Walking into Hail Mary, the new retro diner in Greenpoint from chef couple Sohla and Ham El-Waylly, is a visual overload. Your eyes aren't quite sure what to admire first: the gutsy, orange floral wallpaper that covers the restaurant, or the straight-from-grandma's-basement Tiffany lamps hanging above the front bar? If you ask us, the right move is grabbing a spot at the cozy library nook near the front entrance to take it all in. (If you see a painting of a dog dressed as a '50s soda jerk, you're in the right place.) There, you'll also find clues as to what led two chefs of Bengali, Egyptian, and Bolivian ancestry to fall in love with the idea of opening an American-style diner.
"I've always been obsessed with the whole Americana culture."—Sohla El-Wayll
The bookshelves are brimming with their extensive collection of American vintage cookbooks, like Betty Crocker's Guide to Easy Entertaining and The Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer (a cherished reference book originally published in 1896). "I've always been obsessed with the whole Americana culture," says Sohla, who grew up in Los Angeles to Bengali parents. "My parents kept me isolated from certain aspects of it, because their goal was to keep me as brown as possible," she says, laughing. Naturally, her inclination was to rebel, favoring the food she didn't grow up with: pimento cheese, biscuits, and pie.
The Evolving Concept
While working, separately, in some of New York's most popular and demanding restaurants—including Del Posto, Atera, WD-50, and Empellón Cocina—the couple began throwing around their first concept about six years ago. "We were young and dumb," says Sohla, quickly, before admitting the inspiration behind that first idea. "It was going to be the 'New American,' seasonal small plates, which everybody does!" Back when the duo was first in the market for a space, she says even the realtor's eyes would glaze over at the thought of yet another restaurant doing more of the same in the increasingly competitive Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn.
"Everything is slightly Nordic and gray, so we're bright and orange."—Sohla El-Waylly
"That's when we realized how boring and played out that idea was. We then just allowed ourselves to do what we wanted: something more fun, the complete opposite of what's happening in restaurants right now," continues Sohla. "Everything else is slightly Nordic and gray, so we're bright and orange."
The El-Waylly Spin on Diner Food
At Hail Mary, the diner classics are certainly refined, like a deviled egg dip with plump trout roe, smoked maple, and homemade Ritz crackers; others are clearly designed to infuse elements of the couple's cultural heritage. There's a hot dog on the menu, but their take involves a Bolivian-style sausage and a sprinkling of ají panca, a pepper Ham's grandmother kindly sends them from Bolivia, since you can't find it in the States. There are also, of course, wings, which come glazed in ginger and tamarind, two Southeast Asian ingredients from Sohla's upbringing.
The Phenomenal Sweets
Despite her training in the world of the savory, Sohla's professional life was mostly spent in the pastry department of restaurants—and not by choice. "It happens to a lot of women, and it's a very hard to get out of that little nook once you're placed in it."
At least one positive has come from that passage, as Hail Mary has an extraordinary in-house pastry and dessert program that truly reflects Sohla's "grandma chic" inclinations. There's an Ambrosia jello mold on the menu, a "Mile High" funfetti cake, a rotating selection of layered pies, pop-tarts, and even homemade candy bars like cardamon and pistachio butter cups, and a rose nougat and cashew "Snickers."
With every detail of Hail Mary, Sohla and Ham El-Waylly have created a retro world of their own design, and they're not concerned with being different. "It's either going to bode well with people or not. I don't think there's going to be a middle ground with a concept like this," says Sohla. "We knew it would be a risk. But that's why we're calling it Hail Mary."