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Southern comfort was more than just a cooking style to Mel Walker

Mel’s Cafe may bear his name, but in many ways the Charlottesville eatery belongs to many more than just Melvin Eugene Walker.

“Mel’s was a pillar of the community for sure. In a city which doesn’t have all that many public places where African Americans can feel truly at home, it felt like home and like your place,” Charlottesville resident and University of Virginia history professor John Edwin Mason told The Daily Progress. “It became my favorite place in town. Some restaurants you can get a better meal, maybe, but you can’t get Mel.”

Walker spent more than three decades serving up Southern comfort food from the kitchen of his West Main Street establishment, an eye-catching spaceship of a building that his charm and cooking somehow made cozy and welcoming. He died on May 28 at the age of 71.

Walker spent much of his life nurturing and nourishing the community, not only with his homemade sweet potato pie and fried chicken but also with what his admirers called his "infectious love of life." Days after his death, the flowers and handwritten letters that litter the front of Mel’s Cafe are a testament to how much he loved and was loved in return.

Mel’s Cafe has been closed since May 28, but Walker’s niece Tanesha Hudson has put any questions about the restaurant’s future to rest. She and the rest of his family plan to reopen the doors of Mel’s Cafe as soon as possible, maybe even as soon as next week.

“The business will remain,” Hudson told The Daily Progress. “We want to keep his legacy alive. He worked really hard for that legacy, and I want to ensure that it stays flowing and moving in the right direction.”

That legacy was defined by “family, friends, fun and community,” said Hudson.

“Mel was just a caring person and always willing to help anybody out,” Charlottesville resident Vizena Howard told The Daily Progress. “If you knew him, even if you didn’t really know him personally, and you went to him, he would give you the shirt off his back. He was really that type of person, and he’s really going to be missed in the community.”

Howard said she’s been close to the Walker family for years and lives just down the street from Walker’s mother, who lost Walker’s brother three years ago. Before heading to her job as a school crossing guard at 7 a.m., Howard goes on a daily run with the Prolyfyck Run Crew, a Black-led running group whose route takes her past Mel’s Cafe every morning.

At the start of the group’s workout last Friday morning, the runners held a moment of silence for “the OG Mel” outside of Mel’s Cafe. The 40 or so runners paused on the patio outside the restaurant for a group photo, calling out, “This is for you, Mel.”

After the run, Howard reminisced about the last time she dined at Mel’s. It was just a couple of weeks ago, she said, when she and a friend decided to take advantage of the cool temperatures and cloudless skies and enjoy a bite to eat on the weathered picnic tables outside the restaurant.

“He always knew how to cook my cheeseburger with the grilled onions just right,” she recalled with a laugh.

Mason said he knows so many people who took any opportunity they could find to drop by Mel’s; he does it often on his walk home from work — even if it’s just to “get an iced tea, sit on his patio and watch the world go by.”

“People went to Mel’s only partly because of the food; they went to Mel’s for Mel,” said Mason. “I said it to his face more than once, ‘You always leave Mel’s feeling better than when you walked in.’”

Hundreds of Charlottesville residents, UVa alumni and restaurant regulars have taken to social media over the past week sharing their memories of Walker.

One Facebook user recalled how he would take “a plate of my favorite meal” to her in the hospital while she was battling cancer, and many others commented on how the chef often wouldn’t accept payment if he knew they were going through a difficult time personally, or simply seemed particularly tired when they dropped in.

Charlottesville resident Patricia Edwards had a similar experience when she ordered dinner at Mel’s for her and her husband in late December and Walker refused to let her pay the bill.

“I guess that was his way of giving me a Christmas present,” she told The Daily Progress.

Edwards is the president of the Starr Hill Neighborhood Association, the historically Black neighborhood between downtown Charlottesville and UVa where Mel’s sits. She pointed out that the spot unofficially acted as a center of the Starr Hill community, given it is the only Black-owned restaurant remaining on the street.

“I think other people in this neighborhood enjoy being able to even walk there and get meals that were delicious, maybe not always the best for you, but you need those forbidden pleasures anyway,” said Edwards. “I know he will be missed, even if the business continues, he will be missed. So for me it’s a big loss.”

Walker was a member of First Baptist Church, a block away from his restaurant. He was known for offering a free, hot plate to people the church sent across the street or anyone in need who showed up at his doorstep. Hudson said her uncle also prepared food every week for the Haven, a day shelter for the homeless in downtown Charlottesville.

“I watched him not only be a businessman, but also a member and leader in the community,” said Hudson. “He was a staple in this community in many ways.”

Hudson said her uncle rarely called attention to his charity, including bicycle and school supply giveaways he hosted.

His Mother’s Day cookout became so popular, she said, “it became a fashion statement.” Women would shop for an outfit specifically for the occasion because so many in the community attended and they just had to look their best.

When Charlottesville bars would close early, Hudson fondly remembers her uncle keeping Mel’s open for some "late night entertainment" and she and her friends would "eat breakfast food and dance at two in the morning” with Walker.

Locals aren’t the only ones who had an appreciation for Mel’s.

This past March, online review site and travel advisory service Yelp highlighted Mel’s as one of the reasons Charlottesville had made its list of top 10 family-friendly destinations in the U.S.

When The Daily Progress stopped by the restaurant to ask Walker about the news, he wasn’t surprised at all. He took the news in stride, barely glancing up from his grill, where he was busy flipping burgers and sending another batch of potatoes into the fryer.

“We treat everybody like family, nice and friendly, and we have the best home-cooked food in the whole city,” Walker said.

Born in 1952 in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, adjacent to Starr Hill, Walker’s career in the food industry began at age 11 and included a stint working at the Virginian, Charlottesville’s oldest restaurant and a hot spot for UVa students on the well-trafficked Corner.

In 1984, Walker opened the first iteration of Mel’s Cafe in the building where it is today, one of the few remaining Googie-style buildings in America with its wide windows and angular roofline. The building received protected status from City Council in 2013.

Walker was forced to close five years later due to lack of business, but since he reopened Mel’s in 1995, it has become a mainstay in the city, with Walker working the kitchen from open to close.

Walker’s unwavering insistence to keep “doing his own thing” for more than 30 years, even as various culinary trends came and went, is what made his business stand out to Simon Davidson, author of the Charlottesville 29 food blog. One such practice, which Davidson said Walker never altered, was making his fried chicken to order, even if it meant customers had to wait a little longer.

“I think sometimes you have to choose between affordability and food made with care,” Davidson told The Daily Progress. “You might be able to find some cheap eats of some slop thrown together, but it’s pretty rare to have a place where not only is the food quite affordable, but it’s also made with such love and care. That’s definitely a niche he filled.”

“There are few people who have had an impact on the Charlottesville food community as great as Mel did,” he added.

Walker’s funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at First Baptist Church, followed by a community block party from 4 to 9 p.m. outside of Mel’s Cafe. Two blocks along West Main Street will be closed during the event, spanning from Eighth Street to First Baptist Church.

The party will include plenty of Walker’s favorite things: family, friends, fun, community and, according to Hudson, Hennessy.

“People come out and bring their bottles and show love to Mel and come and eat and engage with one another,” said Hudson. “I know the type of person Mel was; he was a fun, vibrant person. We know that he wants us to celebrate him in a fun way; he wouldn’t want us to be upset, sad and crying.”

Hudson said she hopes to continue honoring her uncle for longer than just Saturday. She has sent an email to Charlottesville City Council requesting Walker’s birthday, Aug. 24, be recognized as “Mel Day,” and she plans to celebrate the day for many years to come in true Mel’s fashion, with family, friends, fun and community.

“This is something I want to continue for years on. He is so deserving of a key to this city, his own day in this city, being remembered in this city,” said Hudson. “[Mel’s Cafe] is a heartbeat in this city for the Black community.”


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