Billed by founder Louis Farrakhan (accomplished violinist and leader of the syncretic movement The Nation of Islam) as “The Palace of the People,” Salaam Restaurant–with its smoky black windows, peroxide-white walls, and artfully carved edifice–is pretty hard to miss.
First opened in 1995 to cater to the South Side’s Halal-observing Nation of Islam members, the restaurant promised to promote community building and economic rejuvenation across a swath of largely neglected neighborhoods on the South Side. “We place this in the heart of the quote-unquote ‘ghetto’ to say to black people, ‘We love you and you are worth every dime we invest in you,’ ” Farrakhan promised at the restaurant’s grand opening.
In 2000, however, after barely five years in business, Salaam closed its doors to the public for reasons undisclosed. It’s impossible to know if Farrakhan’s controversial personal views–his alleged anti-Semitism and homophobia, and his incendiary stances on various foreign policy issues–may have somehow contributed to the closure of the establishment. Salaam’s reputation as “a Nation of Islam restaurant,” where clientele unassociated with the movement were believed to have been unwelcome, may have also played a role. Such a notion was rejected by Farrakhan, who at the 1995 opening affirmed that “that star and that crescent says that all of the world and its people are welcome in this establishment and all will be treated with the highest dignity and quality.” Others, like server Latevia Brown, believe that the marginalized market that Salaam found itself catering to–strictly observant Muslims and members of the Nation of Islam–meant that on the whole, the venture simply was not profitable enough. “They were losing money,” she ruminated. “It just didn’t make sense to keep it going.”
Twelve years can make a world of a difference, though. In a move spearheaded by former club owner Calvin Hollis and Farrakhan himself, Salaam opened its doors to the South Side once again, responding to an overwhelming demand for a return. “We built the Salaam restaurant with steel and concrete; that’s why we could close it for twelve years and come back and find it still here! Because brothers and sisters: For you, there is nothing too good!” proclaimed Farrakhan at the restaurant’s invitation-only opening reception.
While the exterior remains much the same (a large, revolving Islamic crescent has since been removed from the restaurant’s parking lot), the interior has benefited from the introduction of gleaming LCD TV menus, newly upholstered sofas, and a remodeled and replenished kitchen. The walls are plastered with black-and-white photographs, predominantly displaying iconic African-American cultural icons. On the wall directly in front of the kitchen hangs a mural composed of images of storied members of the Nation of Islam, including early leader Wallace Fard Muhammad and Farrakhan himself.
Despite the restoration work, the dining room is gloomily lit and eerily isolated at lunchtime, so I decide to sit in the restaurant’s more intimate Crescent Cafe. Service is excellent, and my waiter recommends I try the classic whitefish sandwich, a side of fries and coleslaw, and Salaam’s special navy bean pie.
My food arrives reasonably quickly and looks, rather unnervingly, exactly as it is pictured on the menu. The sandwich, despite its immaculate construction, falls well short of its glowing reputation: the fish itself is crisp and flaky, but bland; the vegetables (thickly chopped onions, tomatoes, and lettuce) are dry and fail to complement the fish in any conceivable way or form; and the only semi-solid accompaniment comes in the form of three defeated packets of pasty tartar sauce. The bun, however, is a completely different story. Occupying the much-needed territory between bun and baguette, the soft, slightly sweet bread is nothing short of phenomenal. Farrakhan himself speaks highly of it, referring to it as “your daily bread: fresh-baked bread made of the finest ingredients!” A great number of these “finest ingredients” have been locally sourced from farmers and butchers on the South Side. Like the bread, the sweet navy bean pie also deserves special praise. With its crisp well-structured crust contrasting wonderfully with the soft, doughy filling, the pie definitely takes the cake.
It is hard, of course, to separate the politics from the food, and while Farrakhan has repeatedly attempted to refute charges of homophobia and anti-Semitism, critics of the Nation of Islam and its leader remain vocal. As a restaurant, however, Salaam–which means “peace” in Arabic–has largely lived up to Farrakhan’s 1995 assertion of openness. The regulars are mostly Halal-observing, and “Assalamu alaykum” (“Peace be upon you”) is a frequent greeting. But the atmosphere is friendly and inclusive, and there is the hope that despite any political or religious differences, the food is something to be shared–and enjoyed–by all.
Salaam Restaurant, 706 W. 79th St. (773)324-6005. facebook.com/SalaamRestaurant