Sunday, February 22, 2004

Couple ready to move on

To generations of Cincinnatians, the Heritage functioned as a special-occasion destination.

By Cliff Radel
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Owners Howard and Janet Melvin are closing the Heritage restaurant, which they bought 44 years ago.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/STEVEN M. HERPPICH

COLUMBIA TOWNSHIP - Howard and Janet Melvin have 40 days to clear out 44 years of memories.

They sold the Heritage in December and closed the acclaimed restaurant after ringing in 2004.

Since then, the Melvins have sorted through boxes and uncovered hidden treasures at the classy, trend-setting place just east of Mariemont on Wooster Pike. They're trying to decide what to keep and what to pitch.

"Where do you begin?" Howard wondered. "I haven't thrown anything away in 44 years."

He stood by the restaurant's reception desk, where generations of Cincinnatians waited to be seated for anniversary dinners, birthday celebrations, weddings. Long before chain eateries with fake ferns. Before strip malls in suburbia, and frantically busy families dining out every Tuesday. Before all that, there was Heritage.

At a rare loss for words, Howard looked to Janet, his junior-high sweetheart and wife of 47 years. She gazed at the walls, lined with first-place plaques and plates from Taste of Cincinnati contests.

"We were going to retire when we were 50," she said.

"But it was too much fun," Howard added.

"We had a passion for the business. We made a lot of money. Business was still good. But it was time. Before one of us had a heart attack, we wanted to get out while we can still enjoy life."

While they pack their belongings, the Melvins are the unofficial caretakers of the place they bought in 1959. The new owner asked them to stick around during the search for someone to manage the 101-year-old restaurant in the rambling 177-year-old white frame building.

Longtime customers already miss the landmark restaurant. But not the Melvins.

"We're not sad," Janet said. "We're looking forward to doing fun things that we haven't been able to do for the last few years, like travel, and have holiday dinners on the day of the holiday - not Thanksgiving on the Monday after."

And that's the point. More than a business closing, this is a love story about a man, a woman and a restaurant.

Howard Melvin met Janet Davis when they were 14-year-old seventh-graders at Withrow Junior High.

"I saw her at a teen canteen dance on Hyde Park Square," he recalled. "It was love at first sight."

"He asked if he could walk me home," Janet recalled. "I said yes. But I lived in Bond Hill."

As their lives meshed, they started working in restaurants owned and operated by the Comisar family. When they decided to go on their own, they bought a restaurant and named it the Heritage.

Three of their five children worked in the business.

"We wanted to turn it over to them," Howard said. "But kids don't always do exactly what you think they are going to."

"We realized," Janet added, "our children have dreams of their own."

And they don't include owning the Heritage.

Howard picked up a menu from the summer of 1978. "Look at this!" he said. Janet rolled her eyes.

It was in mint condition. "Got a whole box of them," he proclaimed. "I'm a real pack rat."

As he spoke, the telephone rang. The phone rings constantly at the shuttered restaurant. The Melvins take turns answering.

Janet got this one. The caller asked for a reservation for 12. For lunch. For tomorrow.

She tried to get a word in edgewise. No dice. The caller went on about how she loved to dine there on special occasions. She raved about the Heritage's legacy of cutting-edge cuisine.

There are lots of food firsts to mention. The Heritage was cooking Cajun before Cajun was cool. It was way ahead of the curve when it came to serving nouvelle cuisine, American comfort food, locally grown produce, free-range chicken, wild game and herbs grown in Janet's garden behind the kitchen.

Janet listened and thanked her.

Then, the bad news. No reservations. No lunch. No more Heritage.

The finality in Janet's voice reminded Howard of some unfinished business. He stills needs to clean out the garage behind the restaurant. That outbuilding is the final resting place for many of the restaurant's mementos.

"We have records in here from day one," Howard said as he unlocked the garage's side door. Two deep-sea fish - mounted and stuffed - welcomed visitors from an adjoining wall. Signs from booths used at area food festivals leaned against another wall.

"There's our second Christmas tree," Janet said, looking up at the rafters. "Remember that, Howard? That's the one the cats crawled into and scared the kids."

Howard replied with a muffled affirmative. He was bent over looking in a box. He was hunting for a bearskin rug.

During the restaurant's first wild game festival, a delivery truck unloaded the Heritage's supply of bear meat - in the form of one frozen creature, still in his bear suit.

"Jan heard this," Howard said, "and she thought, 'Bearskin rug.' "

For decades, that rug greeted diners to the Heritage's wild game festival.

"Gosh, we had fun with that," Howard said.

The fun faded over the last four years, and running the business became a chore.

He found himself working seven-day weeks. "I was doing more work than I wanted." Cleaning toilets. Washing floors.

Janet worked double and triple shifts on Saturday.

"We had regressed," she said. "We were working the hours we worked when we first opened."

They were seeing less of each other. It was time to retire.

Howard wanted to walk his girl home every night.


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