Steppin’ Out – Mels (The Original)

mel-s-dinerI have driven by Mels at 232 Main Street in Placerville thousands of times, but only stopped in twice, both to meet with my cousin who was dropping off family photos, letters, etc.

After a discussion about where to go next, a couple of weeks ago Russ Salazar and I decided to meet there and try a couple of sandwiches.

I have always been curious about Mels, since there seems to be several restaurants in California, and other places, with that name. So I did a bit of research.

Mel Weiss opened his first diner on South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco in 1947. A number of years later a family rift caused he and his son, Steven, to part ways and split the restaurants. His son now owns six Mels in San Francisco and Southern California, under the name Mels Drive-Ins.

Mel sold his restaurants to Larry Spergel and a group of stockholders. Their restaurants, now called Original Mels (or Mels The Original), are found in northern California and as far east as Reno.

There is also a chain of Mel’s Diners and Drive-Ins in Florida. Apparently it is unrelated and, unlike the others, uses an apostrophe in the name.

If you are wondering, it was the Van Ness restaurant that was used by film maker George Lucas for his 1973 film American Graffiti. When filming began, the restaurant had been closed for several years and was slated for demolition. After the filming the drive-in was torn down., but the publicity may have saved the chain.

After being seated in the very busy restaurant by a very nice young lady, Salazar and I ordered two sandwiches to try: the pastrami Reuben, which came with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and 1000 island dressing on corn rye, and “Mels Big Bopper” burger, which is their one-third pound “Melburger” with Cheddar cheese and two bacon strips, topped with onion rings and barbecue sauce.

Both sandwiches came with the option of a cup of soup, Melfries, pasta salad, luncheon salad, fresh sliced coleslaw, house made pasta salad or cottage cheese. We opted for Melfries and the coleslaw with our sandwiches.

Salazar also ordered a cup of chili, to see how their’s faired against others. He said it was good, but guessed it was canned chili to which they added other things.

The Reuben was very good. We thought that like a lot of restaurants are doing, they might be using turkey pastrami, since it was very lean, but still very good.

I really liked the burger, the meat was not overcooked and the bun was especially nice (we both agreed on that) and it tasted good. Salazar, it turns out, would have preferred a plain cheeseburger and wasn’t wild about the barbecue sauce (that will teach him not to say, “You pick out the burger.”)

As you know, I am very picky about French fries. The top few I tried were nice and hot, for which I complemented the server. The rest were cooler, a bit soggy and tasteless. Apparently they had put fresh fries on the top of older, heated ones. The coleslaw, well, it was way under dressed and really not that good. The dressing was a bit off flavor. Next time I will try the pasta salad or just a green salad.

We told the server about our concerns, especially the coleslaw, and she apologized and offered to replace it, for which we thanked her, but we had pretty well finished our meal.  Overall the service was very good and the meal was good, but could have been better.

Mels has quite a list of breakfast items, including specials like steak and eggs for a very nice price. That dish is only available in the morning hours, but many breakfast dishes they serve all day. For lunch and dinner they serve a number of appetizers, Mels ‘Fries with chili, gravy and more, all kinds of sandwiches, combos (soup or salad and half a sandwich), their famous Melburger platters, chicken dishes, turkey burger platters, Blue Plate dinners, hot open-faced sandwiches and lots of salads – something for everyone.

Their drink list includes coffee, tea, milk, milkshakes and malts, beer, wine and more.

The Original Mels in Placerville is open from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m., Sunday through Thursday and until midnight on Friday and Saturday. For more information call (530) 626-8072.

The atmosphere and the music is very 50s-60s, the restaurant is clean and the service is very good. It is a fun place to eat. Give them a try.

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