Age before beauty

Even though the sign reads “The Original,” Mels is actually a California chain brought to Reno. While attending culinary school in San Francisco, I lived right down the street from and frequented the original “Original Mels.” I recall it as a fun place to spend my student’s budget for a bite to eat. I am not old enough to recall the 1950s, but Mels was a place that used the nostalgic Hollywood style, with glossy pinups and authentic-seeming soda jerks, making it appropriate for everyone.

So, how does the Reno rendition stand up to the original? Well, the bright blue neon street entrance fits seamlessly into the downtown landscape. This adds the benefit of not having to bustle through the smoky casino floor, while still providing access to the restaurant.

My husband, Tony, and I noticed right away that this restaurant is much bigger than the original, with shiny stainless steel and frosted glass gleaming from every corner. The walls are covered with reproductions of old tin soda signs and Coca-Cola ads. Like the San Francisco location, photos from the movie American Graffiti are plastered all over the dining room.

The menu offers “home-style cooking,” although I doubt that many people get the chance to hunker down over a huge plate of meatloaf and lumpy mashed potatoes the way they used to. That is a shame, really. Don’t worry if “comfort food” is not a part of your New Year’s resolutions; there is also a selection of salads and leaner sandwiches. If gaining weight is actually your plan for the New Year, no problem. There is a staggering list of concoctions to satisfy your sweet tooth, including milkshakes, ice cream floats, pies and sundaes.

I, for one, cannot resist a cherry Coke ($1.99) made the old-fashioned way, with real syrup. I have now officially ruined my resolution to stop drinking caffeine. Now you are free to break yours and have a big, fat chocolate malt. No need to thank me.

Tony decided to have the 1/3-pound “Melburger” with cheese ($6.19), with a cup of Italian wedding soup on the side. The soup was a tasty, broth-based chicken soup with pastina and vegetables, although it may have been around for a while, because all of the ingredients were slightly mushy. Oh, well. The burger made up for it with a big, chewy bun, crisp lettuce and tomato and tangy onion. I don’t really know what “special sauce” is, but it wouldn’t be a Mels burger without it. The whole arrangement was rather messy, but all truly good burgers are.

I selected the hot, open-faced turkey sandwich ($6.19). This involved thick slices of grilled bread topped with carved, roasted turkey breast and smothered with thick, rich gravy. On the side was a healthy scoop of perfectly lumpy, skin-on mashed potatoes and a rather lackluster cup of steamed vegetables.

When all was said and done, Tony and I sat there trying to figure out what had been bugging us all though our meal: What was out of place about this Mels clone? Then it dawned on us. It is just too new. The walls were too shiny, and the servers need years of familiarity with the menu. This place just lacked the one element that made the original a classic: the all-important patina of time.