"Thanks, Sal," Wilson Velazquez says when the cook hands him his plate at the lunch counter, a mere arm's length away.
On an early Saturday afternoon, everyone at Sal's Menu Restaurant (3850 Pearl Rd., 216-398-1446) knows Sal Mansour by name. Today he's wearing a white chef's apron and green and white striped shirt with the name "Sal" stitched over his chest to inform the few who might be unfamiliar. From any seat in the house you can see him press sizzling corned beef hash, flip eggs hot off the griddle and send plates off with waitresses. There's rarely an empty seat in the place.
Regulars will tell you he's the best short-order cook in the land. Since the small Brooklyn Centre diner near the corner of Pearl and Denison opened in 1984, he's been on the line – a one-man show – seven days a week.
"It's like Cheers here," says Velazquez, who stops in every weekend. Some affectionately refer to his current seat, the one closest to Sal, as the chef's table. "We sit around the counter, we watch him cook."
"This was always my first stop when my kids would come up from Georgia," another regular, Lenny Jones, offers. Someone else a few stools down, overhearing the conversation, chimes in, "Everybody travels for Sal's!"
In 1971, Sal moved from Lebanon to Cleveland to join his now-wife Nina, who he insists is his "right hand," helping serve and keep records. Sal himself was no stranger to the day in and day out of the business. Back home, he helped cook traditional Lebanese food at his father's restaurant. He brought his appreciation of fresh ingredients to the diner, where he keeps a small garden out back during the growing season.
"We gardened all around the restaurant in the old country," he recalls.
Sal and Nina grew up in a small village where "everyone knew everyone," not unlike what their lives would become today.
"When I came to America, I had $500 in my pocket," says Sal, who worked odd jobs until finally purchasing the restaurant.
"When we bought this place, everybody thought we weren't going to make it," says Nina. "They thought the neighborhood wasn't right and we proved them wrong. We felt very welcomed."
It doesn't take more than a glance at the shiny blue menus to know that couldn't be truer. Opening every morning at 5 a.m., the shop has long been a respite for local shift workers. Order meatloaf with mashed potatoes and you have the Metro Special, named after the staffers from the nearby hospital. Three extra-large eggs with gyro meat makes the ALCOA Special, in honor of the workers from a nearby factory. Swap the gyro meat for bacon, sausage or ham and you're ordering The L.T.V., a menu item that has long outlasted its namesake steel mill.
"Things change but he still has customers from 30 years ago!" says Natalie Dempsey, a waitress of five years, wiping off the counter as the weekend shift winds down around 1:30 p.m. Through the rises and falls of the decades, it helps to have a constant, and for many a Clevelander that constant has been Sal.
"He's not afraid of hard work," says Nina. "He is a permanent fixture, seven days a week."