By MADOLINE MARKHAM
Outside Wayne Salem’s diner on 18th Street, you’ll find news articles about his Philly cheese steak, his family’s restaurant legacy in Birmingham, and his father’s fame as an Alabama football player. But they’re only part of the reason so many people come in weekly or even daily.
Ask anyone inside the small diner, and they might say they come for Wayne Salem himself. They may come for Wayne and the lively, family-like camaraderie he creates with each of his friends in the restaurant. And everyone who comes in is his friend, even on the first visit.
Surrounding the atmosphere of the sort of “diner family” are walls covered in Alabama and Auburn photos and memorabilia. Tickets from both teams’ national championship games in 2010 and 2011 are taped to the wall by the kitchen.
Alongside signs for the 2009 and 2010 Heisman trophy winners, you’ll also find one commemorating Salem’s father, Ed, who was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2010 for his football career in the late 1940s. Ed Salem opened three diners in downtown Birmingham that were a regular hangout from 1950 to 1983, and his family later owned four bowling alleys in town. It is this family legacy of his diners and drive-ins that Salem’s carries on today.
Jimmie and Sonny Dixon ate burgers and shakes at Ed Salem’s drive-in on 26th Street when they were dating in the mid-1950s. Now they drive from Roebuck at least once a week, usually on Saturdays with their daughters and grandchildren to join a crowd of Saturday regulars at Salem’s. They come for the atmosphere, for Wayne and for the good food.
The couple says they can’t count how many friends they’ve brought to eat at Salem’s. “When we tell them, they tell someone else,” Jimmie said.
They have tried everything on the menu but now eat either the cheese steak or the tilapia grilled with Salem’s secret seasonings, which is served either over rice with coleslaw or over Salem’s salad.
The menu expands beyond what you see in print. “If you don’t see it on the menu, build it,” he tells people. Regular customer Roger Tomberlin created “The Trashcan”: hash browns loaded with onions, peppers, tomatoes, cheddar cheese and the diner’s specialty spicy pork sausage. Some complete the order with the addition of eggs by requesting Wayne “put a lid on that.”
Coworkers Hyland Knecht, Debbie Foster and Shari Hamby come to Salem’s from downtown for lunch once a week. “We come back because Wayne knows us,” said Hamby, who always orders the cheesesteak. “It’s like walking into Cheers.”
“You can’t beat the atmosphere,” Knecht said. “It’s like going to a family diner. Everything is always fresh.” He thinks the burgers are the best in the city and raves about the banana pudding Salem makes. He also usually stops for breakfast on Fridays.
After running an Ed Salem’s location for 20 years and then a deli in Avondale, Salem said he decided to open a quiet little diner in either Homewood or Mountain Brook. In 2006 he moved into the location on 18th Street that for 40 years had housed Dino’s Hotdogs and has since created a Homewood dining tradition of his own.
“Homewood people take care of their own,” Salem said. “I came in from Southside as an outsider, and they’ve been darn good to me.” He recalled how Laura Williams invited him to cook for a big party at her house shortly after he opened shop. “Laura said, ‘Wayne, we’re going to introduce you to Homewood,’” Salem said. And they did just that. “It sure was the right move [coming to Homewood],” he said.
Salem’s doesn’t draw in just an older crowd; Samford students are regulars as well. Salem cooks cheese steaks at some of the home baseball games. He speaks with pride about basketball player Emily London, pointing to a laminated article about her team on the wall, and her family visiting. “I love Samford University students,” he said. “This is their place too.”
His customers aside, Salem is most proud of his Philly cheese steak’s spotlight on national television. While in town to perform at The Comedy Club, Craig Ferguson, host of CBS’s “The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” stopped by Salem’s. Salem served him the cheese steak while Ferguson chatted and signed autographs for fellow customers.
“I had an experience at this diner that shook me to the core,” Ferguson told his TV audience when he returned. “This diner in Alabama had the best Philly cheese steaks, and I include Philadelphia.”
Ferguson also picked up on the signature atmosphere of the diner. “When I came in they were like, ‘Hey! It’s the guy from TV!’” he said. “And then a couple of minutes later another guy came in, and they were like, ‘Hey! It’s the guy from the hardware store. They do it to everyone.”
Come into Salem’s, and you’ll become the next diner to be greeted like Ferguson and the guy from the hardware store, only for those of us in Homewood, we can stop by any and every day.
2913 18th Street South
Mon.-Sat., 6:30 a.m.- 3 p.m.