Cafe Reviews

Welcome Back: Antique Diner May Be Gone, but the Vibe Lives On

Hurricane, gumbo, and pork and grits (in the background).
Hurricane, gumbo, and pork and grits (in the background). Jackie Mercandetti
The hurricane cocktail at the new Welcome Diner is the same as the old one. Two kinds of rum. Pineapple and orange juice. Passion fruit syrup. House-made grenadine. Years ago, the chef, Michael Babcock, who no longer drinks, nailed the drink’s recipe in two nights. “My best friend and I sat around and drank a lot of rum and developed that,” he recalls. It is so tropical and crushable that, just one sip in, you can almost feel reality dissolving.

You may recognize this feeling. It is the dark magic of the old Welcome Diner, which has moved two blocks south from its old Garfield location. There was a magnetism to the eatery, an aura that was part setting (antique diner), part lawn (strewn with mismatched seating), part Babcock’s food (southern comfort with top-shelf ingredients). There was a peerless gritty charm.

Without the antique diner, how could the new place possibly replicate the old magic? How could the fancy new entrees? Sure, a sip of that juicy hurricane would zap the mind the right way, but what about the rest?

That’s what I recently went to discover.

click to enlarge An old favorite, the Hurricane cocktail - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
An old favorite, the Hurricane cocktail
Jackie Mercandetti
Babcock and Sloane McFarland co-own Welcome Diner. McFarland has been an owner since the beginning of Welcome a decade and a half ago, long before Babcock came aboard. The diner’s move a few blocks south was prompted by a few things. Lease issues. The desire to cook with more than a flattop and fryer. The new Welcome, which 35 seats inside and 35 out, opened in August. The exterior is polished white, the neon sign a pink and teal more Miami than Phoenix.

Inside, a bar curls around a full open kitchen. If you are wise and your party is three or fewer, you will sit here. The bar stools are lean. Elbows press on the counter. A willowy waitress may flit over and call you “dude” or say “that’s chill” and sit on the empty barstool beside yours as she discourses on the heat of the gumbo and pens your order.

Sitting, talking, observing, you wait for starters.

Eclectic jammy tunes flow. The walls are adorned with art and trinkets, many salvaged from the old spot, like stickers and a huge cheerleading trophy. A cook swabs a burger bun on a buttered roller, sets the buns on the flattop, torches the cheese on a beef patty with a sucking blue flame. Another drops a fryer basket into bubbling oil. Steam rises in the dim light.

The banjo quickens. One cook knives the chopped herbs on shrimp toast into place. Rum rolls through your head. Grainy mustard glops out of a plastic squeeze bottle like wet sand.

The new Welcome serves many favorites from the old. Burgers with bread-and-butter pickles, with bacon jam, with jalapeño relish. Red Bird chicken, the juicy flesh jacketed in a crackly fry and tucked into biscuits with gravy and cheddar, honey and mustard.

An old favorite starter is jackfruit fries, which are part of the happy hour (Tuesday from 5 p.m. to close; Wednesday and Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m.) Babcock braises jackfruit in amber beer, allium, cumin, and cinnamon, yielding tender, meaty flesh that has distant echoes of carnitas. Fries piled under the fruit taste like actual potatoes and get a heady lift from Welcome’s mustard-based Carolina barbecue sauce.

click to enlarge Shrimp toast is a compelling addition to the new menu. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Shrimp toast is a compelling addition to the new menu.
Jackie Mercandetti
Another winning opener, this one new, is shrimp toast. Here, again, Babcock’s technique goes far beyond what anyone would expect from a diner. Shrimp are pickled in a solution that unites a few vinegars. Before this, though, the heads are removed and turned into a cream sauce, which is piped via whipped cream chargers onto gently toasted bread. Pickled shrimp goes on top, sprinkled with bits of pickled celery, onion, and bell peppers. The treatment seems to bring out the fragrant essences of shrimp, the bites of toast as light as radio waves.

One of the main changes at Welcome is the new “dishes” section of the menu. Here, you will find the kind of hearty plates that just weren’t in the limited cards given the setup of the bygone rig.

If the popularity of grits baffles you, order the pork and grits. Babcock makes his grits from heirloom corn sourced from the pioneering Ramona Farms, conjuring a molten slurry that has a wholesome, almost nutty flavor. Pimento cheese gives the grits some fat and heat. Atop them, smoked over hickory for 12 hours until melting, pulled pork slick with Carolina-style barbecue sauce heaps. Though a poached egg could use a little more velocity, the dish is soulful and satisfying.

The same can be said of Babcock’s gumbo. When he was in his 20s, he traveled to Louisiana, sleeping in his car and eating his way through the land. The love and respect for the state’s cuisine that formed then carries over to his menu now. Babcock’s gumbo gets a dense, smoky backbone from ultra-dark roux. The soup has the kind of chile heat that clears your nose, a tingle reeled in by dusky spices and aromatic vegetables, by Schreiner’s Andouille sausage and long-smoked chicken. Nopales burst with a vegetal, citrusy rush, brightening the weighty soup here and there.

Though we’re talking southern comfort, Welcome isn’t all gravy. Jambalaya has potent flavor, but when it comes in a deep bowl you crave more than a single soft texture, the same bite after bite. Also, my waitress forgot to pack the rest of my gumbo after I asked for a box.

You should close with dessert even if sweets aren’t your thing. Pies here are great, just like at the old spot. Lemon chess pie is essentially just a really good lemon square ballooned to more vertical, three-dimensional proportions. Macerated fruit on top — blueberries recently — vary lush but charged bites.

The level of the food may make you forget that Welcome Diner is a diner, an oddball species of restaurant. Diners are nostalgic, safe, American. They provide not only a place for buzzed high schoolers to prolong their nights, not only a place where eating grilled cheese is the social nom, but pockets that remove you from the rain and stress and cruelty of the broken world we live in.

What made the old Welcome Diner a great restaurant was that it intensified these diner propensities. Welcome felt even more like an escape, even more like a haven, the distance between the reality outside and reality within marked by the lawn chairs and the amari above the bar, by the kitsch and the crowds and the old-time nook where fryer oil always seemed to be crackling.

Though bigger, though more polished, though a little more ambitious, the new Welcome Diner carries on this vibe. You may feel that in the first sultry sip of hurricane, or you may feel that in the hot biscuit steam or the hard-charging banjo plucks from some arcane 1970s rock band evening out into fluid harmony (your head bobbing). What matters is that you will feel that old vibe and dark magic, and this alone makes the new Welcome well worth visiting.

Welcome Diner
929 East Pierce Street
Monday to Friday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Hurricane $8 ($7 during happy hour)
Pickled Shrimp Toast $9
Bumblebee $11
Pork and Grits $16
Gumbo $15

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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy