“I can’t believe you’ve never eaten here.”
This, from my spouse.
“You grew up here, too,” I remind him, as we dig into piles of eggs — his an omelet, mine over-easy and piled atop hash browns. We are at Mel’s Diner, a longtime Grand Avenue tradition and the setting for both the film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Alice, the TV show based on the movie. We live a half-mile away and both love a good diner meal, so neither of us has a worthy excuse for not having tried Mel’s surprisingly excellent food.
A note on the cover of Mel’s menu claims that the show was filmed there; it was not, although a brief shot of the diner’s street sign appeared in the program’s opening credits. That sign, originally created for Lester’s Diner in the ’60s, depicts a giant coffee cup emblazoned with the latest of the cafe’s many names. Owner Lester Bammesberger sold the cafe in 1970 to a couple who renamed it Glenn’s Diner. Later that same year, they sold it to Christine Harris, who renamed it yet again. The diner’s sign, the story goes, was spotted a few years later by a location scout who persuaded Harris to change the name from Chris’s Café to Mel’s Diner. (In the movie, the diner is called Mel and Ruby’s Café.) In the ’90s, Mel’s became Pat’s Family Restaurant; in 2003, when Greek immigrant Emmanouil Stivaktakis bought it from his uncle, the restaurant was called John’s Diner.
Stivaktakis learned of the cafe’s TV fame from his new customers, and renamed and revamped the place as a retro-chic tribute to a hoary old sitcom. Boomerang-linoleum table tops and checkerboard tile floors provide a kitschy backdrop to vinyl booths, chrome-trimmed tables, and a banquet room. A display of mugs used by regulars in a previous incarnation of the cafe rings the ceiling, and everywhere, framed black-and-white stills of Linda Lavin and her TV cohorts smile down on diners. The cuisine is classic diner fare (eggs, pancakes, burgers) with the occasional Greek twist (omelets with gyro meat and onions, for example).
Mel’s is not the cleanest cafe I’ve ever dined in. The walls are a little grimy and the door to the kitchen is a mess, but the tables are well-scrubbed and the plates and flatware are spotless. I tell myself that peeling paint and worn tile add to Mel’s Grand Avenue ambience, and I overlook the yellow paint that diners are tracking in from the just-painted front steps, because the food here is surprisingly consistent, and that — rather than this place’s long local history or its pop culture camp value — is why Mel’s rates a visit.
The chicken fried steak and eggs breakfast offers big flavors and generous portions of meat, potato, and gravy. I order mine with hash browns, which are transcendent: fluffy on the inside, crispy-brown on the outside, precisely as they should be prepared. A ground beef steak arrives piping hot and is battered in a crisp, lightly sweet crust glopped with creamy beef-flavored gravy. The trio of eggs is prepared sunny side up, just as I ordered them, but are cold.
Potatoes are clearly Mel’s forte. The country potatoes that come with the gyro omelet are mini masterpieces, their soft centers clad in crunchy, buttery skins. The omelet itself folds eggs around snappy feta cheese and mildly spiced gyro meat. Even the accompanying bagel is super-fresh and tastes housemade (it isn’t; our waitress doesn’t know who bakes Mel’s bagels).
A side of pancakes served with melted butter is perfect, made from a batter with a markedly buttery taste, fluffy consistency, and sweet aftertaste.
A few days later, I return for another breakfast, this time with two friends who, like me, remember watching Alice in prime time in the ’70s.
After we order, I issue a challenge. “Recall the plot from an episode of the show,” I demand. I figure, I can’t think of a single one; they probably won’t be able to, either.
“Tommy runs away!” Angus barks, without missing a beat.
“Vera is depressed and tries to kill herself,” Nathan offers sadly.
I’m impressed — not only that my friends can remember storylines from Alice, but that the show was apparently darker than I recall. Teen runaways? Suicide? Huh.
Both of them have seen the movie, besides. “It’s good,” Nathan tells me. “I think it’s set in Tucson.”
Our breakfasts arrive. The vegetarian omelet is a stunner, featuring a nice crunch of fresh broccoli alongside sautéed onions and peppers. Our waitress is happy to add feta cheese, which gives an already delicious omelet some extra zip. Its accompanying biscuits are warm and dense and clearly just yanked from the oven.
The Spanish skillet folds bell pepper, potato, tomato, and onion into a snappy, chorizo-filled delight. And an order of plain old bacon and eggs proves that Mel’s chef understands simple food: the bacon is crisp, the scramble tight and airy. A side of toast comes golden brown and neatly buttered.
A Belgian waffle is lightly sweet, crispy on the outside and cakey on the inside. I always wish waffles were served with melted butter. This one isn’t, and the butter snags in every waffle hole. Oh, well.
We wind things up with an order of grits in honor of Alice’s annoying catchphrase, which belonged to actress Polly Holliday. As slatternly heart-of-gold waitress Flo, she could be counted on each week to bellow, “Kiss ma grits!” to someone, usually hapless Mel himself. My pals oblige me by trying this trademark Southern corn mash, and we all agree that Mel’s grits are infinitely kissable: light and fluffy, slightly grainy with a flavor somewhere between corn on the cob and lightly buttered popcorn.
Lunch at Mel’s is also a treat. The gyro is chockablock with fresh onion and tomato, its formed hunks of steak tender and spicy and wrapped in an airy, housemade pita. A ramekin of cold, snappy cucumber yogurt doubles as a dipping sauce for the sandwich’s side of perfectly serviceable French fries.
Burgers are a staple at Mel’s, so I try a medium-rare cheeseburger. The lean, hand-formed patty is perfectly cooked and nicely salted, plopped onto a ho-hum sesame bun and dressed up with the usual colorful toppings — imagine a nicely prepared, home-cooked burger at a friend’s barbecue. The mushroom burger is also cooked to order, moist and meaty, but sadly dressed with canned mushrooms rather than freshly sautéed ones. Then again, one doesn’t come to a place like Mel’s looking for chanterelles poached in burgundy, does one?
Only Mel’s milkshakes fail me. Not especially creamy and too icy by half, they taste as if they are made with ice milk rather than ice cream. I order a chocolate and strawberry, but am served a chocolate and a vanilla shake.
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SHOW ME HOW
Kiss my grits.
1747 Grand Avenue
6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday;
6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday