Sometimes the good stuff is hiding right under your nose.
For decades, Mel’s Café has sat near the center of town on West Main Street, with a bright blue sign that is impossible to miss. Yet, even some of my most food-loving friends have never set foot in the place. As a longtime fan, this puzzles me. And many top chefs would share my view: They love it, too.
Take Junction’s Melissa Close-Hart, one of Charlottesville’s most decorated chefs. A native of Mobile, Alabama, Close-Hart calls Mel’s her “go-to place for a taste of home,” and has been eating there for 20 years. I recently tagged along with her at Mel’s to see what keeps her coming back.
Part of it is feel. Genuine Southern hospitality meets everyone who walks through the door. “No pomp and circumstance,” said Close-Hart. “Just go to the counter, order your food, get your own drink, wait for Mel to personally cook your order, and then enjoy.”
But the real hook is owner Mel Walker’s soul food.
Walker first learned to cook in the late 1960s, while working as a dishwasher at The Virginian. One evening, when the cook didn’t show, the owner asked Walker, who was only 14 years old at the time, to fill in. He must have been a quick study: when the owner returned the next day, Walker recalls, he said: “Mel, you’re the cook now.” Walker has been cooking ever since, and Mel’s is a showcase of the homestyle Southern dishes he has honed over the years.
Close-Hart and I shared a feast of some of Walker’s best, starting with Close-Hart’s standard order, which she rattled off like a child reciting a rhyme: hamburger steak with gravy and onions, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, two rolls, and sweet tea. For the steak, Walker grills a fresh eight ounce hamburger patty, which he smothers with grilled onions and gravy made from beef broth, his own blend of spices, and a roux. “Never underdone or overcooked,” Close-Hart said of the steak.
You can taste the love that goes into Walker’s food, Close-Hart said: “You have to love the food to give it soul.” For me, nowhere in great soul food cooking is the love felt more deeply than in the vegetables, cooked with patience and care, gently coaxing their flavor. Walker’s green beans, “nothing fancy,” he insisted, were “cooked properly” for a Southerner like Close-Hart, she said: slowly, with onions and an end of country ham, until dark olive in color and nearly falling apart. “That’s the way my mom and granny cooked them,” Close-Hart said.
She assembled a bite of hamburger steak, gravy, onions, green beans, and mashed potatoes on her fork, held it in the air, and admired it. “Aside from Thanksgiving,” she said, “this is my favorite bite of food in the world.”
There was also love in our plate of fried chicken. Patience, too. “Many places cook chicken ahead,” says Walker, “but not here.” Once ordered, about 14-16 minutes is the time Walker needs to dip the chicken in egg wash and seasoned flour, and then deep-fry it. “No one minds waiting the extra time for properly cooked fried chicken,” said Close-Hart.
We had to have a Meta’s burger, a Mel’s legend. Pronounced “meet-ah’s,” the burger is named for a customer who ordered the same thing almost every day at an Earlysville place where Walker once worked called Charlie’s Cafe: a burger with Swiss cheese and grilled onions on rye toast. A sum-is-greater-than-its-parts combination, it is one of the most crave-worthy foods in town.
Last but not least was sweet potato pie, which Close-Hart orders on every visit, and says she could eat every day. “I make a pretty good sweet potato pie,” said the four-time James Beard Award semifinalist, “but Mel blows mine out of the water.” The recipe comes from Walker’s grandmother, with sweet potatoes, milk, and just little bit of sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. “Sweet potatoes have a natural sweetness and complexity,” said Close-Hart, “and do not need to be doused in a ton of sugar and spice to taste good.” The result is a pie that has become so popular that, around the holidays, people order it by the dozen.
What Close-Hart likes best about Mel’s food is the comfort it brings. “My husband knows he could bring me my favorite Mel’s meal and it would cheer me up more than flowers and chocolates,” she said. But there is one thing about Mel’s she admits she does not like: the name. You see, Close-Hart, who sometimes goes by Mel, has always wanted to open a soul food restaurant of her own, and call it Mel’s.
She can’t do that in Charlottesville, though. There’s only one Mel’s.