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Published: Friday, 1/17/2003

Family-friendly staff, fare

What first strikes me about Melaina's Food & Spirits is that there's a lot of restaurant packed into a small space. It occupies a narrow storefront in a diminutive strip mall, known a wee bit pretentiously as the McCord Marketplace. On the positive side, however, marketplace and restaurant are both informal, laid back, unpretentious, intimate - but not too much so.

The eponymous Melaina is in fact a child of just a year, born right about the time that her parents competed the purchase of the restaurant from the previous proprietor, when it was known as Zoe.

Name and ownership apart, the arrangement of seating areas and, if my memory is working properly, the menu are largely unchanged.

There is a full bar, but it's a serving bar, not an open invitation to sit and bemoan the state of affairs over a beer. The kitchen is partially open, so if you're looking for reassurance you can easily eyeball the chef.

Such is Melaina's customer capacity that one fast-paced, irrepressibly perky young server does all that a half-dozen servers do in a larger dining room.

Counting the soups of the day - one evening's creation was an imaginatively doctored tomato-rice, really delicious, and another focused on a vidalia onion - there are only seven appetizers, few needing explanation, which tells you something about the ambitions of the kitchen.

Though Melaina's is not open at noon, the menu offers the hungry guest a choice of 10 sandwiches, pretty solidly Midwest American - burgers, of course, BLTs, reubens - with only a faint hint of the Mideast, such as gyros with lamb, beef, or chicken.

As for entrees, the menu is somewhat mysterious. A listing of several steaks is almost entirely repeated for a dollar or two less. As my server explained it, the top list, more expensive, includes sides chosen by the kitchen, not the guest, but the bottom list is focused solely on the steak, leaving the customer to make his own choices from among the list of sides.

Barbecue sauce on an order of ribs is very tasty - piquant but smooth - one that keeps inviting the guest to take another bite. However, with the half-rack I had one evening, the hapless porker didn't cultivate much meat between the tightly woven bones.

My other quibble was the broiling to well done of an otherwise tender, flawless ribeye, my routine request for medium rare simply overlooked.

In addition to beef and the ribs there are entree choices of chicken and shrimp. Prices throughout the menu make a family night out a reasonable alternative to dinner (and dirty dishes) at home.

There is a varied 12-and-under menu, featuring four munchkin-friendly meals ($3.95 each) accompanied by pop, soup, and a dish of vanilla ice cream with syrup or sprinkles.

Parking on the northwest corner of McCord Road and Dorr Street is convenient.

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