By Matthew Van Wormer
Matt Fish can be an intimidating man. Standing around 6’5” with arms full of tattoos, he doesn’t look like someone you’d want to mess with. As soon as he introduces himself and smiles though, you know this is a guy who loves baseball, food and Cleveland. Matt’s memories of Indians baseball go back to the late 70’s as he grew up with the mediocre to downright awful years at Municipal Stadium. It’s his love of Cleveland, and wanting everyone to know just what this great city has to offer, that inspired him to open his now famous restaurant that has been featured on the Food Network and the Travel Channel a number of times.
While Matt can’t specifically remember his very first trip to Municipal Stadium, he can remember going quite often with church groups and working the concession stands. While the adults got things prepared for the game, Matt and his brother would run around the stadium, taking in all the sights and sounds of the great game of baseball. They loved shagging balls, standing out in the bleachers and in the upper deck, trying to get the players on the field to hit balls to them. He was trained to be an Indians fan by his father who is a huge fan of all Cleveland sports.
Growing up in Parma, just outside of Old Brooklyn, he has a lot of memories of going downtown for the games, taking everything in. He always loved the city but didn’t truly appreciate it until he was older. It was his appreciation of Cleveland that inspired him to create something that would show people that Cleveland is not the down and out town that it is perceived to be. This is why he created Melt Bar and Grilled.
It started out as an idea to have a bar. One that had a top notch beer selection, featuring lots of local and craft breweries and also some good food, just in case people got hungry. The day he opened the doors to his first store, everything flip-flopped. Not only did people enjoy the great beer selection but they wanted the food more than the beer. Matt’s sandwiches had become more popular than he ever could have realized. While it was always Matt’s intention to start his own business, he didn’t know it would end up being a restaurant.
Matt learned to cook from an Italian woman named Colomba. She and her family owned and operated their own Italian restaurant and she showed Matt the ropes when it came to cooking. Not only did she teach him the keys to cooking successfully, she also gave him the tools he would need to run a business and keep it going, even in hard times. From that small restaurant, he went on to Johnny Mango’s, another family owned restaurant, built from scratch, where he learned more and more about cooking and running a restaurant. This is when he realized that he would open his own place.
Now, what started out as a “bar with really good grilled cheese sandwiches,” has turned into three stores in five years, including locations in Cleveland Heights and Independence to go along with his original Lakewood location. Melt won the Best Restaurant in Cleveland award in 2010 from Scene magazine, Matt’s proudest accomplishment. Along with that, Melt has taken the “Best Sandwich” award away from Sliman’s in 2007 and hasn’t lost that title since. Matt says it is a testament to the people who enjoy his restaurant, as well as his staff, and the way that they spread the word of it through Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth. Utilizing many local companies and butchers, Matt makes sure he stays as local as possible with all the ingredients he puts into his sandwiches.
Growing up with the Tribe, Matt never really had a favorite player. He was a huge fan of the team and not big into stats or card collecting. One player that does stand out for him though is Joe Charboneau, who won the Rookie of the Year award in 1980. Matt had a poster of Super Joe in his room but the fact that he was wearing Chief Wahoo on his uniform was the most important part. His memories of the 80’s and 90’s are all positive, no matter how the Tribe finished the season. In his words, “I always hope for .500. If that’s the best they can do, that’s a good season for me. That’s a World Series.”
Twice, Matt has headed to Arizona for Spring Training as the Indians prepared for the season in Goodyear. Matt has family there, near Tucson and Phoenix, so he can easily get down there for some time with his family as well as his hometown team. Matt was spotted by the Sports Time Ohio cameramen once as he took in a game. If he ever gets the chance to retire, Matt would definitely pick Arizona as the place to go so he can keep in touch with his family as well as his Cleveland Indians roots.
Matt’s love of Cleveland is more than just skin deep. His right arm is full of tattoos dedicated to the city of Cleveland including the Terminal Tower, the Transportation Bridge (Lorain-Carnegie) and, of course, the Chief Wahoo sign that stood outside of Gate C at Municipal Stadium until the day they moved to Jacob’s Field. In addition, he has the Cleveland motto, “There’s Always Next Year,” included in his tribute to the city he loves. Right before he opened up the first Melt location, he wanted to get something to really celebrate his heritage and all the things that scream “Cleveland.”
One of the sandwiches that Matt’s restaurant serves up is the Municipal Stadium Magic. I thought this name was ironic as the Indians didn’t experience a lot of magic in their days on the lake. Matt was quick to point out, however, that they experienced plenty of magic back in the 1940’s and 50’s before things fell apart for the team. They thought about calling the sandwich Jacob’s Field Magic but he was much more nostalgic for Municipal Stadium, a place he says he truly misses. He couldn’t even bring himself to go down to the lakeside when they were tearing it down to make way for the new Browns’ Stadium. He didn’t want to see it taken away.
Matt’s favorite part of the Indians experience is any Game Day. “I’ve always been more into the experience of the entire day. Getting downtown, parking, walking to the ballpark. Where do you go? What vendors do you visit? I made it to 40 games one year and it felt like a job to get to all of them. Going to the game is an all encompassing event. You start recognizing people, people recognize you.” He says some year, he wants to get to each and every game of the season and he hopes it’s a season that is much like the 90’s. “I remember when the Indians were really kicking ass. The fanfare was just killer and everyone wanted to be there. It was the place to be. Hopefully we get that back.”
While Matt fell into the optimism that we all felt at the outset of 2011, he was realistic about the whole thing and felt that the season wouldn’t turn out to be the dream that many of us thought it was turning into. “They definitely came out of the gates strong; the gods smiled down and gave us a good start.” He is, again, cautiously optimistic about the 2012 season and is a little skeptical about what the Indians rotation can do. He is very excited to have the veteran presence of Derek Lowe on the team but he’s never been a big Fausto Carmona fan. The way he stays busy with his restaurants, it’s been hard for him to get to a lot of games and keep track of the entire season, but he always makes it to Opening Day and follows the team as much as he can.
Matt Fish is a true Indians fan and has been for his entire life. Take a trip to the ballgame and you may catch a glimpse of the man behind one of the best restaurants Cleveland has to offer. Your better bet, though, is to catch him at one of his Melt locations as he stays hands on, making sure that his dream come true stays just that. He wanted to give Clevelanders a place where they could enjoy their own style of food and also give out-of-towners a place to visit to experience some of what this great city has to offer, even if they are Yankees fans.
Photo: Matthew Van Wormer