Here it is, late June in Alabama, and the forecast is for thunderstorms practically every afternoon, temperatures consistently in the 90s, and high humidity 24 hours a day. It is under these conditions that I find myself meeting my good friends A. & E. for lunch at a brand new Birmingham eatery named, ironically, Melt.
Melt started life as a food truck specializing in the simple grilled cheese sandwich and its countless variations. It was a roving hit, which is unsurprising in this Age of the Food Truck. Apparently, business was so good that the two women who own the mobile business decided to plant their operation on the ground somewhere. They found a perfect spot: a vacated gas station on a corner in the rapidly-rejuvenating Avondale district, just a one-block stroll from the lushness of the recently refurbished Avondale Park.
I’ll interrupt myself briefly here to say that the concept and name of Melt isn’t entirely original. Last month, I was mapping out stops for a road trip that, sadly, didn’t occur. I discovered the presence of a cheese-based restaurant named Melt in Cincinnati, and it was penciled in as a food stop for that day. But Cincinnati isn’t Birmingham, and this nearby joint has a local flavor that tastes very specifically of Avondale.
Melt Birmingham makes creative use of the building, dividing the restaurant into three distinct areas: what I’d call the main room, which contains the clearly-visible kitchen area and a dine-at bar; a side dining area that has two roll-up garage doors as one of its walls; and an additional glassed-in space constructed where the gas pumps must have previously been located. Re-purposed materials abound. One wall in the main room is completely covered, floor to ceiling, by a battered tin sign that reads VOTE NO TO TAX INCREASE. The doors to the restrooms, as well as the entire wall surrounding them, are covered with horizontal planks of weathered wood. And the old signs advertising gasoline prices hold a prominent spot on the wall of the side room.
You can also see, in the photograph above (and despite its blurriness), recycled wood used on the ceiling.
The restaurant opened on Tuesday, June 24th. Two days later, Bob Carlton, food writer for al.com, posted a column detailing the history of Melt and, in essence, giving the two-day-old place a rave. Speaking to A. & E. on the phone on Friday, we discussed going to see a film and catching some lunch beforehand. I had just read Bob’s article, so we decided to go there and get on the front end of the wave.
When I arrived there early, at 11:40 AM, there was already a line to the door waiting to order (Melt does not offer traditional table-side ordering, but does deliver your meals to you). The joint was buzzing. Social media and good word-of-mouth do indeed have power.
A. got the basic three-cheese sandwich with fries, and E. got a turkey grilled cheese with house-made potato chips. I got the Mushroom & Truffle, a grilled sourdough bread sandwich containing porcini mushrooms, Roma tomatoes, truffle oil and – what else? – cheese. I requested an addition of bacon. That was the perfecting touch, and I recommend it. The menu encourages patrons to add ingredients to their orders (at an additional charge, of course…these restauranteurs are no dummies!), which is a small touch that only adds to the creative ambiance of the place.
After the meal, we headed over to the local Edge 12 movie theater and saw Chef. Not only was this a fitting complement to our interesting dining experience, but there was an extra twist: we had just left a restaurant that had begun life in a food truck, to view a movie about a fine-dining restaurant chef who finds personal redemption working on a food truck.