A legendary restaurateur celebrates 80 years of history.
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When Richard Melito left home at 19, he thought the road to realizing his dream of becoming a sculptor would begin in Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University. Hopes were high. He was the only kid accepted there from the Suffolk High School class of ’71.
Things didn’t turn out that way. His most significant piece of art to date is, shall we say, an interactive piece. People lean on it, eat off of it, spill drinks on it. In fact, it’s his only existing artwork. A few years into his art studies, you see, he answered the siren call of Richmond’s nightlife, dropped art and took up bartending. The one-of-a-kind, mixed-media creation is a bar that he forged and installed at his restaurant, which has enjoyed near-historic stature in Richmond for the last 33 years. And while he no longer sculpts—or tends bar, for that matter—he has carved out a name for himself as the city’s Hot Dog King.
Melito is what people who take the food business seriously call restaurant royalty. “I guess you could say the restaurant business is in my blood,” he says. Despite his mother’s admonishments to become a banker or a lawyer, the third generation restaurateur traces his roots in the business back to 1934, when his grandfather, James Melito Sr., an Italian immigrant who owned Melito’s Luncheonette in Suffolk, concocted the basis for Melito’s longstanding success: the Melito’s hot dog. (The restaurant—and the hot dog—went on hiatus from 1964 to 1981, after both Melito’s father and grandfather had passed away and before he opened the current Melito’s on Three Chopt Road in the city’s West End.)
Make no mistake: You cannot buy, steal or torture out of him the proprietary recipe that four generations of Melitos have staked the family name on. And even if you could find a hot dog made to his grandfather’s specifications, it wouldn’t be turned out the way a real Melito does it, with mustard, onions and (here’s the ringer) chili made from a recipe also devised by his grandfather. Richard Melito, 62, is the only living person to know the recipe, and it isn’t written anywhere. His nephew, Rich, doesn’t know it, even though he runs the kitchen. Even Richard’s sister Joanna, who still comes in to make the chili, doesn’t know the secret ingredient. Melito adds it himself, at the end of the process. The routine will continue to play out until the art student-turned-bartender-turned-restaurateur retires. Then, he says, he’ll clue in the heir to the throne, nephew Richard the Fourth (as in generation).
Getting the recipe was an accomplishment. When Melito decided to open his own restaurant, he knew the chili recipe was his insurance policy. After all, the family dynasty was built on that chili dog. But he couldn’t just assume that his now-deceased grandmother, James’ widow Minnie, would share the recipe, so he was careful to make all the right moves, lest his quest for the best chili slip through his fingers. First, he would have to clean up, get a haircut, and make the pilgrimage to Suffolk. “I needed her to know how essential it was to have the recipe to continue the legacy of the Melito’s hot dog,” he says, recalling the day when they sat at her kitchen table and he told her he had signed a lease. “I was nervous,” he says, “and I didn’t know if she would give it to me.”
He told her he was opening a restaurant just like Grandad’s place. To his surprise, she didn’t hesitate. “She told my mother to get a pen and a recipe card, and she dictated it to my mother, who wrote it down and gave it to me. Then she said, ‘Now, I want you to know that there is one ingredient that I use that no one knows about.’” Privately, she told Melito that ingredient. It is not written on the recipe card or anywhere else.“
I drove back to Richmond with the recipe in my back pocket,” he recalls. “I was the happiest guy in the world.” The other twist to the famous Melito hot dog, says the king, isn’t just what goes into the hot dog casing or how it’s dressed. It’s in the prep: The hot dog and the bun are steamed, making the hot dog tender and the bun soft with a little bit of tooth. A lone dog is a delicious $2.50. Two dogs and fresh-cut fries? $6.95. Up the ante to $7.95, and add another side. (The homemade cole slaw is a winner, consumed on the dog or on the side.)
But no matter how beloved “Melito’s World Famous Hot Dogs” are, every day, hundreds of folks come for something else the restaurant is known for—plain, straight up, made-from-scratch food: the kind you have to search to find, where there are no shortcuts, no pre-made dishes formulated identically for chain distribution, just honest, authentic, no-frills food. Melito’s turkey sandwiches are made from turkeys roasted that morning in the kitchen, not sliced from a loaf of pressed meat. Egg salad is made with eggs boiled that day, and green beans are cooked unapologetically with ham. There’s the occasional wild card, like snow peas or a jalapeno-deviled crab, to keep trendsters’ attention. But whatever the order, Melito lives by one rule: Make it fresh.
Food aside, Melito himself is enough of a Sam Malone, “Cheers”-style proprietor to keep his base clientele coming back. For the first 10 years that the restaurant was open, Melito was the bartender—the only bartender. And he never told customers that he was the owner, which accomplished two things: He was comfortable telling customers looking for a free drink that the owner didn’t allow it, and customers felt a little less inhibited—be it sharing life histories or swapping war stories—when dishing with the bartender.
By the time the cat was out of the bag, he had a stable of regulars, including many who had become close friends. “I still don’t give away drinks,” he says. “They know I’ll buy them a drink when we go out, but here, I’m pouring for the house.”
Steve Granger, 63, a professional clothier for international haberdasher Tom James, has been such a big part of the scenery since the earliest days that other regulars refer to him as “the mayor.” He even has an unmarked yet undisputed seat at the corner of the bar. “I bought my first house there,” says Granger, noting that, at one time, he was spending about $600 a month eating and drinking at Melito’s. Granger says it’s not just the food or the drinks or the atmosphere that keep people coming back, but rather the gestalt of the place. “It’s the whole experience. It’s a great place to see people and feel very at home. It’s not a pickup place.” And the food is reliably consistent. “I can order the same teriyaki chicken salad that I ordered 15 years ago, and it’ll be the same,” he says.
Despite the no-free-drinks policy, the regulars remain loyal, treating Melito’s like a home away from home. “They get up and change the channel on the TV or lower the shades if they feel like it,” says Melito. “And they don’t mind rewriting the menu on the spot if something they want isn’t on there.” The most devoted are prone to parking behind the building, lest they be caught playing hooky from work or ducking honey-do lists. Sometimes it works, but not always.Says Melito, “Usually, people know where to call to find them.”