My favorite line from Vacation is uttered by Cousin Eddie: "I don't know why they call this stuff Hamburger Helper. It does just fine by itself." I feel the same way about Melt! in North Beach — it's a fondue restaurant, but it works much better as a bar. Just look at the people there at any given time; you are more likely to see them sipping wine or beer and listening to the live music than eating the $20 fondue. In fact, the first time I wandered inside I didn't even know it was a restaurant. It took me about 40 minutes to realize that they served food. This was partly because that's how long it took for a waiter to come by my table, but who's countin'?
Another odd thing about Melt! is the exclamation point at the end of the name. It doesn't fit. For one thing, the process of melting cheese is not an extreme sport. A more proper name would be "Melt...," or maybe they could throw in a schwa. Nothing happens quickly at this place, and that adds to its European charm. It looks like a tiny cafe on a cobblestone street in the Alps. The tables and chairs are scattered somewhat randomly, half-read newspapers and Penny Saver-type periodicals are left on various counters, and it's small and cozy.
I walked in on a Saturday night, and a jazz combo was playing. A couple was drinking wine and feeding their baby pieces of fruit, two people on a date were drinking pints of beer, and a few senior citizens were nursing big glasses of red. I could see one of the women's rouge lipstick on the rim of her glass; her teeth had turned purple. This was the sure sign of ingestion of at least three glasses (ladies who've learned know). She was dressed in black, with a black pillbox hat, and she had the face of a woman who remembered when Estée Lauder was an upstart. She was watching the band so intently, I couldn't help but follow her gaze.
There were two guys, one playing the saxophone, the other playing keyboards. The sax player was a young white dude, the keyboardist a middle-aged black guy. The music was improvised and quirky, but contained none of the things that usually make me hate jazz of that kind. I'm not saying that I liked it, but I didn't feel like pressing a small rodent under the heel of my stiletto, either.
I parked myself in the far corner, away from everyone, which, in a place this tiny, meant that I could still easily hit anyone with a bread cube if I felt the urge. I sat there for a while before the lone employee came over. He was rushing around, doing 18 things at once, so I made it easy on him and simply ordered a cup of coffee. "Awegula?" he said to me, to which I replied, "Huh?" He repeated it: "Awegula?" Eventually I realized he was saying "Regular?" He asked me other things that I could not make out, so I just nodded politely and hoped that I hadn't ordered the lobster fondue or something.
The baby was laughing, his parents were in love and relaxed. The red-wine lady was in a state of catharsis, the third glass having done its trick. Every table seemed somehow connected to one another as we all sat there sharing the experience. It is really the imperfections of a place like this that make it work. If the waiter were completely prompt, or the tables all scrubbed clean, it wouldn't bethe same.
Then they started, the Deep Thoughts that generally kick in after a strong cup of awegula. Ideas came to me, man, like, this entire establishment was like a big pot of fondue, with a variety of cheeses all blending into each other and making one big steaming ball of comfort. Suddenly the exclamation point made sense, dude: Its purpose is to scream out "epiphany!"
The lady in the pillbox hat ordered another glass of red wine. I noticed her bag, which was hanging off her chair. It was a boxy, black patent leather. I figured out her deal: She has been mourning the death of JFK since Nov. 22, 1963. This month is always the hardest for her. She seemed to sip her wine imperceptibly, like people do in the movies — you know, when they simply bring the glass to their mouth and let the liquid slightly kiss their top lip. I always think to myself, No one drinks like that. But here she was, on her fourth glass, letting the Cabernet kiss her.
The jazzbos started to get a little bit Albert Ayler; perhaps their own red wine was kicking in. The music herked and jerked, building up and up. The baby grasped a strawberry and shook it violently, like an organic rattle. Pillbox sat up straighter, swirling her glass. I got an image of Jackie O on Super-8 film, lumbering toward the back of the convertible, grabbing at her husband's head. This is what avant-garde jazz does to me. I motioned to the waiter for the check, though once I peered outside and saw how hard it was raining, I decided to take my time settling up.
The band took a break, and the room filled with quiet applause. I could almost see the bottom of my coffee cup.