Halfway through our lunch of chili fries, wings and sandwiches at The Melrose, we realized something was missing. The food was sturdy, the atmosphere was easy and the service was attentive but not overly solicitous. And yet something didn't feel quite right.
Then someone pointed out the obvious: "We need alcohol."
The abstemious fact that we were sipping sodas and water in the most invitingly beery of establishments was the unfortunate consequence of afternoon deadlines and chaperoning underage interns. Under different, less responsible circumstances, we would have grabbed a line of bar stools—or better yet, one of the unusually long booths—and settled in for long hours of beer, bar fare, pool, Ms. Pac-Man or trivia at Austin Ray's new neighborhood pub.
The Melrose has made such a low-key debut on the food desert of Franklin Road that if you didn't know better, you could walk into the gracefully gritty room and think, "Wow, what a great dive. How long has this been here?" Of course, it's not easy to affect a patina of age without looking like an Applebee's, but with the Melrose's latter-day pool-hall-slash-Cheers vibe, Ray again displays a knack for creating a mood, a talent that earned national headlines for his ultra lounge, Bar Twenty3, which closed last Halloween.
Located in a cavernous building across the street from the now-shuttered Melrose Lanes bowling alley, The Melrose has an unexpected pub-like warmth, with wood paneling, punched-tin ceiling tiles, rosy lights and abandoned Christmas decor still adorning the walls.
While The Melrose is first and foremost a bar, serving 75 beers (including 10 on tap), food is front and center when you walk in the door. A refreshingly terse menu board hangs over the counter, listing a no-nonsense repertoire of wings, nachos, quesadillas, sandwiches, spinach artichoke dip and chili.
Working our way through the short list, we did not stumble across any signature items for which we'd likely develop a sober craving. We found no creative hallmark, such as a fried avocado (boo hoo, Alleycat Lounge!) or a shepherd's pie. But overall the food tasted fresh, hot and homemade, comprising ingredients of higher quality than we might expect in a beer hall.
We may not have been drinking beer, but we certainly tasted a hoppy kick in the chili. Kitchen manager Marc Trottier's recipe calls for ground Angus beef and a healthy dose of brew. We ordered ours over skin-on waffle fries and loaded with onions and cheddar cheese, which made an easy and plentiful plate for sharing. We also enjoyed the steak sandwich, with a thin New York strip on a French roll from local Charpier's Bakery, topped with caramelized pink onions and melted gouda.
The so-called jumbo wings were in fact meatier than many of their species, with crisp golden skin yielding to tender beer-braised meat that pulled easily from the bone. We ordered a mixed dozen of sweet & spicy and hot, and while neither landed much of a pepper punch, we applauded the texture of the tangy house-made sauces, which clung to the meat without cloying like so much overly sticky barbecue sauce.
The Melrose club sandwich piled slices of tender seared chicken breast, chewy bacon and cheddar on toasted wheat with shredded lettuce, mayonnaise, tomato and mustard for a generous combination of fresh textures. The thick Reuben with Angus corned beef and a tiny tussle of sauerkraut on toasted Charpier's marble rye was an admirable specimen. The least rewarding of the sandwiches was the smoked chicken on a toasted bun, which was slightly dry and stingier than the other sandwiches we tried.
As standard-issue quesadillas go, the Melrose tortilla stuffed with cheese and chicken and served with fresh guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo had a crisp grill-pocked texture, a golden hue and a nice buttery sheen.
Despite the prematurely aged appointments, The Melrose doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't. The menu is no-frills and the food arrives on unpretentious green-and-white cafeteria-style plates, so the joint is not exactly setting up high expectations for a fall.
That said, when a steak sandwich and a club clocked in at $26, with no drinks, we felt some sticker shock—or at least some remorse that our sandwiches weren't downright phenomenal. What we failed to realize was that the sides—a choice of Zapp's potato chips, waffle fries or pasta salad—actually cost $1.95 on top of the sandwiches. The waffle fries were arguably worth the up-charge, but not the pasta salad, so think carefully before you say "yes" to side items.
The streamlined menu concludes with a simple dessert of a warm chocolate chip cookie, baked to order, with a side of ice cream.
As we polished off our sandwiches and fries while listening to Eric Clapton and scanning the memorabilia-clad walls for old album covers, matchbooks and concert posters from Ray's other bygone venture, City Hall, we noticed another glaring absence in the comfortably low-brow ambiance: There's no smoke.
Kudos to Ray for taking the plunge into clean air. Open to all ages during the day, the restaurant is restricted to 21 and up after 4 p.m., but at no time during the day is smoking allowed indoors. (Ray is putting the final touches on an outdoor space with heaters where smoking will be permitted.)
It remains to be seen how the smoke-free policy will be received. In the meantime, Ray says he's gotten some blowback from one group of guests suffering from a non-nicotine-based addiction. His Super Shot basketball video game has been out of commission for a few weeks now, and folks are grumbling. Until it's fixed, they'll just have to occupy themselves with a game of pool or a few rounds at the Ms. Pac-Man table.
The Melrose is open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. Happy hour is 4 to 7 p.m., with $1 off everything. Tuesday is Trivia Night from 8 to 10 p.m. Thursday is 2-for-1 beer night and double tall cocktails go for the price of regular size.
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