Columbia Culinary Society’s Restaurant Week shined a spotlight on how Mel’s, a consistent neighborhood favorite, is striving to change its vibe.
Ah, Mel’s Burger Bar. Forever and always a place of fresh starts. Who among us didn’t have one of their first NSOP beers at this sacred pillar of our community? Who among us hasn’t been to Mel’s on a school night intending to try their hand at the dart board but ultimately chickening out? Who among us hasn’t, at least once in their undergraduate careers, sat down at Mel’s not for the latest IPA on tap but for the eponymous burger?
When I heard about Columbia Restaurant Week, I was immediately drawn to the most perplexing option on the list: A prix fixe menu at Mel’s. It seemed too good—or perhaps too vaguely oxymoronic—to be true, so I called ahead to inquire about the offerings. Lamentably, it was not a prix fixe experience but instead a new, simplified menu that consolidated old items and offered a more streamlined approach to dining at Mel’s. With that in mind, I recruited three friends to visit Mel’s with me and see if the new menu (pictured below, and offered to Columbia students at a 15% discount for Restaurant Week) lived up to expectations.
Part I: Ordering
When we entered the restaurant, the vibes were about the same as always: A timeless college-/sports-/dad-bar energy that would be hard to change given Mel’s clientele. The new menus, however, had a minimalist and unmistakably classy air that almost clashed with the rest of the ambience.
We sat at a table near the back and asked our server what he would recommend on the menu. He told us that each item is excellent but the burger is a standout, so I decided to get a single with a side of fries for myself. My three companions ordered a French dip, a BLT, and a chicken parm sandwich, and we got wings for the table. For drinks, I got the Ithaca Flower Power, while my friend decided on the Ommegang Witte. For dessert, we decided on two orders of churro bars—the most interesting offering (although I remain curious as to the quality of the spiked coffee shake).
Part II: The Food (And Beverages!)
The wings came out faster than we had expected them to, but they were, by far, the most disappointing item we had ordered. They did have a fantastic crisp on the outside and a decent flavor, but the breading was much too salty, and the blue cheese sauce provided did not help. The table agreed that the hot sauce also on the side was among the best we’ve ever had, though, and the spice of the sauce did wonders to overwhelm the saltiness of the wings. The plain wings were a 5 out of 10, but the hot sauce elevated them to a solid 8.
Another point of agreement among the table was that the beer selection, while much smaller than one might expect, was surprisingly high-quality. My order, the Ithaca Flower Power, was exactly as I expected: Light and botanical, a bitter beer with a lot of character that tasted more expensive than it was. Friends noted that it tasted like rose in particular, but that the floral notes were more an aftertaste than a main event. My friend’s order, the Ommegang Witte, was a much more traditional beer with a clean flavor that also felt quite light. It had none of the metallic, bready tastes so common in cheap beers, and it was just slightly sweet. A must-have for those into the more classic beer experience.
After a brief mixup regarding my friend’s French dip order, we all had our main courses delivered. Unfortunately, the portions were quite small—this was a problem we had also encountered with the wings, receiving only 6 small wings for what should have been a more robust appetizer for the price. The flavor, however, was all there. The burger, a classic beef smashburger with American cheese, was miles above what you would get at a typical bar—tender and savory without being overly greasy. It could have had more of an edge, but that’s my only complaint. The fries were plain and uninteresting, but the aioli they came with was all but addictive, and my friends and I cleared out the two servings we were given. The chicken parm sandwich was excellent—moist but not soggy and with a superb sauce pairing that earned spirited thumbs-ups from the table. The french dip, a meat-stuffed delight with particularly impressive bread, was similarly received.
The BLT was the table’s favorite, and what I will be ordering the next time I find myself at Mel’s. The bread was artisanal and firm that looked as good as it tasted. And the addition of chicken to this time-honored classic was, simply, a brilliant move. My friend who ordered the BLT stated that it tasted “like Thanksgiving” and, while he refused to elaborate on this particular comment, noted that it was a compliment.
After having tucked away our main courses, we were brought the churro bars, which proved to be a lovely way to round out the experience. While the name was a bit misleading in that the bars had neither the taste nor the texture of churros, the dessert was great for what it was. The fluffy, crumbly cake bars were baked, not fried, which I actually preferred. After having stuffed myself on heavy bar fare, it was nice to end the night on a lighter note. The accompanying chocolate sauce was deep and intense but not saccharine, and the ice cream balanced the dynamic perfectly. Well done!
Part III: The Price
As much as I would have liked to end my review after the previous paragraph, as a broke college student, I would be doing the rest of you a disservice if I did not discuss pricing. Yes, Mel’s new menu delivers in quality, but in quantity and value, it’s quite deficient. All of our portions were startlingly small, and the pricing was inconsistent as well as a tad extreme (8 dollars for a side of fries I could probably eat in one or two large bites? Really?). For those of you looking for elevated bar fare, Mel’s is the place to go, but keep in mind that you will be paying for their attempt at a more refined atmosphere.
Mel’s via Elias Reville