When the news spread last week that Mel’s Tea Room was at risk of being sold, numerous responses poured onto Facebook. I read most: Some were short notes – a handful of them charged with racist overtones accusing the owners of Song’s Chopsticks of trying to buy out the building – and others were wistful comments chronicling first dates, after-school snacks, first jobs and an amicable wait staff at the Sackville landmark.
The news prompted me to recall my first time eating at Mel’s. I had ordered a blueberry milkshake on a warm Saturday in 2013 – it was the day of the Fall Fair. The fact that I remembered this surprised me, but the comment thread was full of these kinds of memories – the kind often held for decades.
Yet, there is something worth noticing about the way Mel’s was experienced by its multitude of patrons, which the owners appreciated, when, in a CBC News interview, they mentioned that “Mel’s isn’t really ours, it’s everyone’s. We’re just maintaining it.” The events of the past week had thrown a light onto Mel’s as a public good and something worth a public expression of support.
Mel’s is most meaningful to me when I am walking home, eastward along Bridge Street. My classes end just in time for me to catch a winter sunset along the way. Oriented east, the slice of dusk visible between the buildings is a greenish orange, whitening and then darkening with higher altitudes. Then, I notice Mel’s’ neon sign, illuminated well before the streetlamps turn on. By the time I enter my apartment just across the street, the daylight is dimmer and my street-facing bedroom glows in shades of red and blue.
If food writing deserves any space in public media, it ought to help us recognize the meaningfulness of restaurants for public life. The restaurant is where older women take lunches and chat away the morning, where couples celebrate, families earn their living and parents treat their kids. The meaningfulness is not to be found in any particular purpose or activity, but rather as a whole – as a place where we can eat together.
The experiences, set among our small businesses, are too complex and numerous to be categorized. The value of Mel’s is not just in its historic location or traditions. If a restaurant like Mel’s ought to be protected, it is not just for the sake of preserving a familiar venue. Even after Saturday’s announcement, that the owners of Mel’s will be buying the building, work must continue to be done to defend our restaurants and their patrons from the kinds of violence and aggression that flared up this past week, for these are equally as threatening to our public spaces as any buy-out.
No restaurant is worth saving if its patrons are not held to account for their attitudes of aggression, if its proprietors do not hold themselves responsible for the violence they engender. It is in a more abstract sense – that is, as a safe gathering place for the public – that a restaurant is worth defending.