EYE ON THE PRIZE 

The lengths they go to at the Melting Pot.

Fondue, from the French word "to melt," began in Switzerland as a clever way of using up hardened cheese. At the Melting Pot restaurant near Wolfchase Galleria, however, practicality isn't really the point when a four-course meal can take up to four hours. The goal here is to be totally immersed in the experience, much like that piece of bread you're dipping into a pot of aged cheddar.

The restaurant's motto is "Dip into something different," and the management team of Steve Evers and George Chaposky are passionate about its distinct personality. The music playing on any given night, for example, is tailored to the general age of the crowd. Customers who come later in the evening are likely to be greeted by a host or a manager offering to stay late and personally serve them. The restaurant's other attractions include romantically dim, semiprivate booths and a quaint wine room with nearly 120 bottles.

The bottom line, says Chaposky, is that if customers aren't impressed, "then we just haven't done our job."

"We're not your average restaurant, and we want to leave an impression on people," he says. "We want them to ask 'What just happened?' when they leave. We want them still talking about the experience days later."

Though the Melting Pot's Wolfchase location is roughly three years old, the restaurant was closed for about a year until Evers and Chaposky took over in September 2002. Evers, 50, is a former Nashville music-industry veteran, who came to Memphis from Nashville's Melting Pot. Chaposky, 25, came from the Myrtle Beach Melting Pot and says the pair of managers has ambitious plans for their upscale eatery.

Evers, for instance, is adamant that "the outside world should stop for customers" once they come in the door. He knows it's a tall order, but Evers believes its success lies in treating customers like kings and providing them with feasts. "You know, there are so many different places in Memphis, we feel like we really have to do something different to pull customers our way," he says.

That starts with the four-course meal that's central to the Melting Pot's drawing power. Dinner begins with a creamy selection of five gourmet cheeses and dipping sauces, bread, and vegetables. That's followed by a choice of salads and entrÇes, including beef, boneless chicken, duck, lobster, and shrimp. Customers ordering the full dinner cook their own entrÇes in a pot of vegetable-based broth in the center of the table. Capping off the meal is a dessert course of fruits and cakes served with a hot chocolate fondue.

The meal comes with a $65 price tag per couple, but customers don't have to get the entire package. Many, for example, drop by after a movie just for the cheese or dessert course.

Chaposky says that the restaurant is committed to being a "romantic yet fun" place to eat. That's where his eye for top-notch service comes in. Already, he and Evers are awaiting the end of the year when Melting Pot franchise officials distribute awards for performance and service.

"The award we're shooting for this year is called the Service Pot, and it's the first year we're eligible for it," Chaposky says. "It's a huge award for me. When I was in Myrtle Beach, our restaurant won the award seven years in a row."

No mean feat, considering the prize is given to only one of the 70 restaurants in the franchise each year. Evers and Chaposky, though, are constantly scouring every aspect of the restaurant, looking for areas to shore up and improve customer service. "Here, our waiters are going to take the time to get to know you," Chaposky says. "That's why people come back to us. We treat them like they are the most important person in the city."

When Chaposky left the Melting Pot in Myrtle Beach, he told them not to get comfortable with their winning streak. "Wherever I go," he says, "the pot's coming with me."

He's already got a spot picked out on the bar, at the front of the restaurant, for this year's award.

The Melting Pot is open seven days a week. Monday through Thursday the restaurant is open from 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 5-11 p.m.; Saturday, 4:30-11 p.m.; and Sunday, 4:30-10:30 p.m. The last seating for a full dinner is an hour before closing.

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