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A GRILLED CHEESE STORY

Guy Fieri and Adam Richman helped make Melt famous, but owner Matt Fish made it wonderful

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It's been a good four years since Matt Fish opened Melt in Lakewood — and we do mean good. In that time, his modest grilled cheese bar has become nothing short of a national phenomenon, appearing in big-city newspapers, glossy magazines, and on top-rated cable programs. With customers oozing out of his joint like so much melted cheddar, Fish was all but required to open a second location just to alleviate some pressure. Unveiled in late May, the Cleveland Heights outpost is already experiencing the same level of exuberance as the original.

Skeptics will tell you that excitement is merely triggered by folks like Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and Adam Richman of Man v. Food. Those who struggled to get a seat at the original eatery long before any far-flung TV producers had heard of the place would challenge that assertion wholeheartedly. Rarely will you see diners so giddily devour their meals as they do at Melt.

Granted, shows like the recently aired Man v. Food, in which host Richman attempts to ingest his considerable heft in cheese, continue to fan the flames. Despite two locations boasting a grand total of some 300 seats, visitors still suffer lengthy waits and ticket times — though rarely as long as some would have you believe. East Siders, however, benefit from a floor plan that (in theory) should reduce both. A massive three-sided bar and adjacent counter accommodate approximately 60 guests, making waits for parties of one or two surprisingly brief. A vastly expanded kitchen — featuring a griddle twice the size of Lakewood's — is designed to halve the time it takes to serve the room.

Music fans will remember the Cleveland Heights locale as the old Peabody's Café, where budding hippies enjoyed sets from Oroboros, Ekoostik Hookah, and the Janglers. Fortunately, a top-to-bottom renovation has stripped away the years of funk while simultaneously cheering up the entire block. Windows, long boarded up, have been exposed to welcome the sun. Gone is the gaping hole in the middle of the room, replaced by a smooth expanse of hardwood flooring. Annexation of properties on either side has given Melt a wide and prominent berth.

Despite the change in address — not to mention the celebrity buzz — little about Melt has changed since Fish gave birth to the concept four years ago. In designing the second outpost, Fish strived to fashion a carbon copy of the original. Diners will find the same tin ceilings, starburst pendant lights, and exposed brick walls blanketed with rock and sports memorabilia. Kitsch is in abundant supply, from old video game signs to hopelessly out-of-season Santa lawn ornaments. Menus, naturally, still arrive on the backs of album covers.

There is, however, one major improvement east of the Cuyahoga: the beer list. While Lakewood diners must make do with a meager 20 draft brews, Heights hoisters have three dozen from which to choose. Prices are more than fair too, with pints of Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA going for just $3.50.

Not sure why Fish needed to invent the "Melt Challenge," a five-pound, 13-cheese beast that only a handful have conquered, including Travel Channel's Richman. Seriously, have you seen the regular sandwiches?! The Big Popper ($9), for one, stands a menacing half-foot tall. Like a deconstructed jalapeno popper, the thing is stuffed with cream cheese, cheddar, and a bushel of sliced hot peppers. Oh yeah, and the entire sandwich is battered and fried. Too much? Consider the Parmageddon ($10), a grilled cheese and appetizer of pierogies combined. Even the relatively tame Wake & Bacon ($7.50), filled as it is with bacon, egg, and cheese, is a steep challenge. All sandwiches come with a mound of cabbage slaw and a pile of superb hand-cut fries. Rare is the customer who doesn't leave with a doggie bag.

Appetizers include a wholly delightful crock of spinach, artichoke, and cheese dip ($8), decent-enough fried tofu triangles ($5), and downright depressing crab cakes ($8), which have no business being on the menu. Salads offer a fresh alternative to the gut-busting sandwiches. The "bread, bacon and blue" ($7) tosses together bright greens, blue cheese, house-made croutons, and warm bacon dressing. But who comes to Melt for salad?

Confession: We've never even considered ordering dessert here. Really, who could possibly think it's a good idea to follow a toaster-sized sandwich with an order of cheesecake, bread pudding, or fried Twinkies? We'll stick to the sammies.

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