You may have heard that M. Wells, that Quebecios diner in Long Island City that your foodie friends won’t stop talking about because it serves stuff like bone marrow and duck testicles, is closing. In less than two weeks, they will shut the doors of the current location, and eventually relocate to somewhere else in the neighborhood. A Sunday after the news of their closing accidentally broke (more on that below), they fed three-hundred in a space that only seats fifty-five. That’s six full turns of a space not much larger than a subway car, and you better believe they all left happy. They’ve even had to add a Friday and Saturday dinner service to keep up with demand. (In the past year, their weekday crowds have been thick enough for them to afford being closed for weekend nights.)
The reason behind M. Wells’ temporary farewell is an all-too-classic New York quagmire: landlord issues. The narrow, fifties-ish space, which has been host to failed delis, greasy spoons, and even a Chinese restaurant, will now be rented (if the landlord has his way) for a prohibitively inflated sum compared to what M. Wells has paid over the last year. When the news broke on August 2nd, many were shocked, among them the general manager, Deven DeMarco who accidentally hit “Post” instead of “Save” on his blog. “It was still in draft form,” DeMarco said. “I was so embarrassed.” Within hours, he was taking a call from the Wall Street Journal. The staff, luckily, had already been informed.
In M. Wells’ yearlong run, they’ve received mostly rave reviews, but only days after the announcement of their close, a damning, bitter review from Alan Richman was published on GQ‘s website. Richman found the food almost without fault; his attacks were instead on the service and owners, which others cite as a source of M. Wells’ charm. Most surprisingly, allegations that Richman giving a ‘hardy pat on the ass” to one of the waitresses has ignited a new wave of controversy and interest in the restaurant’s final week.
The close is a shame for a multitude of reasons, and Deven DeMarco can tell you pretty much all of them. DeMarco first visited M. Wells in their first month of business, and after three bites of a hangover-curing sandwich, he asked owners Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis if they were hiring. DeMarco, a veteran of the foodservice industry and a leader of grub crawls through New York City, quickly retooled his resume over another M. Wells brunch, and within a few days he became their general manager, a job that he has loved every inch of.
Telling the regulars that M. Wells will shut its doors has been the most difficult part of the job so far, but when asked what the high point has been, his eyes light up; he can name more than a few. A few days ago, four strangers came in to dine alone, and all that was open was a booth, so he offered it to them. They accepted, and DeMarco sent some sake their way as a thank you, but by the middle of the meal, they were sharing dishes, cracking jokes, and seeming as if they’d known each other for years. Another favorite is the regular, an older man who sticks his head in the door and barks questions, “What’s the soup? What are you out of?” before making his decision to have lunch or move on. Characters like that are another part of what’s made M. Wells so special, DeMarco says.
But perhaps what he’ll miss most of all is the staff as it is right now. “Everyone is here for more than just a paycheck,” he says, adding that as trite as it may sound, they “are like a family.” On a recent Tuesday afternoon, as late lunch was served to a packed house, it was obvious that DeMarco is right about the tight-knit quality of the staff. They worked gracefully together in a very open and cramped kitchen to turn out plate after plate of glistening poached eggs over hash, escargot in bone marrow, and intimidating sandwiches stabbed with steak knives. Waiters strode nearly non-stop up along the narrow path between counter diners and booths, seeming almost choreographed.
The Friday and Saturday night suppers will be a single seating Prix Fixe centered around a different theme each night. Past themes have been “A Trip to Fulton Street Fish Market” and “Cheese” and an upcoming one will be “Tin Tin,” whatever that means. The dinners will be two hundred dollars a head, including all food, service, tax and drinks. According to DeMarco’s report, anyone wishing to attend one of these feasts will need to “wear their eating pants.” Could M. Wells go out any other way?