“Judgers, stop judging!”.
“Wait, don’t leave!”.
“Ignore that missing chunk of floor tile.”
“Poor souls, they’ll never know.”
We have fun muttering such comments dining in our hands-down favourite Ottawa, ON restaurant. They’re directed at those who creep through the entrance of Mellos, take a cursory glance around, fix a neutral smile for the server at the door, look to their companions, turn back, say thank you and then leave.
But they don’t always leave. Usually they plunge in eagerly and that’s when we whisper, “You won’t be sorry” and clink our glasses as we watch them take a seat at a booth or counter. They’ve risen to the challenge of compromising their visual expectations, and to this, we salute them.
I adore the worn-in-time signage, padded bar stools, faded Formica surfaces, huge pieces of missing tile, stuffed shark over the bar and the fact that diners share space with the kitchen. But my guess is the curious come in the first place because they’ve read the consistently fabulous reviews. Mellos is the most authentic, reasonably priced, creative and coolest eatery in Ottawa’s Byward Market.
I want to stress that we witness doorway trepidation only some nights. More often the place is jumping and we’ve come to learn that it’s best to arrive close to the 6pm opening or risk waiting behind the first wave of foodies and other Mellos lovers.
The chalkboard mounted in the kitchen lists the features which change every few days. The regular menu rocks a whole new vibe each season and the dishes are always exciting. Take the Fried Squash Sandwich – the chef has put a unique spin on a Malaysian Murtabak replacing the traditional beef and egg stuffed roti with squash and lemongrass mayo. And if some items come off sounding low-key, don’t be fooled by any plain wordage. “Braised Beef” means a tower of Mac and Cheese, kale and super tender beef drizzled with spicy mustard cream. “Noodle” can be a beautiful broth of pork belly, vermicelli, mushroom, greens, sesame and sweet soy. “Pork Chop” is joined by garlic kale, shaved fennel, romesco, chorizo crumb, and charred scallion. “Fruit” or “Sweet” is referring to the dessert option; either are usually a blessedly decadent mess of cake, real ice-cream, sauces and unique crumbles. Yet Mellos can toy with name play too. The Eggplant Katsu Sandwich and Trini Doubles made our repeat order list for weeks.
Comfy or exotic, names really don’t matter at Mellos. All the dishes have a certain something that my husband calls “sneaky”. And he means that in a very good way.
Depending on the night, either executive chef Michael Frank or sous chef Pat Gardner is cooking it up in full view and the privilege of watching their wizardry at work is a grateful distraction when you’ve come hungry. Understandably, these guys are too focused and busy to really chat it up with anyone sitting directly behind their workspace but co-owners Nina Vaccaro and Warren Fremeth have the gift for sharing time and easy conversation with anyone and everyone. They’ve also managed to hire other servers that get it – that this might be a cool place but that doesn’t require a too-cool attitude from employees.
Of course Ottawa has its share of trendy eateries. However, I can’t help note how many market directly to a young professional demographic. Mellos sees a good mix of ages and backgrounds most nights – just people who appreciate seriously good, fresh, fun dishes.
Mellos is iconic, situated on Dalhousie St. since 1942. And it’s just as famous for it’s diner style breakfast menu, resonating with the era of the place – untouched and purposeful.
But when 6 pm rolls around, Mellos knows it’s time to jump out of the box and surprise. Just take a seat.
The latest surprise: Mellos now serves a weekend brunch with a new take on the old classics!