Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's Visit to Harlem: Melba Wilson Spills the Sweet Tea on 'Down-to-Earth' Royals

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prince harry, meghan markle
prince harry, meghan markle

matt sayles

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry had an impactful lunch date on their calendar last Friday, and now restaurateur Melba Wilson is giving PEOPLE a taste of her sweet visit with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

When the couple visited Melba's Harlem on Friday after Meghan read her book The Bench to students at PS 123 that morning, "They were extremely gracious, very, very kind and really genuine," owner Melba Wilson shares.

The stopover was naturally kept top-secret (Wilson couldn't even tell her staff until an hour beforehand), but despite the pomp and circumstance most royals would require, Wilson said Harry and Meghan immediately eased her nerves.

"The hug that they both greeted me with was so warm," she says. "They have a way of making you feel comfortable, and that was everything to me. It was almost like I was talking to two familiar people that I've known for quite some time."

Once inside, they sampled "a lot of my favorite things on the menu," says Wilson, who opened the soul food eatery in 2005. The pair had their pick of Southern staples, including catfish and collard greens, as well as contemporary twists on old classics like eggnog waffles and spring rolls with black eyed peas.

But lunch wasn't necessarily the main priority for Meghan, 40, and Harry, 37. The couple specifically requested that Wilson not close the restaurant for a private visit because "they wanted to be with the people, and that to me was so endearing," says Wilson.

"They took time to engage with other customers who were shocked that they were there ... [they talked] with our service staff, with our chef," she adds.

"What surprised me was how down-to-earth, how comforting, how caring they really are. And it's not what I expected from a royal," she says. "They really are amongst the nicest people I've ever met."

Meghan Markle
Meghan Markle

Gotham/GC Images Meghan Markle

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Beyond the face time, Harry and Meghan also made sure to pay it forward, leaving a $25,000 donation to Melba's COVID-19 Employee Relief Fund via their Archewell Foundation.

Wilson says the money will make a difference amid "a very challenging time, especially for the food and beverage industry. It's about really providing our employees and other restaurant workers, as well as people that are going through food insecurity during this time of COVID-19 ... with opportunity, making sure that our employees can pay their rent, can pay their bills and also that they have substantial meals."

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This work is deeply personal to Wilson, who tells PEOPLE, "I started out with very, very humble beginnings, and my life is totally about service, whether it's City Harvest or for my Harlem community, my life is fulfilled by giving."

She continues, "For [the Duke and Duchess] to have heard about us via word of mouth and chose to come there to support a Black, female-owned business is definitely big. But it also shows that people that come from humble beginnings and in urban communities, or any small community, that people see us, they hear what we do, and we're recognized in that way. So it was so much bigger than Melba's, it's about Harlem. It's also about people who have dreams and have vision."