Usually, Restaurantarama is interested in food before anything else (natch). As doggedly as bears seeking honey, we sniff out all that is fried, fricasseed, boiled, baked, chopped, tossed, smoked, steamed, poached and pickled in this here town of ours. However, once in a while we must pause to consider that restaurants are not only places to find grub. They’re also buildings, businesses and parts of the community. Such is the mindset with which we bring you some news about Mel’s Café, the neighborhood standby on W. Main Street.
Kiss these grits: Mel Walker and his diner are getting lots of well-deserved love from the community—thanks to cash and in-kind donations, Mel’s sign will soon get a makeover.
The story begins with the fact that owner Mel Walker is such a good guy that the nonprofit Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries bestowed on him its second annual Beloved Community award this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the words of Rydell Payne, executive director of the organization: “We thought Mel was quite creative at using his culinary skills to serve our community in such a rich way”—by donating food and labor to local programs.
That’s truly sweet, and so is the fact that Abundant Life raised $850—which was then matched by local company Hightech Signs—toward a new sign for Mel’s. (The existing one, Walker himself estimates, might be as old as 40; it’s not looking too pretty.) And here the feel-good vibes get complicated.
“I wanted to remove the arrow with the Christmas-tree lights,” explains Ben Foster of Hightech Signs. Instead, he envisioned a new outline with two circular faces extending beyond the shape of the sign. But whereas Foster displays zero sentimentality about the funky ol’ dinosaur that’s there now, it apparently makes the city’s Board of Architectural Review feel all warm and fuzzy and nostalgic. In its May 15 meeting, the BAR asked Foster to preserve the existing outline (“It’s a historic outline,” says Foster, chuckling), keeping his new circles inside the lines and letting the arrow remain.
And so he shall. The spruced-up sign, Foster says, should be finished in about a month—arrow included. This all reminds us of last year’s fracas between the BAR and the Melting Pot, also signage-related—though the fondue place is a national chain in a high-end Downtown building, while Mel’s is a homegrown greasy spoon whose owner exhibits the utmost modesty: “This is my home, so I try to help the local people out when I can.”
Moral of the story? Doing something nice for somebody can be a lot more complicated than you’d expect. Still, stopping by Mel’s for a hamburger is probably a good deed, plain and simple. Just look for the arrow.
The new South
Aside from the menu, the new Southern-cuisine restaurant Maya—not far from Mel’s—is not particularly reminiscent of the South. But that’s fine with us: We feel no need for more Cracker Barrels in this world, and when we showed up for dinner recently we found the clean, modern-industrial looks of the space a lot more appealing than a faux-”Waltons” theme would have been.
Still, the menu clearly recalled the kind of fare John-Boy might have noshed: collards, ham gravy, grits. And there’s a Gulf of Mexico influence—fried oysters with spicy remoulade. The deal is, when you get an entrée you also pick two sides from a long, tempting list (sweet potato fries, red rice and chorizo, cornbread, beets…) and then try to resist piling on more at extra cost.
Our companions insisted on describing their meals of ribs and pork chops with terms like “tasty,” “good” and “I like it a lot,” so we can’t offer too many specifics on those. But we found the macaroni and cheese deliciously tangy, and the fried okra irresistible. Also, two words: “soul pickle.” Try it.
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