Business

A new Star on Madison Avenue

Jay Wence has spent most of his life in diners. And if all goes well, that won’t change now that he has moved to Bainbridge Island.

Wence and his wife, Michelle Enslow, will open the Big Star Diner next week in the Madison Avenue spot formerly occupied by Al Packard’s Blue Water Diner.

“I’m excited,” Wence said late last week. “Today I had a couple from Dallas knock on the door and ask if we served milkshakes.”

That the architecture invites such queries is no accident. Packard found the silver-sided 1950s-era diner in Pennsylvania, shipped it to Bainbridge and refurbished it before opening in 1997.

Wence remembers the Blue Water from previous visits to the island.

“I’d eaten here probably three times when I was up here visiting,” he said. “It never occurred to me that I might be the next owner.”

While he may not have had that particular structure in mind, Wence was a diner guy from the get-go.

“My mom’s friend hired me to work in a diner outside of Portland, where I grew up, because the waitresses wanted a man there, and I was tall.

“Then the cook quit, and I trained for that job. And after about a week, I said that someday I would own a diner.”

He fulfilled that prediction a few years later when he and Michelle bought a place in an industrial area of Portland and opened it as the J&M Cafe.

“After two trips to that restaurant you were a regular,” he said. “The staff knew where you liked to sit and how you liked your coffee. It was an extension of family.”

Wence and Enslow’s own family, though, was extending northward, and Bainbridge became the focal point. So they sold the J&M to a long-time employee, bought a house off Day Road and leased the diner.

Although the space has been vacant since the Blue Water closed over Memorial Day in 2000, Wence says it’s in good shape.

“The kitchen is nicely done. It’s a step up from our old restaurant,” he said.

While they have had access to the property for a month, the whole transaction wasn’t final until this week. So rather than moving a lot of things around, Wence has spent his time interviewing and hiring staff.

“We’ll have about ten people working there, and we want them to be as warm and welcoming as I could be,” Wence said.

The diner will be open seven days a week for breakfast and lunch, and Tuesday through Saturday for dinner.

The fare is what Wence calls “modern diner food,” a term he admits is “just ambiguous enough to cover most anything.”

His conception, though, is “comfort food – the foods we grew up with and that most Americans are familiar with.”

The breakfast menu features eggs, waffles, pancakes and cereals, washed down with fresh orange and grapefruit juice, milk, tea and Pegasus coffee. Lunch and dinner fare includes salads, burgers of various sorts, macaroni and cheese, and half a Cornish game hen. Beer on tap and in bottles will be available, with wine a possible option down the line.

Most of the prices are in the $6 to $8 range, and a kid’s menu offers meals for under $5.

The diner will also serve fountain drinks including milkshakes, sundaes and root beer floats.

The current plan is to open on Nov. 14, a Wednesday.

Wence thinks Bainbridge is just the right size for him and his venture.

“It’s country, but with just enough city to support local business. Hopefully, this will fit right in,” he said.

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