumbers, extra grape leaves — and myself attached to B.L.T. down, mayo on whole wheat.

The boss was Teddy Hondros, with support from two sons, Gregory, a large, wisecracking, sentimental fellow, and Nick, smaller but very lively, who reduced his shop time when he became a physical therapist, plus a host of relatives.

Some years ago, Gregory, who was prescient about the future, worried about a lease renewal and asked if I could give any help. I called one of the elected officials and suggested Joe Jr. was much more than a modest oasis but an important aspect of Village life. In any case, Joe Jr. got a new lease, and Gregory gave me a Joe Jr. hat to honor the occasion.

Whenever I wore the hat outside the Village, people asked if Joe Jr. was a sports star or a relative. I told them it was an important coffee shop. To this day, no one has been able to tell me who Joe Jr. was.

The diner family’s ups and owns always drew community attention.

When a popular waiter, Louie, succumbed suddenly to a heart attack, patrons lined the storefront with flowers, as if a family member had died.

When Teddy’s niece Soso — who had a secret formula for making French toast that melted in your mouth — had her big fat Greek wedding, most of the Greeks in the family danced all night at the festivities, and everyone visited the restaurant to wish her good luck, but two had to mind the store — Gregory and the bride’s aunt and second-shift waitress, Kiki.

Gregory was sorely disappointed but never lost his sense of humor or his circus moves.

Once, when Schneider was finishing a large slice of banana cream pie, which he wasn’t supposed to eat, Gregory spotted his wife approaching, ran to our table, picked up the dirty dish and apologized for not cleaning the table before Ron sat down.

One night I brought in two judges for dinner, Supreme Court Judge Stanley Sklar and Criminal Court Judge Marty Rettinger.

Gregory was so impressed that at the end of the meal he emerged with the largest dessert I’d ever seen: apple pie topped with ice cream, whipped cream, raisins and nuts. 

“On the house,” he said proudly. 

None of us could eat the concoction but we thanked Gregory for the grand gesture.

Kiki, who worked till closing time, was a great needler. She particularly liked my best friend, Judge Diane Lebedeff, whom she dubbed “that beautiful lady.” 

Occasionally, following a Community Board 2 meeting, I would have a bite with one of my women colleagues on the board. Kiki would approach me scowling and ask: “How come you bring a different woman in here every time you come in?”

The chefs and many of the waiters at Joe Jr. were Hispanic and they often liked to tweak Schneider and me, like handing us menus when we arrived. One, Pedro, would spread napkins all over our table because he said we were conspicuously sloppy in our eating habits.

An extraordinary variety of well-known patrons dropped in over the years, including educators like Tony Alvarado, actresses like Sarah Jessica Parker, journalists like Dan Rather, capitalists like Steve Forbes and fashion designers like Isaac Mizrahi. And then there was the Times’s famous food writer Mimi Sheraton — who had a good word for the “excellent tuna fish salad sandwich.”

In recent years, I met regularly with Shaan Khan, assistant to the Manhattan borough president, who called the shop “our four-star restaurant.”

When Schneider and I sat near the street window, we found that many neighbors would look for us, and we would occasionally draw traffic into the restaurant, including former Councilwoman Carol Greitzer and the famous guitarist Jim Hall.

Ironically, another modest food shop recently was having difficulty with its “landlord,” but this shop was in Beijing, and the boot came from the State Affiliated Development Co. The story from China was also interesting because the author was Andrew Jacobs, who early in his career wrote for The Villager.

The most recent news about the Joe Jr. crew is that they are still trying to relocate, hopefully in the Village area. We hope that the landlord who tossed them and did not consider their value in the community will be stuck with a “Store For Rent” sign forever.

 

 

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