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Punk rock drummer scores smash hit with gourmet comfort food
Melt Bar and Grilled founder Matt Fish launched the grilled cheese chain from a neighborhood bar in Lakewood
This story is part of a special series.

Vivian Goodman
Matt Fish still sees himself as a musician first. He's been playing drums since high school and toured the world with his band for ten years before settling down in the restaurant business.
Courtesy of Vivian Goodman
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In The Region:
This fall a Parma native who started with a storefront saloon plans to open his fourth full-scale restaurant. For this week’s Quick Bite, we're in Independence to meet the founder of the chain called Melt.
Grilled cheese in so many different ways

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David Sonima of Tremont works in Independence and comes to Melt about twice a month for lunch.

David Sonima of Tremont works in Independence and comes to Melt about twice a month for lunch.

(Click image for larger view.)

Matt Fish is very tall, very lean, quite bald, and covered in tattoos.

He’s a a punk-rock drummer who spent part of his childhood raising chickens on his grandparents’ 200- acre farm in North Ridgeville, and a lot of it in his mother’s Parma kitchen learning to make the world’s best macaroni and cheese.

He trained at the Tri-C culinary school, worked at Marco Polo’s in Brecksville and Fat Fish Blue in downtown Cleveland, and ran the kitchen for five years in Ohio City at Johnny Mango’s.

Humble beginnings

In 2006 he opened a neighborhood bar in Lakewood. Four years later he opened Melt in Cleveland Heights. In September he opened another Melt in Independence and come October, Melt comes to Mentor:

 “It blows my mind every day,” says Fish. “If I stop and think about it I kind of freak out a little bit and get scared.”

He hadn’t planned to be a restaurant mogul.

 “Restaurant work was actually my second choice on what I want to do with my life. I was a touring musician for about ten years. I took advantage of what I saw because every night I saw a different restaurant, every night I saw a different bar, a different city, and that’s how Melt was created to be honest with you. It was all in my head. I was trying to create the ideal restaurant”   

Happy enough in Lakewood

He realized that dream in 2006 with his little Lakewood bar.

 “That was going to be the rest of my life. I was going to be there forever. I was going to work seven days a week, run that store by myself, have a very small staff.”

He claims he would have been happy there, but was forced to expand because he couldn’t seat all the diners who wanted to get in.

“So, took the plunge in 2010. We opened up our second store in Cleveland Heights and it’s actually exceeded my expectation. Independence was an experiment for us. Let’s make an attempt to go to Independence, test it out, if it works there we feel really good about being able to take Melt anywhere.”

The experiment’s working. He plans to open in Mentor in October. He’s got his eye on Columbus and maybe Akron, too.

That’s good news for Melt fans who often find it hard to get a table. You can’t make a reservation and all three restaurants are usually packed.

Everything’s loaded with cheese

There are always about 33 sandwiches on the menu as well as daily and monthly specials. Whatever the special happens to be, it will be loaded with cheese. It might be Mexican, Asian, Slovenian or Italian. It could be lasagna, crab cakes, meatballs, or pierogis, but it’s always incorporated in a grilled cheese sandwich on very thick slices of bread.

Grilled cheese had always been Fish’s favorite way to unwind after a hard night in the kitchen.

You can choose something other than grilled cheese, like six different salads , several different soups and Fish’s signature three-bean vegetarian chili.

Everything on the menu also comes in vegetarian and vegan versions.

 “ A, I’m vegetarian, says Fish, “But B it’s because it’s a healthier way of eating.  But being a vegetarian and sometimes I dabble in veganism, it challenges me as a chef to create these dishes. “

His rock and roll roots help, too. A gigantic WMMS buzzard billboard circa 1977 covers most of one wall. And menus are on the back of assorted vinyl album covers.

Gourmet comfort food is now an established trend, fueled by nostalgia, and an economy that dictates lower price points. But Fish believes he was ahead of the curve six years ago when he hit on grilled cheese.

 “ Your mother made it for you, your grandmother made it for you, your father when you got home from school, you used to make it as a kid. Everybody made one. Everybody loves grilled cheese. I haven’t met one person yet that walked in and  said ‘Y’know , Matt, great restaurant but I hate grilled cheese.”

You might have seen Fish on TV on "Man versus Food", or  "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives." Melt also made it to Esquire Magazine’s list of the best sandwiches in America.

Next week on Quick Bites we’ll visit with another Cleveland chef who made it big from humble beginnings when we chat with Rocco Whalen at Fahrenheit.









Related Links & Resources
MELT website

Listener Comments:

I had to go, a got a simple grilled cheese (Swiss) with a up f tomato soup. The soup reminded me of soup I might stew calamari in and tasted great with the sandwich dipped into it. I found the sandwich tasted better ripped open, and eaten openfaced. :p

Posted by: Anonymous on July 31, 2012 11:07AM
Come on Matt please don't expand outside of Cleveland! Keep it local!!!

Posted by: Billy (Cleveland) on July 21, 2012 1:07AM
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