Mel’s Cafe tastes like coming home

The best southern soul food you can find in Charlottesville

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Mel’s Cafe is located at 719 West Main Street.

Haily Eaves | Cavalier Daily

Pulling up to Mel’s Café, the first thing that popped into my head was “hole-in-the-wall.” The restaurant is situated halfway between the Corner and the Downtown Mall on Main Street. It has a diner vibe — a bright yellow interior and exterior and an “open” sign illuminating the front windows. I heard about Mel’s from both students and professors at the University, and they all recommended their fried chicken. Little did I know, a simple but delicious meal there would cure my hunger along with my homesickness.

As I stepped into Mel’s for the first time, a woman warmly greeted me, “Hey, honey.” She offered me a menu and a kind smile then gestured around casually to the six mismatched tables and chairs in the quaint restaurant.

“Sit wherever you please, and just come on over to the counter when you’re ready to order,” she said.

I picked a corner table with a view of the whole little establishment and settled in to browse the menu. All-day breakfast, country ham with cornbread and homemade pork BBQ all caught my eye. But I was there for the legendary fried chicken. I decided to pair it with mac and cheese and green beans, hoping that both were the real Southern kind — you know, drenched in cheese and seasoned with bacon.

After I ordered, I sat back to watch the steady flow of customers walk in and out of the little cafe. Patrons range from Charlottesville locals to college kids to tourists. Some stopped at the counter to chat and pick up boxes of take-out while others pulled up to tables and dug into a casual supper. Everyone that walked through the door was treated like family and welcomed by the owner and executive chef, Melvin Walker — from the grill — and his wife. There’s nothing stiff or fancy about this joint. It’s no fuss, no muss, Southern staples. I found the familiarity of the employees and simplicity of the whole place to be charming. Stepping into Mel’s felt like walking into my own kitchen back home.

With a big American flag hanging in a window and pictures of University basketball players and their season schedules on the walls, Mel’s is decorated in an eclectic but endearing fashion. Family photos and Christmas cards are plastered across the counter and surrounding walls, giving it that much more of a homey feel. Mel’s award plaques cover another wall. I was surprised to find that not a single one is food-related. Instead, they are awards for contribution and dedication to serving Charlottesville. Turns out Mel is more than just a restaurant owner and cook — he’s also a pillar of the community here.

My food arrived piping hot and in decent portions. If you’re hoping to stop in for the fried chicken, definitely plan to wait about 15 minutes since they fry up each batch fresh, and in my experience, the wait is absolutely worth it. The chicken was tender with a crunchy coating that packed a little Cajun kick. Although the restaurant advertises its specialty in soul food, I was a bit surprised that the coating on the fried chicken was spicy. However, I ended up really enjoying the extra flavor that it added to the chicken.

The sides were just as good. The fries were crispy and also had a little dash of seasoning, while the green beans were salty and flavorful. However, if you prefer super creamy mac and cheese, you won’t find it at Mel’s. Instead, the mac is baked in the classic Southern style. For anyone craving comfort food, this place would be heaven.  

With most entrees costing $5 to $8, the prices are reasonable. When I headed over to pay, I noticed a row of homemade desserts lined up along the counter. The apple pie, lemon meringue pie and homemade sweet potato pie were all enticing. But the grilled donut with ice cream I saw delivered to another table looked like the ultimate finish to this indulgent dinner.

Mel’s serves up comfort food with a side of warm, Southern hospitality. The bustle of the restaurant and friendliness of employees made me feel right at home the very first time I visited. So, the next time you’re missing comfort food or your mom’s kitchen, head to Mel’s.

Mel’s Cafe is located at 719 West Main Street and is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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