Before Martin Fremeth bought Mellos Diner, one of the city’s oldest surviving restaurants, he sat at the counter starting at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to see for himself what the place was all about. The first wave of hungry patrons arrived in workboots, construction workers fuelling up on bacon and eggs and cups of coffee before a long day of labour.
Next came the families with young kids — some of whom told Fremeth they used to come to Mellos with their own parents when they were kids. He watched as server extraordinaire Leisa Bell filled up cups of coffee for her daily regulars — all of whom she knew by name and by order — before they even sat down. At lunchtime, it was the suits — the business people and media personalities dropping in for their bologna sandwiches.
“A large part of buying a diner is you are buying the history,” says Fremeth, who runs a packaged firewood business in Montreal but always dreamed of owning a restaurant. Mellos reminded him of places he grew up with — food institutions like Schwartz’s and Wilensky’s — and he wanted to play a part in keeping this kind of business alive. He brought in his pal, also a passionate food lover, as a partner and they bought the diner. They offered Leisa a percentage of the business and asked her to continue to run the place as she had been doing for the past eight years. Her weekday shifts run from 4 a.m. until 2 p.m.
Last June, Fremeth indulged the request of chef Matt Carmichael who wanted to take over Mellos when it was closed in the evenings and launch a restaurant-within-a-restaurant. The local celebrity chef wasn’t interested in doing a riff on vintage dishes, rather he wanted to serve the kind of food he was already known for — modern and upscale with international influences. Carmichael’s Mellos’ Pop-Up lasted for five weeks at which point he decided to pass the torch.
So last week, Mellos stepped back into the spotlight after a very light facelift (new lighting, new bar, stainless steel backsplash, an exposed brick wall), and began its second life as an evening destination. Only this time the plan is to make it permanent. Fremeth brought onboard Jon Riley-Roe, the owner of TacoLot, and his partner in promotion Catherine Landry, to breathe new life into the diner by creating a Supper Club that will serve several different crowds: those looking for Happy Hour cocktails and snacks; two seatings for proper dinner service; and the late-night crowd who want a belly full of gourmet poutine or poached eggs and fried steak to absorb the week’s frustrations.
They hired Chef Michael Frank from Toronto’s Hotel Le Germain to create a menu of interesting dishes, with no formal appetizer or main course designations. The culinary influences — Southern, Jamaican, Thai, Greek — are all over the map. It’s just a jumble of tasty items that will change regularly and seasonally and tap into what the local growers, producers, and fish and meat suppliers have on offer. I dropped by on the first official opening night last Thursday, sampled a few dishes, and hung out until midnight soaking up the vibe.
Since the entire kitchen is on display, the cooking is theatre and fun to watch. Frank has a cool, laid-back style and he seems to likes his food torn, crushed, and crumbled. It gives even his most artistic dishes a rustic hand-made quality. The sustainable fish feature was scallops, which he seared and seasoned perfectly and then paired with roasted fingerling potatoes and some sautéed greens (slivers of green onion, fresh parsley, arugula) and with it, a strangely seductive sweet and sour, sticky red relish. When I asked about the unusual condiment, I was told it was Fremeth’s own homemade “chow-chow” that he made from 20 pounds of end-of-season tomatoes. He couldn’t help but to offer Chef Frank a few jars of it to work into the menu in some way.
My second dish echoed the savoury-sweet and fruity combination that I find endlessly appealing— a puddle of pineapple puree was hidden beneath chili-basted Korean fried chicken strips served with a sesame slaw. Chef Frank assures me the dish is authentic, but I’m convinced it’s an upscale take on trashy pineapple chicken balls.
Sitting at the arborite counter across from Liesa’s fridge magnet collection, it honestly feels like this place has been here forever. Mission accomplished.
Mellos Supper Club: Open Thursday to Monday: Happy Hour 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., main menu served from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., late-night menu until 2 a.m.