M. Wells Diner
21-17 49th Avenue, Long Island City NY 11101 (at 21st Street; map); 718-425-6917; mwellsdiner.com
Service: Friendly and pretension-free
Setting: A charming, classic diner car
Must-Haves: Tortilla Española, pan con tomate
Cost: $5 and up
Grade: An optimistic "Incomplete"
It's not often that a diner in Queens attracts city-wide media attention—but M. Wells, recently opened in a somewhat barren stretch of Long Island City, is no ordinary diner.
Opened by husband-and-wife partners Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis—the former, once of hot-ticket Montreal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon, the latter, a Queens native—the diner has already been written up by outlets from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, along with early reports from the Village Voice and Edible Queens. We heard mention of foie gras tamales and rabbit and hot dogs and meatballs cooked in a can—and how could our ears not perk up at that?
We'd intended to postpone a visit until the diner was fully opened; M. Wells has been serving breakfast since their opening, lunch for the last few weeks, and is holding off on dinner (and its most inventive dishes) until a liquor license is secured. But early reports had critics already gushing about the egg sandwich (a "staggeringly delicious... work of art") and the restaurant as "some of the most innovative cooking in the city."
If that was the case, we didn't want to wait.
What we found? A charming restored diner with a small-town friendly crew, an ambitious menu, and a number of plates we'd recommend to anyone. It's all a cut above standard diner fare, and, most refreshingly, served with a diner's lack of pretension and low prices. What we didn't yet find was a kitchen firing on all cylinders—or any single dish that has us running back to the 7 train. That said, it's more than possible to have a great meal for around $10 or so—too rarely the case in New York.
The bad news was front-loaded in the baked goods section, on our visit. Cake donuts ($1) were dry, clearly out of the fryer for quite some time (despite the early hour), room-temperature and distressingly chewy. Cinnamon and sugar couldn't save what otherwise tasted like stale bread. ("That was probably a bad batch," conceded our waitress.) Blueberry-banana fruit loaf ($2) was about as appealing. A biscuit with apricot jam ($3) was undeniably tasty, but more cobbler-crust crumbly than flaky. And buckwheat crepes ($4) existed at some strange intersection between pancakes and crepes—thinner than the former, thicker than the latter. But thin though they were, they were so dense as to seem almost uncooked—more pasty than anything else.
In further courses, things picked up. An egg-sausage sandwich ($7) was a fine morning meal—a fluffy egg patty, fully melted cheddar, lively pickled jalapeño, and a tender house-made English muffin with nooks, crannies, and tons of character—though the sage-scented breakfast sausage, also made in-house, could have been juicier. The pan con tomate y Jamón ($5) beefed up a classic Spanish tapa to a small-breakfast portion; the tomato-rubbed bread was chewy and garlicky, with a generous portion of Benton's Country Ham. Delicious.
We loved a snappy hot dog ($5) with a soft, well-toasted Balthazar bun and tangy coleslaw, and a super-fluffy tortilla Española ($7) with big sweet peas and plenty of ham. The egg tomato pot ($8), though a reasonably homey dish, united huge, sweet tomato chunks with a melting blanket of Parmesan and a soft-set egg that oozed appealingly into the whole stew.
No objections for swapping in mortadella on a crispy, properly smashed Cubano sandwich ($7), stuffed full of fatty roasted pork, though a little more melted cheese wouldn't have hurt. And a bacon, egg, and potato hash ($8), though its potatoes were a bit limp and oily, showcased thick, meaty slices of bacon we'd never expect from a traditional diner.
Cherry pie ($4) covers a stew of pleasantly tart cherries in a crust that's a bit sweeter and more crumbly than our ideal pie crust, but it's a tasty dessert nonetheless. Even better? Banana frozen custard ($4) from Timmy O's in Corona. Though we were afraid re-frozen custard would stiffen and lose its silky appeal, the banana custard softened right back into a wonderfully supple dessert.
To be sure, M. Wells has already achieved some aspect of their mission: elevated diner food in what is still, essentially, a diner setting. And the fact that the bill ends up no higher than your average diner tab (really, the premium for high-quality ingredients is hardly apparent on the menu) makes any early missteps a good deal more forgivable. But we suspect that M. Wells has higher ambitions. Our servers' occasional admissions that some dishes weren't available, and others weren't as good as they should be, demonstrate a kitchen that recognizes its weaknesses. But it also shows a kitchen that's not yet ready for the spotlight.
We're encouraged that the crew at M. Wells seems fully aware of what's not quite up to par; that said, we're not ready to wholeheartedly recommend this restaurant until it gets there. But you'd better believe that when we see a dinner menu—particularly one with foie gras tamales and frogs' legs Provençal—we'll be back for another meal.