On a typical day at Salem’s Market and Grill on Penn Avenue in the Strip District, you’ll see four-top tables pushed together cafeteria-style where Muslims and Christians sit side by side with atheists and Jews. At the long case of Mid-Eastern foods, a diverse group of people wait in line to place their orders. People from The Congo, Sudan, Tajikistan and all over Pittsburgh.
In the kitchen and behind the counter, a mix of men of various nationalities—Yemeni, Algerian, Kenyan, Pakistani, Bengali, Afghani, Syrian and American—prepare and serve heaping plates of shish kebab, falafel and chicken tikka—with a smile and often, a quick joke.
The restaurant, open since 2010 in its current location, presents the modern equivalent of lunch in the steel mills when Italians ate with Irish immigrants, African-Americans, Poles and others of Eastern European descent. Except there are women here, too, although not as many as men.
It’s a microcosm of Pittsburgh, a showcase of diversity in a city that is not known for it.
“It’s the beauty of America,” says owner Abdullah Salem, 34, a South Hills resident of Libyan descent. “Our motto is ‘The closest thing to back home, no matter where you’re from.’ We’ve said that since before we moved to this location.
It’s an excellent example of how people will unite under the name of food.
“In our line you’ll see a Nigerian family next to a Turk; you’ll find quite a few lawyers and doctors; you’ll meet people from Downtown, Garfield and Homewood. Everyone gets along,” says Salem.
Dig deeper and it gets even more interesting. A loan from the original Jewish owner of Murray Street Kosher in Squirrel Hill was responsible for the move from a small backroom in a grocery store on Atwood Street in Oakland to their current location, which includes a sizable market selling meats and Middle Eastern foods on one side and a coffee shop on the other serving Peet’s Coffee. Outside, the building is covered in a colorful mural with sayings of peace and unity.
Salem credits Wilfred Weiss, whom he calls Mr. Butch, for a large part of their success.
“When we moved to this location we consulted Mr. Butch on every decision. My dad, Massand, never wanted to take a loan,” he says. His dad started the business in 1981. “He didn’t want to pay interest because it’s not permissible in our religion.