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Chef Matt Fish never expected Melt Bar & Grilled to turn out the way it did.
When he first decided to strike out on his own, after years spent working through the ranks of every size and shape of restaurant while playing drums in pop punk bands like Whatever and The Chargers Street Gang, Fish’s vision was a beer bar – one that would be known across town for its supreme beer list, but might surprise newcomers with an extra-tasty comfort food menu as well. What happened instead was a total reversal.
“The concept completely flipped around w hen we opened the restaurants,” says Fish. “Originally I thought it was going to be a bar that served really good food; it ended up being a restaurant that served really good food, but just happened to also have this really cool beer list.”
True, with everything from Stone to Dogfish Head, their tap list is to die for. But once you look at the menu, it’s easy to see how diners could have made the mistake.
Sure, you can get a grilled cheese sandwich at its most primitive (it’s called The Kindergartener), but that’s just the beginning. From the yellowfin and wasabi-stuffed Tokyo Tuna Melt to the fan-favorite Parmageddon filled with napa vodka kraut and potato-cheese pierogis, Melt offers a culture-spanning cornucopia of ways to stuff your face with bread and cheese. Fish’s personal favorite, the Godfather, was inspired by his lifelong love of lasagna, which Melt translates into a grilled cheese sandwich by literally grilling spicy three-cheese lasagna between two slices of garlic bread.
If the Godfather is an intricate oil painting, it’s an imposing monolith of a sandwich that launched Melt Bar & Grilled to nationwide fame: the Melt Challenge. The notorious triple-decker threat is loaded up with every type of cheese in the house. When paired with generous helpings of fries and coleslaw it makes for over five pounds of greasy goodness.
The Melt Challenge was once just a secret item, available only to those in the know. Once it hit the menu last year with a prize attached – a $10 gift card and online immortalization in the Melt Challenge Hall of Fame – it attracted the attention of Man v. Food’s always-ravenous Adam Richman almost immediately. Combine that with a visit from Food Network’s Guy Fieri, and the mega sandwich has been attracting adventurous eaters from coast to coast ever since.
“We’ve had every walk of life come in and try it,” says Fish, “and every walk of life finish. We’ve had the biggest guys you can imagine defeated by it, and we’ve had petite little girls come in and knock it out of the park.” But don’t say you weren’t warned – Fish puts the failure rate at 91 percent.
Still, it takes more than just great food to amass the kind of cult following that Melt Bar & Grilled has. That can only come from warm, old fashioned hospitality. Melt treats its loyal community less like customers and more like a fan club, hosting events like music trivia nights and movie screenings, and working with local artist John G. to produce devastatingly cool poster art every month for the restaurant’s limited edition sandwiches. (Melt sells the posters for $5 a pop, but like any club, let’s just say no one’s likely to notice one poster missing from the walls, either.)
Though he may devote most of his time to Melt these days, music still plays a huge part in Chef Fish’s life, including the way he runs his business. “I promote the restaurant as a rock band,” says Fish. “How explosive would a rock band be? How many posters would they put up, how many people would they tell to come to their shows? Really what I try to do is incorporate that punk rock attitude: we do things our way, this is how we want to do it. If you get it, you get it. Luckily most people get it, and they love it.”
Just like any good band, Melt has fans and then it has fans: an army of local diehards so devoted they’re willing to prove it with a permanent token of their affection. Inspired by San Diego band Rocket from the Crypt, who gives fans sporting a RFTC rocket tattoo free show entry for life, Fish introduced a promotion offering 25 percent off for life to anyone with a tattoo featuring the Melt logo. “We put the promotion in a newsletter, not thinking it was really gonna take off,” says Fish. “Literally two days later, a guy came in with the first Melt tattoo.” Over 200 customers are now repping Melt for life, and are treated to not only bargain sandwiches, but their very own membership card and access to special events just for what Fish calls the Melt Family.
With two Cleveland area locations and a third on the way, a fiercely loyal following, and a slew of awards stacked almost as high as one of its sandwiches, Melt Bar & Grilled is well on its way to becoming a national institution. It may not have happened the way Fish expected, but it ended up better than anyone could have dreamed.