This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.[Horine]
Who goes to JG Melon? Who doesn't is a better question. This burger and beer joint has been popular ever since it opened in 1972 at the corner of Third Avenue and 74th, in a space that was for decades the Central Tavern—"a neighborhood Irish bar run by two Italians," as it was entertainingly described at the time. It was quickly discovered by local politicians, writers, actors and various Kennedys and became an impromptu classic. Lines for tables at the tiny place (medium-length bar, four small tables up front, ten or so in the back, miniature short-order kitchen smack dab in the middle) on weekend nights haven't abated since. Though original owners Jack O'Neill and George Morges and current owner Shaun Young have never owned the building, being kicked out doesn't seem to be a worry.
The Central Tavern past explains the saloon's woody, warm, Olde New York aura. Nearby P.J. Clarke's has nothing on this place, aesthetics-wise. But the cutesy, kitschy melon theme—there are pictures and painting of watermelons everywhere (there is no such person as J.G. Melon, FYI)—can been ascribed to the bar's birthday, the early '70s, the dawn of themed singles bars. The tavern is still slightly cute around the edges. Had P.J. Melon's owners been in the franchising mood, it could have easily become T.G.I. Friday's. That chain, remember, was born as a single bar called Fridays, just ten blocks away from Melon.
But that didn't happen, so Melon's (as it is called) has kept its charm and its integrity. Is the restaurant available to rent for private parties? "No. Never," said the manager, a white-haired jolly with a gut, holding a folded up piece of paper with the names of people who want tables. Why? "Because then that would be the end of Melon's. Three movies were shot here. They had to be in by 3, and out by 7." One was "Kramer Vs. Kramer."
The clientele is local and well-heeled—salt-loving Mayor Bloomberg is apparently a regular—but also touristic and of-the-people. In the dining room, a family of seven visitors sat in a circle, each sporting a cheerfully surreal Yankees cap. At the bar, a suave elder statesmen in a navy jacket sailed in, as if from a Ralph Lauren shoot, and waited to be greeted by the staff. (He was.) Occasionally a resident of the SRO that occupies the upper floors of the building will drop in. Many couples communed over burgers. And I, a single, was accommodated with, "Take this table facing the bar. You can read!"
I find Melon's attitude toward its often famous clientele admirable. They never call Page Six, and don't play favorites. And while there are gold plaques bearing the names of loyal patrons behind that bar, those regulars will never know the honor they've won. "You don't want to be on that wall," said my waiter, "because that means your dead." The plaques list only a name—sometimes just a first name—and a word or two that recalls the deceased. Two I remember: "Burn it" (a burger, I imagine) and "Thanks for talking to me."
About that burger, it has a reputation as one of the better ones in the city. I do not wish to knock Melon's burger, but I must confess that I don't understand how certain patties gets vaunted reputations in this City. I suspect it has something to do with how many journalists and editors live close to the burger in question. Melon's burger is fine. The bun is simple, the cheese American, the meat moist enough. But I don't find it much different from the equally famous burgers found at P.J. Clarke's or the Corner Bistro or Donovan's. But, as with those places, the atmosphere adds to the flavor.
—Brooks of Sheffield