Daily photos by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Victor Melonas, owner of Café 113, is celebrating 20 years at his Grant Street location. After several renovations, the fine dining restaurant now incorporates a bar, fine dining area and a wine store. Today, the restaurant’s dining room is decorated in a classic style, with dark wood paneling, 1920s tin ceilings and Greek statues.
still Top Nosh
20 years and several renovations later, bar and restaurant one of few fine dining places in Decatur
By Danielle Komis Palmer
Fine dining in Decatur?
Twenty years ago, most locals were skeptical of the concept.
Yet Café 113 owner Victor Melonas was confident that once people got used to the idea of upscale food, quality service and a nice atmosphere, they would be hooked.
He was right.
This month, Café 113 celebrates its 20th anniversary at its downtown Decatur location — defying the odds that a fine dining establishment could thrive in a fast food, casual dining, chain town. Café 113 features entrees ranging from brandy pear chicken to twice-cooked prime rib and offers more than 100 wines.
Café 113 celebrates 20 years in downtown Decatur this month. Owner Victor Melonas has no formal culinary training, so as he evolved as a chef, he added more creative, upscale items to the menu. “Nothing I ever did here was completely planned out,” Melonas said. “It was hit or miss until I finally realized what I was doing.”
Decatur had only recently become wet in the 1980s, and few other fine dining restaurants existed.
“Back then, I had people who really didn’t get the concept of what fine dining meant,” Melonas said, who moved to Decatur from Birmingham in 1964.
Many patrons weren’t familiar with dishes Melonas featured on his menu and were too intimidated to ask about them. They also weren’t accustomed to reservations, and were skittish about the restaurant’s bar.
“They were uncomfortable to sit here and see the bar because it was the Bible Belt,” he said. “A lot of people couldn’t accept it.”
So Melonas separated his open, warehouse-like restaurant into rooms and corridors, and divided the bar from the rest of the restaurant. Ironically, restaurants like Ruby Tuesday and O’Charley’s came to town soon after, with bars in the middle of their restaurants.
“I was just ahead of my time,” Melonas said.
Birmingham restaurateur Alan Dobbs said Melonas has always been on the cutting edge for the area. Dobbs co-owns the upscale Icon Restaurant & Bar in Birmingham and managed Princeton’s Restaurant in Decatur in the late 1980s. Many locals were initially confused by Café 113, he said.
“The question was, ‘Why are you paying that much?’ ” he remembered. “It (fine dining) was a completely new and different option that most people, unless they traveled, were not aware of.”
Part of the charm of Café 113 is the atmosphere owner Victor Melonas has created with his renovations. He started with an old hardware store building 20 years ago and transformed it into a classic fine dining experience in downtown Decatur. The bar area is eclectic, with a high ceiling, bric-a-brac-lined shelves, paintings and hanging lights.
Steve Connor, owner of Hard Dock Café in Decatur and a longtime patron of Victor’s, also remembers the shock of the new place.
“It was actually kind of surprising for Decatur to have such a nice restaurant,” he said. “There really wasn’t much there (downtown). When he did it, it was kind of a stretch.”
From bar owner to restaurant owner
Melonas’ fine dining success did not come immediately, though. He likens his 20-year journey to getting lost in the woods, and continually taking different paths until he found the one that took him to his destination.
“Nothing I ever did here was completely planned out,” he said. “It was hit or miss until I finally realized what I was doing.”
Melonas didn’t have any formal culinary training and created his own menus that evolved from basic sandwiches and pizza to champagne chicken and Mediterranean shrimp. He attributes his successful experimentation to a palette developed at an early age, growing up eating his grandmother’s homemade Greek dishes. His grandparents were from Greece and owned a diner in Birmingham.
“I knew if I put in the kind of food people would talk about, it would bring in business by word of mouth,” he said.
So as Melonas evolved as a chef, he slowly added more creative, upscale items to the menu. As the food improved, he also slowly improved the atmosphere, which he changed often to keep up with the times.
Early interior view of the dining room at Café 113. Despite Café 113’s gradual success as a fine dining establishment, few restaurants like it have popped up in Decatur since owner Victor Melonas started it in October 1987.
Today, the restaurant’s dining room is decorated in a classic style, with dark wood paneling, 1920s tin ceilings and Greek statues. The bar area is eclectic, with a high ceiling, bric-a-brac-lined shelves, paintings and hanging lights.
Before he opened Café 113 on Grant, Melonas operated a bar for a year at the former Lagniappe’s Deli in Gateway Shopping Center on Sixth Avenue.
When Lagniappe’s closed, he looked at sites on Beltline Road and downtown, but the decision to move to his current site was made for him when the Beltline Road site possibility fell through.
Slowly, locals began to understand and appreciate what Melonas was doing, and Café 113 became a destination for attorneys, bankers and business executives, as well as couples looking for a nice evening out.
Today, it is still one of the few fine dining restaurants in Decatur. Whenever out-of-towners dine there, Melonas often hears the same comments:
“I didn’t expect anything like this in Decatur, Alabama,” or “If this were in my town, you’d be covered up with people.”
Despite Café 113’s gradual success, few restaurants like it have popped up in Decatur since Melonas started it in October 1987.
Dobbs said the few similar upscale restaurants Decatur offers is evidence of what a difficult market Decatur is, especially since it is largely considered a blue-collar town.
“That tells you how hard it is to crack that market in Decatur,” he said. “If not, there would be more people there. ... To be there 20 years in an environment that is that challenging speaks volumes about his (Melonas’) resiliency.”
For its 20th anniversary, Café 113 is offering a $20 coupon on dinner for two for the month of October. The coupon is available online at www.cafe113.com. Reservations strongly recommended. Also, the restaurant is hosting a 20th anniversary party Oct. 24 at 5 p.m. with free hors d’oeuvres and wine tasting. For more information, call Café 113 at 351-1400.
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