MELTing cheese. And hearts.
Updated: Aug 3, 2019
Two women redefine Southern dining in Birmingham's backyard.
By Parker Rose, Lead Editor
There’s a busy and eclectic energy to Melt in Avondale, but it’s a comfortable and familiar one.
“It’s home, and we want to invite people into our home,” said Paget Pizitz, the co-owner and co-founder of Melt in Avondale with her business partner Harriet Despinakis. The two women also own Fancy’s on Fifth and other restaurants in Avondale.
With warm lighting and edgy wall decorations - including a very noble pink suit of knight’s armor guarding over the restrooms. The restaurant also has a handsome supply of board games and card decks. Even when you’re not chowing down on some deep fried macaroni-and-cheese egg rolls or a buffalo chicken sandwich, it’s unlikely you will ever become bored.
Paget Pizitz (left) and Harriet Despinakis (right) are the owners of MELT and Fancy's on Fifth in Avondale.
Born and raised in the Birmingham area, Paget Pizitz made the decision to move to Washington, DC straight out of college to pursue the corporate, city lifestyle. However, it wasn’t long before she became tired of the concrete jungle and wanted to move back home. It was also in the midst of her realization that she wanted to leave corporate work and pursue a career in the food industry.
Paget also spent a great deal of time in other large cities such as New York City, where she was deeply immersed in the food scene there, in more ways than one. “I always dated cooks,” she allows. Paget had a distaste for the roughness of the food scene in New York City. It was never actually about the food or its enjoyment, but about the aesthetic and “edginess” of the place. “You could have a restaurant called “Smack Me in the Face” and people would be lining up out the doors to get a table,” she jokes, although somewhat serious. Moreover, the scene didn’t recognize the importance of food to human connection and culture. “If you don’t have anything to talk about,” says Paget, “You can always talk about food.”
Thus, Paget wanted to create a food scene that didn’t compromise food for aesthetic, or vice versa. She wanted to meet these two very important criteria in the center, with a little bit of flare. “Sure we have our fried buffalo chicken sandwich,” says Paget, “But our food is really pretty. Our food is plated well, and it’s beautiful, I think that sets us apart from other Southern restaurants.”
Though thriving in the big cities, Paget would still make time to come back home and visit, and the first thing on the itinerary for each of these visits was always going out and getting a good bite to eat.
Already thriving in the restaurant business, Harriet had established two nice restaurants in Birmingham that were a favorite of Paget and her family.
MELT's famous sandwiches have made their reputation across the states.
“Whenever I came to Birmingham, I made my dad take me to her restaurant Friday and Saturday night.” Of Harriet, Paget says, “I thought she was so cool.”
It wasn’t long before Paget was chairing a gala for Type 1 diabetes when she really connected with Harriet, whose son is Type 1 diabetic.
“We just kind of clicked,” says Harriet. And from there they decided to take Paget’s dream and Harriet’s experience and build something in Birmingham.
Getting their start with a jointly owned food truck (for which they had to drive all the way to Miami to acquire), Harriet and Paget have been partners for 6 years, building a distinct and recognizable identity in Avondale that characterizes not only the area, but the Birmingham food scene at large. Paget and Harriet have been a part of a large influx of chefs and artisans which have breathed life into the Birmingham food scene. For a long time, foodies were only attracted to the far corners of the South - places like New Orleans and Memphis. But now, Birmingham is entering the game. If you want a tablecloth, world-renowned kind of experience, go to Highlands Bar and Grill. But if you want to pay a well-deserved pilgrimage to the home of the best grilled cheese you will ever have while still feeling like you’re in the hands of amazing cooks, look no further than Melt in Avondale.
And even though one could spend all day raving about the food, the thing that also stuck out to me was the bond between Harriet and Paget. They are more than just business partners, and that was evident before we even sat down for the interview. “She’s the only person I completely trust,” says Harriet. Both women agree that they each have different strengths, but complement each other well. “It’s like being in any other healthy relationship,” says Paget, “We grow together.”
“There’s nothing really Southern about me except that I want to defy the stereotypical image of the Southern belle.” - Paget Pizitz
And though both women are from the South, Paget says that “There’s nothing really Southern about me except that I want to defy the stereotypical image of the Southern belle.” Paget may have been born in the South and currently leaning into the aesthetic of Southern food culture, but she correctly points out that this isn’t what defines her. She is a thriving businesswoman who made her start. She is a major player in the Birmingham food scene.
On warm days, customers sit outside in the terrace area.
Both Harriet and Paget also attest to the lessons they have learned by being a woman in the food industry. “The restaurant world is a man’s world.,” says Harriet “There are very few restaurants that are solely female-owned… but you can still be a soft, sweet nice woman and still be a businesswoman and make tough decisions.”
“[Women] are strong. They’re raising kids by themselves. They’re opening restaurants with other women…At the end of the day, it’s just us.” - Harriet Despinakis
But more than anything, being expert professionals in the food industry has allowed them to see more clearly the incredible shift of the feminine identity in the South and at large: “[Women] are strong. They’re raising kids by themselves,” says Harriet. “They’re opening restaurants with other women…At the end of the day, it’s just us.” Thus, the significance of Melt and Fancy’s on Fifth goes much deeper than simply its incredible influence on the Birmingham food scene - it’s a story of two women who are challenging the idea that women cannot withstand the pressures of restaurant leadership, and acting as testaments to the sheer power of collaboration between women. Not only are Paget and Harriet powerhouse role models for all young women with a foodie dream, but they know how to make a damn fine grilled cheese.