Warmth, family, simplicity, and burgers – these were the words repeated by the people who shared their stories with me at Mellos diner earlier this week. The event? A launch party for their Kickstarter campaign, which hopes to raise $60,000 to fund their move to a new location as their lease, up this month, will be granted to neighboring restaurant Ace Mercado. Nina Vacarro, Mellos’ manager, made it clear that the event wasn’t “a pity-party. We’ve never been a failing business, and tonight there are no strangers here. This was an unanticipated event, and we need the community’s support to move forward. What we want is to keep Mellos alive. We’re not going to give up something that’s great.”
We’re not going to give up something that’s great.
Nina, while describing the events that led up to the move as “back-door” dealings between their landlord and Ace Mercado, underlines that they didn’t do anything illegal. “Ace Mercado had the option to take over our space from the get-go when they moved in. Our landlord & Ace (a few guys with deep pockets, hands in multiple businesses and backed by none other than the winner of Canada’s Top Chef) did nothing illegal. They did mislead us, but sadly commercial real estate is a dog-eat-dog business and we inevitably stand to lose our precious tiny space.”
Recognized as an Ottawa institution from the early 1940s, Mellos has brought in crowds from across the spectrums of age, socio-economic status, and style. Walking into the already jam-packed space at 6:45 pm, only fifteen minutes after its doors opened, the crowd of faces young and old, bearded and clean-shaven, fresh-faced and lipstick-stained flooded my vision as I struggled to spot an empty seat. “Sometimes we’ll come in and there aren’t any seats,” said Lauren, who moved to Ottawa five years ago and currently studies Social Work at Algonquin College. She was there with Chanel, both of whom have been coming to Mellos “almost every weekend religiously” since their friends Diego and Colin started working in Mellos’ kitchen over a year ago. They credit the overwhelming crowds to people not wanting “to miss their last chance to enjoy the amazing food – and that’s making this whole thing better, it’s keeping the restaurant going.” On what makes Mellos unique, Chanel mentioned the music off of Chef Mike’s playlists, which went from old-school soul to hip-hop over the course of the evening. Mike was also credited for the ever-changing weekly menu of specials that follow the tide of in-season local foods and his personal, pan-continental taste. “It’s very Asian fusion. No one expects it!”
Things change, and that’s something you can’t control, but when you see a place whose essence is constant, and is an anchor in your neighbourhood, that’s nice.
The introduction of Mellos dinner menu came when the new management took over in 2012. The restaurant’s ability to evolve with its community is what touched Sofia, who moved to Canada a year ago from Honduras and has been working for a Canadian NGO in the coffee sector ever since. She moved three blocks from the restaurant seven months ago, and has been visiting it almost every week since. “We really enjoy the ambiance, the music and the people. We used to come only in the morning until we discovered their dinner menu and their burger – it’s amazing.” On what inspired her to create the almost 3,000-person-strong petition to save Mellos, she described it as “an authentic place where you can feel its history. Things change, and that’s something you can’t control, but when you see a place whose essence is constant, and is an anchor in your neighbourhood, that’s nice.”
Paul and Jodie, who have been living in the neighbourhood for 25 years, have personally seen this growth and evolution take place before their very eyes. “We know the old Mellos, and when we came one day four years ago and they had a different menu, I was frightened, but Jodie convinced me to stay,” said Paul. “Stuart was our server; she said this guy was cool, so let’s have the burger. It was amazing, and we’ve come back every week. I don’t think it would’ve survived if it just remained the greasy spoon. It’s what you want to see as the urban core is revitalized – a transformation that makes it relevant to a whole new generation.”
Among the fresher faces of last night’s crowd is Sidney, a fourth-year Criminology student at the University of Ottawa. She credits the spot’s coziness to well-made breakfast classics like Mellos eggs Benedict and the restaurant’s people: “You come in and you feel like everyone knows each other. You feel comfortable. When I come in the morning I see people that work here eating breakfast on their days off.”
Patricia, Angus, Emma and Brad have come to love the diner for the familiar faces of its friendly servers and the delicious food. Angus, who grew up in Ottawa but only came to Mellos for the first time after a friend praised their burgers, described Mellos as his go-to “hangover cure”, while praising the ever-changing evening menu for never leaving him bored. For all its greasy-spoon glamour, Emma pointed out that the “food always tastes fresh”, which led to a mouth-watering description of Mellos homemade doughnuts, served with peaches and whipped cream, by Patricia. When asked if they would go to the new location, the unanimous response was “absolutely”, with Brad chiming in that the move could be seen as an opportunity to get a larger, more accommodating space for the restaurant.
Paul, a multi-disciplinary designer and the creative brains behind Mellos’ campaign art, also believed that the Mellos vibe can’t be destroyed by a new location, because “Mellos is a triple threat: seventy percent of what makes this place great is the people, the food and the feeling. There’s something about everything here.”
To support Mellos’ move to a new location, you can donate to their Kickstarter.