The Wee Hours: The Last Days of M. Wells Diner

Embroiled in a sex scandal (sort of) and facing impending shutter (most definitely), the city's swankiest diner stays optimistic.

Diner off the tracks!

The general manager of M. Wells, perhaps one of the best-reviewed new restaurants of the year, didn’t want to talk about the sexual harassment scandal.
“The only people that know what transpired would be the server’s butt and the hand,” said Deven DeMarco.

The Observer sweated out the 7 train to Long Island City last Sunday to take in the mash-up of greasy-spoon and gourmand—once an abandoned diner left for dead, just spitting distance from the Pulaski Bridge. Regrettably, the journey couldn’t wait until, say, a brisk September weekend: due to skyrocketing rent after the spot’s one-year lease expired, M. Wells, which was just named one of the top 10 restaurants in the country by Bon Appétit, will close after dinner this Tuesday.

The trip was a long time coming. Fashion editors at Greenwich Champagne lunches had gushed to us about the bone-marrow-and-escargot concoctions. Friends got giddy when describing the well-worn vinyl seats and the hot hiss of fat on spatulas. It all sounded very good.

A steamy article in this month’s GQ, however, made things even more interesting. Food critic Alan Richman had come out to review the place and after his third visit, one of the co-owners, Sarah Obraitis, accused him of giving a female server “a hardy pat on the ass.” Mr. Richman was aghast, ran the whole story in the magazine (along with a full denial of said ass-slapping), and M. Wells’ perfect record was smeared and tarnished.

“On the one hand, it’s nice to have a little negativity,” Mr. DeMarco said as he took a sip of his Rogue Ale. The Observer was attacking a peach cobbler with dragon fruit sorbet, which was excellent by all metrics. “There’s a balance … I have a lot of opinions on that article that I don’t want to offer.”

Mr. Richman treated his experience as emblematic of the entire downfall of service in New York restaurants. But judging by our time at M. Wells, he seemed a little off. We walked in for brunch at 4:00 p.m.—it was a late, late night before—to an offer of lemonade accompanied by Bulleit bourbon.

The place is anything but understaffed. Behind the counter, at least seven young men tended the grill and chopping boards, flinging fist-size hunks of meat onto mayo-slathered rolls, or plopping glistening olive oil onto large crocks of soup, or cutting out slices of pineapple upside-down cake, a dessert that even the sour Mr. Richman spoke of in breathless prose. As closing time came so did the cans of Tecate for the waiters.
For all the hype, and the prices, the place does seem a hell of a lot like a normal diner, or at least a low-key night out. Amid the Boyz II Men blaring from speakers a cell phone rang. No sweat. Its owner slid two towering Dagwood sandwiches into the microwave, pressed the zap button and flipped it open.

“Dude, but last night,” said the cook with tattoos crawling down both arms, into the phone.

The microwave whirring turned off, and without missing a beat the cook slid the massive hoagies out to the counter.

“You know what? Lemme call you back.”

The dreaded “hipster diner” appellation could work as well, though. Affixed above the counter, in no particular order, were, to name a few: an ironic “customer of the week” award, an illustration of St. Francis of Assisi, strips of masking tape with incomprehensible messages, a wooden cross and a postcard that proclaimed “Welcome to Twin Peaks!” When the afternoon downpour that comes like clockwork on August afternoons started, “Dancing Queen” was playing on the stereo.

Too cute, too calculated? Mr. DeMarco tried to dismiss that idea.

“At first we were only open in the morning and people would scoff at us and be, like, ‘Oh, well, it’s only for hipsters who can come here when they don’t have a job,’” he said. “And I’m, like, ‘Do you know how many people come here on their lunch breaks from out of town?’”

For M. Wells, moving out of the diner space means losing some of the charm, but perhaps the schtick will fade too, and the food—which, despite any complains regarding service, is probably worth the wait, price and time spent in L.I.C.—will be the only point of conversation.

The last night for M. Wells will be Aug. 30. The owners, who had been out of the restaurant Sunday celebrating Ms. Obraitis’s birthday, are scouting locations nearby and hope to open in two to four months.

In other words, it appears that a scandal and high rents will not be stopping M. Wells.
And Mr. DeMarco has a loose plan for the final night in the diner.

“Rather than mourn, come celebrate. It’s sort of like an Irish Wake—it’s fucking terrific,” he said, polishing off his beer. “From the opening we always joked that we would do shots when the Pulaski Bridge went up. I can guarantee you we’ll be watching intently for it to go up that night.”

Then, we looked out toward the bridge to find the rain had stopped, and when we looked down at our plate, not a speck of the cobbler remained. The Wee Hours: The Last Days of M. Wells Diner