It isn’t often that a restaurant review makes big news, but that’s what happened with Alan Richman’s account of his experience at M. Wells, the diner in Queens, NY that went from culinary sensation to closed-for-business in a matter of months, like a comet across the food world. Last night, Alan won a James Beard award in the category of restaurant criticism for three columns including this one, The Very Tasty Liberation of Paris, and I [heart] SF. Here’s a short portion of Diner For Schmucks.
Sooner or later, depending on how long it takes to get a reservation, you’ll end up having a bad time at what is supposed to be a good restaurant.
When that happens, you might be startled by how upset you become. It probably won’t be the food that’s to blame. You can always shrug off a tough steak, since the chef didn’t mean to disappoint you. But everyone takes poor service personally. Get a bad table and you’ll wonder if the hostess finds you unworthy. Find yourself with a disrespectful server and you’ll feel worse, because you’re expected to tip.
Now and then, poor service is the result of a restaurant having an unfortunate day. Maybe the chef snapped at your waiter and made him sulk. Maybe the front of the house, as it’s called, is short-staffed because a waiter called in sick.
More than likely, poor service is inherent, caused by a staff with lackluster spirit or a manager with a lax attitude. Here in New York, with our restaurants tumbling into informality, a guest can easily become a casualty of incompetence. We’ve entered the post-service era, where fewer and fewer restaurateurs still stand watch.
Which brings me to M. Wells, a metal-clad diner as shiny as a magpie’s trinket, situated on a corner in Queens as dead-drab as one of the borough’s countless cemeteries. A little more than a year ago, the diner was an abandoned shell, and now it symbolizes the renewal of Long Island City as surely as the MoMA PS1 art museum and the Silvercup film studios. I don’t know what a burger once cost at the derelict diner that became M. Wells, since I never ate there, but I’m betting it was about $2.99. M. Wells sells one for $42, proof that gentrification is thriving in Queens.
Walk in and you might presume that you’ve stumbled on a formulaic re-creation of the diner genre, but you’d be wrong. M. Wells is not a faux-old-fashioned spot with black-and-white shakes and brassy waitresses to put you in your place. It’s not retro-romantic, with votive candles, arugula salads, and flourless chocolate cake.
My experience there was like no other. The motto is “All’s well at M. Wells.” I assure you it is not.