Cheesecake Corner in Brooklyn honors the Jewish founder of Junior’s restaurant


Editor’s note: This article is part of a new series, Sign Post, which explores street signs and other locations around the city that are named in honor of Jewish New Yorkers.

(New York Jewish Week) — At the intersection of Flatbush Avenue Extension and Dekalb Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn sits Junior’s, an iconic New York restaurant and bakery famous for creating “The World’s Most Fabulous Cheesecake,” as they describe it.

For the last 24 years, the intersection has been known as Harry Rosen Way — Cheesecake Corner, named for the Jewish New Yorker who opened the Brooklyn institution in November 1950. Rosen died in 1996 at age 92; after handing the business to his sons, Junior’s is now run by grandsons Alan Rosen and Kevin Rosen.

“What a way to celebrate my grandfather’s legacy,” Alan Rosen told the New York Jewish Week on Thursday. “It was a great day. That guy would have loved this, he was a fancy guy. He would have loved to know he had a street corner named after him, especially in New York City.”

The busy intersection was co-named for Harry Rosen in March 1999. As the New York Daily News reported at the time: “Scores of onlookers waited for free slices of cheesecake, the green street sign was unveiled to applause, in honor of the son of immigrants who built a world-famous restaurant that is a required stop for campaigning Presidents, entertainers and other notables in downtown Brooklyn.”

“If one child tugs on his mother’s sleeve and asks why the street is named Harry Rosen Way and Cheesecake Corner,” Alan Rosen was quoted by Newsday as saying at the unveiling, the mother should tell “the story of a man who was poor and built a business up from nothing.”

Harry Rosen was born on the Lower East Side in 1904. After dropping out of school at age 13 to work at a soda fountain, Rosen — who “started making egg creams on the lower East Side of Manhattan, saving a nickel a day,” as Alan Rosen said in 1999 — eventually opened four sandwich shops in Manhattan.

In 1929, he opened The Enduro Cafe, a lively steakhouse with a nightclub-like atmosphere on the corner of Flatbush and Dekalb in Brooklyn. Though the restaurant closed in 1949, Rosen did not want to abandon the location. Instead, the following year, he opened a more family-friendly establishment, Junior’s — named for Rosen’s two sons, Walter and Marvin.

A replica of the sign hangs above the hostess stand inside the restaurant. (Julia Gergely)

When the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and nearby Ebbets Field, in Flatbush, was demolished in 1960, much of the borough lost its luster. It was time for Junior’s to innovate: Rosen hired Danish-born baker Eigel Peterson to perfect the restaurant’s baked goods, and it was then that the restaurant’s world-famous cheesecake recipe was developed, alongside danishes, rugelach and other cakes.

“I see it definitely as part of the Jewish tradition,” Alan Rosen told the New York Jewish Week about Junior’s iconic cheesecakes last year. “I don’t think America identifies it as a Jewish dessert, but it has its roots there for sure. We came here from Eastern Europe. We brought our recipes to the Lower East Side and you know, we went from there.”

Per the restaurant’s website: “The Rosen family saw all the changes in Brooklyn in the 1960s including the flight to suburbia, the rise of gangs, high unemployment in the borough and the city. However, Harry Rosen never thought for a moment that he would join the exodus from Downtown. Junior’s in the 1960’s was a place where all colors of people in all styles of dress could gather without tensions. Good food and good service became the great equalizer.”

Later that decade, Rosen’s sons took over the business, with grandsons Alan and Kevin coming on board in the 1990s. Throughout the decades, Junior’s has remained a mainstay for locals, politicians and celebrities — and has become something of a pop culture icon itself. The restaurant and its cheesecakes have been featured everywhere from a Notorious B.I.G. music video to MTV reality show “Making the Band” to the HBO hit “Sex and the City.”

Now boasting a thriving mail-order business for its cheesecake, Junior’s has also expanded to include two Midtown outposts and one at Foxwoods Casino.

But the original restaurant remains a Brooklyn institution. On a steamy day earlier this week, when the temperature climbed into the 90s, the atmosphere inside the 420-seat restaurant was jovial. Manager Will McCarthy pointed the New York Jewish Week to an indoor copy of the Harry Rosen Way — Cheesecake Corner street sign, which reads “Do the Right Thing Way” on the back. It’s signed by that film’s Brooklyn-based director, Spike Lee. (The restaurant is not in the movie, said McCarthy, but Lee is a regular.)

Director Spike Lee signed the back of the indoor sign: “To Junior’s, Da best cheesecake in da world. Peace and love Spike Lee.” (Julia Gergely)

McCarthy, who has been with Junior’s for 17 years, said the best part of his job is “meeting new people every day.”

Community-mindedness remains at the heart of the business; as the New York Jewish Week reported last year, Junior’s hosted a gun buyback event in Brooklyn in an effort to prevent violence. “I’m in the restaurant business,” Alan Rosen said. “But I took it upon myself to do something. It was a tipping point.”

And just what makes Junior’s cheesecake so special? “Besides the love, he said, “it’s cream cheese, it’s fresh eggs, it’s sugar, heavy cream and a touch of vanilla.”