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Peter Mel sits with his hands folded at a corner table in his latest restaurant venture. As our camera snaps his picture, a sheepish smile is painted across his face while he nervously half mumbles “shit” – in cheese’s stead – under the show tunes that accentuate the big-city vibe of such a small-city diner. That diner is Pete’s Place: Broadway Cafe, a trendy Ferndale eatery, located at 1225 Woodward Heights, wallpapered with dozens of posters from musicals like “Hairspray,” “Evita” and “Grease.”
“That’s gotta be 30 years old. That’s the original,” he says, proudly pointing to a poster from “A Chorus Line,” a musical that debuted on Broadway in the mid-’70s and returns to Detroit next month. “At my age, to see them coming around again, it is kinda cool, really.” (That age, by the way, is uncertain: “Let’s leave it at 60,” he later says.)
He leans into the table, staring down with his half-open eyes in deep reflection mode as he recalls seeing most of the musicals – “it reflects how old I am,” he snickers – in NYC during frequent visits he made there over 20 years, beginning in 1967. Or during “The Golden Age,” he kids.
“The little restaurants and cafes and what-have-you, that’s what attracted me,” he says.
Stylized in art deco, including wicker chairs that Pier 1 Imports would probably sell, and radiating the feeling of being transported to old-time NYC, Mel’s modernized diner is also pretty gay. Because of Broadway? “For starters,” he laughs.
In the mid-’70s, when Mel opened his first restaurant, the Gas Station Lounge, being a gay business owner was radically different – and gay money wasn’t good money, he says.
“There’s no question about it: You felt it from your vendors, the banker, the butcher, the baker,” he says. “So, in 2008 there’s no such thing – or at least I don’t feel any, and all my vendors and suppliers and non-gay customers know, of course, that we cater to a gay clientele, so there’s no animosity at all. Or at least I don’t feel it.”
Being in one of Michigan’s gay hubs, Ferndale, helps too. His other ventures were on Woodward Avenue north of Six Mile Road in Detroit: Backstage Deli in 1978, Footlights bar in 1981 and Salute in 1986 – “then, that was it,” he says with a laugh larger than the half-pound Backstage Burger they serve.
But it wasn’t. While managing a Subway, and other various restaurants from 1995 on (after selling his previous properties), Mel drove past a vacant Coney Island with a “for sale” sign on it. In early June, it became Pete’s Place.
“Something (was) wrong with my brain, I think, at birth,” he says of his latest investment, breaking into another laugh. “Too many drugs in that era. All of the above.”
Whether he’s lying or covering-up by punctuating that statement with an innocent smile, it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to actually believe that. His restaurant opened just as the economy continued to spiral downwards.
“I could not have chosen a worse time to open anything,” he admits. “A Popsicle stand would have a difficult time right now. But in light of that, we’re doing quite well.”
The full parking lot during this particular weekday lunch-hour is proof. Middle-aged women flip through the menu – a hearty list of sandwiches, salads and dinner entrees, like lemon chicken piccata and sauteed salmon (the diner also prides itself on nuances, like adding crushed cinnamon sticks to its coffee).
Two older men sweep in, glancing at the “Playbill” – the day’s specials. A set of cooks greet them through an open window facing the entrance door where, moments before, Mel stood in front of the camera, smiling at a wall of Broadway posters.
“The older I get, the uglier I get; that’s number one,” he says, explaining why pictures are a bad idea. “But number two, I never did take a good picture. Ever, in my entire life.”