Cruising Frisch’s and the Mel-O-Dee

A couple of nights ago my wife, Brenda, and I stopped at Frisch’s in Wilmington and bought a couple of Big Boys for the first time in three months.

To my surprise, the name ‘Big Boy-Melodee’ was printed on the bottom of the receipt.

“Do you remember the Mel-O-Dee Restaurant?” Brenda asked with a bit of bemusement, knowing this type of question would generate a story.

“Oh, yes,” I said as my mind shifted back to the early days of both the Mel-O-Dee and the original Frisch’s restaurant.

According to the old-timers, Frisch’s Big Boy first came to town with a pledge to “Keep a smile on your face and your stomach full.” It was originally located on West Main Street just west of Bill Marine Ford.

It was a true “drive-in” restaurant with carhops dressed in crisp-looking uniforms. It had a “Happy Days” and “American Graffiti” look about it. The red-and-white dining room was small, complete with 10 or so bar stools at the counter, a few booths and a couple tables. Family friend Billy Hughes of Port William was a cook at the time. He wore a white paper hat, positioned a bit off-center, with Frisch’s name emblazoned on the side.

On Friday and Saturday nights, they had two carhops and two waitresses.

The old Frisch’s was a humming place. Kids stopped there after play practice and basketball games, and of course, it was the main place in town to watch kids cruise the parking lot.

Known not only for classic food, Frisch’s was also known for music and contests. A former classmate remembers entering a Hula-Hoop contest there.

“We were told a prize would be given to the person who could keep the Hula-Hoop spinning around our body for the longest period of time,” my friend said. “I actually won second place. I could have kept hooping, but another girl faked me out, pretending her Hula-Hoop was dropping to the ground. I dropped mine, and before I knew it, the girl wiggled hers back up and someone declared her the winner! I think the adults were glad the contest was over. It lasted more than four hours.”

On the other side of town sat the Mel-O-Dee Restaurant. A family restaurant, the Mel-O-Dee was similar in design to Frisch’s but lacked the signature Frisch’s food. In the late ’50s or early ’60s, Frisch’s moved to the Mel-O-Dee location and converted it to the present-day restaurant.

Some people went for the food, and some went for the adventure.

There was another reason to go to the new Frisch’s. If you were a teenager, which I was at the time, you went to cruise … and boy did we cruise.

Several times a week, my good friend Ralph Doak and I would meet up with buddies John Reynolds and Dan Dehan and head for Frisch’s for a night of cruising.

It never failed. We’d find many of our classmates there as well, especially on the weekends, and some had the new Ford Mustang that just had come out. We would take turns riding around town in the new car. As they said in those days, “It was neat.”

Some of our friends worked there, too. Some were carhops. One friend recounted leaving the job because a man threw a cheeseburger at her — with tartar sauce on it — and said she rubbed it on his windshield. “I’d do it again,” she said with a laugh. “For a variety of reasons.”

It was a different time, but still today, when we circle Frisch’s, I can almost see the friendly carhop ready to serve-up food and expect old friends to cruise by. Many things have changed, but there was a time if you hadn’t ridden around Frisch’s on a Friday night, on to the shopping center, and then to the west side of town at least 10 times, you weren’t ready to go home yet.

Just ask my friends.

Pat Haley is a Clinton County native and former county sheriff and commissioner.

Pat Haley Contributing columnist Haley Contributing columnist