Plenty of upscale diners have hit the food scene as of late– for one, there’s Juno, the Bushwick restaurant that John Barclay (founding dude at Bossa Nova Civic Club) recently pulled out of– and there was even a short-lived spot called Amancay’s Diner that was, well, a bit more of a downscale kind of place, with a spin-the-bottle setup and an owner who was better known for throwing jello-wrestling parties than his food.
But Hail Mary– a new Greenpoint restaurant that opened on Wednesday night in the former home of 68 and then subsequently (briefly too) Hook & Cleaver which was run by Chopped chef Diane DiMeo– is pushing the diner concept even further with their avant-garde take on the American everyman classic.
We first heard deets about Hail Mary from a characteristically silly New York Post article that described their offerings as “hipster-style, locally sourced comfort food,” and implied that the restaurant’s debut was another nail in the coffin of “the classic American diner,” an institution suffering a “transformative journey throughout gentrifying Big Apple neighborhoods.”
Yeah, I mean how dare Sohla and Ham El-Waylly (both residents of Greenpoint) patronize local farmers and businesses for their ingredients? I mean, everyone knows that classic diner food is made from the food-stuff that’s processed beyond all recognition and sourced from wherever’s cheapest– it’s the American way. Tragic.
B+B spoke with the husband-and-wife chef duo behind the new restaurant, and they didn’t seem to agree with the assessment that diners are all about depressing food. Instead, they had a few choice words for the Post‘s portrayal. “They didn’t even speak to us, they just called us hipsters and said we were gentrifying the neighborhood,” Sohla said. “What do you do?” Ham seemed a little more agitated. “It’s basically the opposite of what we’re trying to do.”
Case in point: the duo said that, above all, they’re trying to get away from the trend toward humorless and occasionally even stifling establishments. “It’s about presenting the food in a relaxed atmosphere. We’re kind of really tired of the current dining scene of super stuffy and bleak, kind of Nordic,” Ham explained. “We wanted to present something bright and fun– you’re not going to an art show, you’re just having a nice meal and a milkshake.”
A nice meal at Hail Mary can cost you anywhere from $9 to $45, depending on how fancy you’re feeling and how empty your belly is. “The way we’ve set up the menu, you can come in every day and get a $12 sandwich,” Sohla explained. “Or, if you want to splurge, you can go for a $45 duck.”
The couple first met at culinary school, and have worked at a number of respectable establishments all over the city– Ham at WD~50 and Sohla at Atera– Hail Mary is their first effort that’s entirely their own. As such, they’re all about incorporating bits and pieces of their respective backgrounds into the place- Sohla, was raised in LA by Bengali parents, while Ham’s Egyptian father and Bolivian mother reared him in Doha, Qatar.
“We really like Americana, and we wanted to incorporate our own cultures into it too. But we’re exposed to a lot of different things, so we didn’t want it to come off as a hodgepodge,” Sohla explained. “So the diner really brought everything together for us, because traditionally diners were owned by Greek immigrants and they would make American dishes, but try and put their own culture into the food as well, so we’re trying to do the same thing.”
Hints toward the chefs’s respective backgrounds are splattered all over the menu– there’s a Porky’s Panchito, described as a “Bolivian-style hot dog” and a pasta dish served with lamb, olives, pine nuts, and yogurt. What might otherwise be predictable, or one-note flavors served up in dishes as a regular diner, are infused with spices and spiked by unexpected combinations– tamarind glaze, smoked maple syrup, preserved lemon, plum molasses, date vinaigrette, and spicy uni butter all make an appearance on the menu. But you can also just order a bowl of milk and cereal.
Overall, the menu brings together cerebral creations and stoner-food decadence. Hail Mary’s matzo ball soup, for example, contains “fluffy foie gras matzo balls, duck confit, and duck broth.” While the chef’s cherry-and-rose take on a Poptart, can be had at the takeout pastry counter. (And trust, it looks dank– and probably is, thanks to Sohla’s pastry chef background.)
“It’s not fusion per-se, but if our families came over and had all the American ingredients to work with, that’s how they would sneak in little accents of our heritage,” Ham explained.
For now, the chefs are still refining the details when it comes to menu specials, and they’re hoping to cater more toward vegetarians and vegans. “We want to have actual [veg and vegan] menu items, so it’s a real dish instead of just substitutions,” Ham explained. “Something we’re looking at is for the beef stroganoff, which has been our big hit in the last few days, we’re doing a slow-roasted beet version of that.”
The couples’ patchwork of worldly experience is also reflected in the restaurant’s eclectic decor. Obviously, you can’t have a diner of any kind without diner-ish seating, and Hail Mary nailed it with the canary yellow, ’50s-diner bar stools. Sohla designed the dining room, which contains even more nods to old-school diners, including colorful, stained-glass Tiffany-style lamps, ample booth seating, wood tables, family photos, and blossoming, flower-soaked wallpaper.
Guests, and especially solo diners can saddle up to bar-style seating alongside the kitchen, which is separated from the dining room by windows– so don’t expect to be part of the action or anything “We just wanted to contain it, because it’s not a theater kitchen, it’s a real kitchen and with that comes a lot of noise, and yelling, and swearing on our part,” Ham explained.
Of course, there’s a bar as well, half of which is dedicated to their cocktail program and the other half, to an old-timey soda counter. While Hail Mary hasn’t rolled out a happy hour just yet, Sohla said that it’s on the horizon. “The focus of the restaurant is really our soda drinks and floats and freezes,” she explained. “The drinks on the cocktail menu are also really inspired by the soda drinks– we want it to be reminiscent of those flavors, like Creamsicle and banana split, but like boozy, adult versions. The drinks all sound like they’re going to be sweet, but they’re not, they’re just liquor with liquor.” Sounds like our kind of drank.
Hail Mary is now open at 68 Greenpoint Avenue. See menus below.