Breakfast Beat

Breakfast Beat: A Throwback Diner in Phoenix With Nice Eggs and Mean Grits

The Arizona skillet from Mel's Diner, with eggs sunny-side up.
The Arizona skillet from Mel's Diner, with eggs sunny-side up. Chris Malloy
Each week, we review a different breakfast spot in town, highlighting culinary offerings, brunchability, and the overall vibe as you sip your morning joe. Whether the restaurant in question is grab-and-go or stay-and-play, each offers a unique breakfast buzz that might be just what you need for the most important meal of the day.

The Spot: Mel's Diner
1747 Grand Avenue
602-252-8283
click to enlarge Where the kitchen meets the dining room. - CHRIS MALLOY
Where the kitchen meets the dining room.
Chris Malloy
The Scene: Mel's Diner is like the diner from Pulp Fiction. It's what you think about when you think about diners, a prime example of the classic American restaurant that could come from the pages of Steinbeck, straight out of a pre-internet decade of the 20th century. Circular lights shine onto tables between booths. Pleasantly brusque waitresses who applaud you for getting gravy on your biscuits wipe down tables, make change, and flit from customers to kitchen and back again.

Most customers are regulars. Many are older, and a few linger in the far corner once their eggs have been mopped up with toast and their last dregs of coffee have been sipped. Open your ears at Mel's. You may hear some things. F-bombs tend to be heedlessly detonated. Details of personal lives may be spoken in loud tones, details you try to ignore but simply can't.

Mel's is a no-bullshit diner in a hardscrabble maze of back roads not far from Interstate 10 and Grand Avenue. Much of the clientele mirrors the diner, which itself is such a natural fit for its environs that it might have sprouted from the asphalt. The place is a true throwback.

Back in the 1970s and '80s, Mel's was famously the fictional setting of the TV show Alice


click to enlarge A "side" of grits. - CHRIS MALLOY
A "side" of grits.
Chris Malloy
The Goods: Breakfast is served all day at Mel's. There are a few classic sweet breakfast dishes — short stack of pancakes, Belgian waffle, French toast — but the bulk of the morning menu is savory.

Egg skillets are the item that stands out most from a classic menu of omelets, steak and eggs, and two-eggs-your-way combos. These egg skillets consist of two eggs served over a thicket of toppings so dense that you'll almost certainly be taking food home. An Arizona skillet unites bacon, sausage, cheese, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers. The tomatoes burst with tang. Like the green peppers, their skins have been blistered and partly blackened, unlocking more flavor than these nightshades have raw.

The skillets come with toast. Instead of toast, you can order biscuits. Instead of getting biscuits naked, you can have them smothered in a smooth country gravy that almost stings with black pepper. This is much lighter fare than expected, and makes a nice sidekick to eggs.

The grits at Mel's are nobody's sidekick. They are the diner's proudest offering. You can get them instead of toast. With a scoop of whipped butter stirred into the warm mass, you can see why Southerners are so into this humble grain porridge. The mystery resolves itself in one comforting spoonful.

The Bottom Line: The food at Mel's is as no-bullshit as the neighborhood, the diners, and the setting. All diners can feel the same to some degree. This one feels a little different and serves food that's a little better.
Hours: Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Price: $
Coffee Options: Old-school. They'll keep pouring if you keep drinking.
Juice: Nothing too fancy.
Drinking Before Noon: Nothing on the menu.
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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