At MeMe’s Diner, a Queer Kitchen Revolution Is All about Hospitality
By Lukas Volger
Photos by Steve Viksjo
“We’re basically opening a restaurant for our lifestyle,” Bill Clark said with a laugh last February as he and his business partner Libby Willis walked us through the space that would become MeMe’s Diner, a 31-seat restaurant in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. At that point they were in the very early stages of renovating the space, and it was all demolition and dust. But their vision was already clear: a clean and warm-toned “residential mid-century modern” aesthetic; accessible food that “feels good for you but is also a little indulgent”; and a fully sincere sense of purpose, which is to serve the neighborhood. It would represent a culmination of their years spent working in so many facets of the food industry, in professional kitchens, in catering, in bakeries (they met working together at the Brooklyn bakery Ovenly), and hospitality. And in fact, it’s the hospitality where they put the most emphasis. “We really hope to make everyone feel comfortable,” Bill said.
Only about two months have passed since MeMe’s opened on November 29th, but their concept is realized. They’ve quickly earned a neighborhood following, and their menu and decor match the plans they described with uncanny specificity. But their aim to make everyone feel comfortable, to be a “hospitality-driven” food establishment, is about much more than just customer service. It’s closely tied to another important strain in the MeMe’s Diner DNA: that Meme’s Diner is, as they say, “a very, very gay restaurant.”
They have no reservations about
defining MeMe’s as a queer space.
They have no reservations about defining MeMe’s as a queer space. From the owners to most of the staff, it’s largely queer people at the restaurant’s helm, and its queerness informs how they interact with their guests and with their employees. It’s “a certain level of compassion,” as Libby puts it; for Bill, it’s how “you should not be stressed about coming here.” It’s about pushing the limits of hospitality—they want to make everyone feel comfortable.
“I think that a certain level of confidence and comfort and reassurance comes when you know that your employer has your back,” Libby said. So they’ve made it clear to both front- and back-of-house staff that they should feel safe to be out and open, to express themselves however they wish. Situations that in many other restaurants would simply be brushed off or ignored—such as when one employee, a straight man, told a line cook, a queer woman, that he’d never met a lesbian—here are safe to be addressed. They’ve trained servers not to greet patrons with gendered readings of the table (“Good evening, ladies,” or “Hey, guys!”) or to second-guess names on credit cards for anyone whose legal name might not seem to match their presentation.
“What we kept coming back to again and again when we were talking about our culture here, and what we wanted our guests and staff to feel is: we want to come to work and be happy.”
“What we kept coming back to again and again when we were talking about our culture here, and what we wanted our guests and staff to feel is: we want to come to work and be happy,” Libby said. “When you’re a trans person and you walk into a space where it’s very tight quarters and you spend twelve hours a day with someone and you feel like you can’t really express your identity... that’s really tiring. That’s really, really fucking hard.” And they flat-out reject the high pressure, high stakes, assaultive culture of fine dining. “Fine dining gets you into bad habits,” she said. “You yell at people, tell them they’re worthless. I worked for a very small period of time in a restaurant that was like that and I hated it. I couldn’t find the value in it.” Practices like theirs may seem simple, but they represent a major shift in the world of professional kitchens.
But perhaps what’s most memorable about MeMe’s Diner, especially for guests, is the immense appeal of the food and drink they serve. Named after Bill’s maternal grandmother, who married late and still drinks a Manhattan every day (“We impart her sassiness,” says Bill), their aim with the menu is “accessible luxury, everyday indulgence.” This translates as comfort classics like meatloaf and mac and cheese, as well as entree salads topped with a Buffalo-style sliced chicken cutlet or perched on a crisp patty of fried noodles. Their biscuit—easily one of the best in Brooklyn—is roughly the size of a softball, glistening with a golden-brown crust. There’s always a layer cake beckoning from the counter, its pillowy divots of frosting catching the light. And the cocktails, developed by Bill, are both familiar and new, like MeMe’s Punch, a crisp and balanced rum drink with ginger, passionfruit, and bitters.
Menu to decor, everything evokes a classic diner. Their egg salad is topped with blue cheese, chopped tomatoes, and fried onions sprinkled in three thick stripes, reminiscent of a Cobb. A big jar full of cheese puffs is displayed behind the bar. But there’s updated emphasis on freshness and ingredients du jour, such as their house-made chili oil and a ginger-scallion based green goddess dressing. “We want to serve food you want to come back to, food that you understand, but still can surprise you at how good it tastes,” Libby said. “Our pantry is not that different from a good home cook’s pantry.”
Though they each have backgrounds both cooking professionally and in hospitality, they’ve split responsibilities between front- (Bill) and back-of-house (Libby), though with some overlap—Bill handles almost all of the baking. But being a hospitality-driven restaurant rather than a chef-driven one, the long-term plan isn’t for Libby to stay in there. “I never intended to be the chef,” she said, “but it’s so much my vision, the food is so much a part of me, that it doesn’t make sense for me not to start in the kitchen.”
“We hypothetically know how to run a restaurant because we’ve done it before, but do we actually know how to do this—from the ground up?”
Just after Thanksgiving last November, their families flew into town to help them get the doors open. Libby and Bill had been so consumed with all the final details that the pre-opening party was thrown together at the very last minute—so late that they worried no one would show up. And it wasn’t until this stage of the process that they experienced doubt about their endeavor. “There were moments that we looked at each other and said, Do we know how to do this?” Bill said. “We hypothetically know how to run a restaurant because we’ve done it before, but do we actually know how to do this—from the ground up?”
Libby described her concerns as so: “Will. People. Come.”
But the pre-opening party turned out to be standing-room-only, packed with their friends and lots of family, with passed appetizers and MeMe’s Punch. It was a telling start: People are certainly showing up and they’ve already got a cadre of regulars. And without a PR agency, or even the time to do publicity themselves, word about MeMe’s has managed to spread organically through social media and something of a gay whisper network. While out at a gay bar, a friend of Bill’s overheard someone talking about “this new gay spot in Prospect Heights.” Another guest discovered Meme’s through an internet rabbit hole that began with a viral tweet Bill’s boyfriend wrote.
Now that they’ve found their rhythm, started serving brunch, and seen their concept validated, they’re beginning to shift their attention to other areas, which, among other things, includes the queer industry night series they’ll kick off on February 12, and getting their 15-seat patio open once the temperatures rise. But as far as goals go, they just want to to listen to the community and the neighborhood, keep a close eye on how MeMe’s can better serve its guests. “We don’t have bigger dreams than just becoming a reliable place for you to be,” Libby said. A place to feel comfortable. ///
MeMe's Diner is located at 657 Washington Ave in Brooklyn, New York. For more information, visit their website.