by Channing Mathews
This month my journey through the Black food and wine-ways of Charlottesville led me to Mel’s Café on Main Street, run graciously by its dedicated, self-taught chef and owner, Mel Walker. Mel is no stranger to food reviews, as he has been featured in both local and national news as a go-to spot for visiting foodies. Working in kitchens since 11-years-old and cooking alongside his mother well into her 70’s, Mel reminds us, “I’m not just a soul food place. I’m American food,” which is clear from the extensive and reasonably priced menu he offers each patron.
Born and raised in Charlottesville and a former resident of Vinegar Hill, I was not surprised that the space facilitates immediate community. While Mel is the heart, it’s the people drawn to his spot that make it home. “I’ve made friends with a lot of folks from UVA and they bring their families. I like that part of it.” It’s a small, humble space where you feel a mix of grease and love cooked into the walls. Images of Mel’s family enrich the space with joy in spite of the grief and challenges that the Mel’s café has endured over the years, most recently being the death of Mel’s younger brother Arthur “Bun” Walker, who worked alongside Mel to feed the community.
It reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen, where something was always brewing on the stove, and someone was always walking into the house to say hello and get a li’l something to take to their next destination. From flyers of local community events, to the wall of both biological and chosen family, what’s clear about this little restaurant is its role as a cornerstone of the Charlottesville community. Mel serves many locals across the socioeconomic spectrum—from the homeless to the wealthy, Mel welcomes all within his doors and serves everyone with a bright smile and seasoned plates. He even stayed open during the tragedy of August 11, 2017 when a white supremacist gathering turned fatal in Charlottesville. “I ain’t close for that…they shut down the whole downtown. I had people calling me, telling me to close. And I said, ‘I’m not closing up. I ain’t gon’ bother them and they ain’t got no reason to bother me. And I didn’t have no problems. Anybody who came in, they got fed.”
But keeping a small business open is no small feat. As one of the last Black-owned businesses standing on Main Street, Mr. Mel recalls a time when he had few white patrons because the area was considered dangerous as a Black neighborhood. But Mel’s Café still remained popular: “When I first opened, I sold beer, wine, and food. And I had a jukebox. It was all Black then, and people ain’t wanna go home! They played the jukebox and drank beer and wanted to stay all night.”
Entering Mel’s is walking into a living piece of Black history. Once a premier photoshop owned by Mr. Rufus Holsinger, the space hosted over 500 members of the Black Charlottesville community, capturing images of Black life in Charlottesville through portraits of its people in the early 20th century. More recently, the building of Mel’s Café was once known as The Duck Inn, which was owned by a Black couple who were also known for their amazing fried chicken, suggesting that the loving smells of hot grease and seasoning are literally embedded within the walls of the tiny building.
Despite it being 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday, I knew I just couldn’t leave without sampling the crispy fried chicken that Mel always cooks to order. A combination of his self-taught skills and his grandmother’s recipe, Mel informs me that my plate will be ready in about 15 minutes. I hear him bustling in the back kitchen and listen carefully for the sizzle of the chicken dropping. Almost 15 minutes on the dot, Mel brings me a fresh plate of hot chicken, fresh out of the grease. It’s too hot for me to dig in, but the picture doesn’t quite do it justice.
The first thing I notice about Mel’s chicken is the CRUNCH. The delightful crunch is just the starting point to this traditional southern fried chicken. Shamelessly I huff and blow while chewing, trying to cool the hot bits in my mouth. But even that does not prevent me from getting a good taste of the seasoning, which is light but tasty and fresh. After scarfing down my meal, I eat a salad with the hopes of staving off the food coma, otherwise known as the “-itis,” that is sure to come in about an hour.
While dining at Mel’s was a local treat, the best gift was the smile and hug Mr. Mel Walker gave me as I thanked him for the interview. “Make sure you come back and bring your friends!”
I was indeed back the following week with my partner, excited to enjoy Mel’s warm presence and delicious food after a long work week.