Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Nile: “The Most Famous Syrian Restaurant This Side of the Pyramids”

Located just outside Chinatown, at 52 Hudson Street, a Syrian restaurant, The Nile, quietly opened sometime between 1934-1938. Initially, it was patronized only by Syrians and received little media attention for over ten years. Over time though, its popularity grew and it began garnering national attention, becoming probably the most famous Syrian restaurant in Boston. However, how many people nowadays know of The Nile and its history? Unfortunately, it has been largely forgotten so it's time to highlight its history.

Previously, I wrote about the early history of Boston's Little Syria and its restaurants, as well as a history of the Sahara Syrian Restaurant, whose iconic sign remains standing after nearly fifty years, Now, I'm detailing the history of a hugely popular Syrian restaurant, The Nile, which many people probably know nothing about. It's initially interesting to point out that the Nile River doesn't exist within Syria, so it's a curious name for a Syrian restaurant. 

The actual date of the opening of The Nile is vague, as all the newspaper references I've found have been very general, and partially contradictory. The earliest newspaper references, from the 1950s, seemed to indicate the restaurant opened around 1937 or 1938. However, later references, during the 1960s, tended to point to an origin more around 1934. Thus, the restaurant existed in Boston for about 31-35 years. 

The earliest newspaper reference I found to The Nile, about ten years after its opening, was in the Boston Globe, September 16, 1946, in the above advertisement. It noted the restaurant was open from 10am-1am and served Syrian and American dishes. They claimed to be famed for their Lamb Mishwi, lamb on skewers (also known to Americans as Shish Kabobs), and Syrian Salad

There was then a brief reference in the Boston Globe, November 8, 1946, noting, “The Nile Restaurant is a rendezvous for those who like different food, especially the Syrian types of dishes which it features.” Syrian cuisine was seen as "exotic" at this time period. 

As mentioned in a legal notice in the Boston Globe, November 29, 1947, the restaurant applied for a license to sell alcohol, Malt and Wine. The notice listed Michael D. Salem, George D. Salem, and John Salem, as representatives of The Nile restaurant.

The Boston Herald, October 11, 1949, also posted a small advertisement for The Nile in a column titled "Where To Dine. Dance Entertainment." In a major typo, it noted the restaurant specialized in "Lawn Mishivi," which should have been Lamb Mishwi. That typo was unfortunately still in subsequent ads for at least two months. The ad also mentioned they served beer and wine. 

The first lengthy article about The Nile was presented in the Boston Herald, November 1, 1951. The writer sought out Syrian food at The Nile, and “being in a daring mood,” ordered some stuffed grape leaves. Nowadays, that dish wouldn't be considered daring at all, but in in the early 1950s, it wasn't a very common dish at all, at least to many Americans. 

The restaurant founder and owner of The Nile was Deeb G. Salem, also known as George Salem, a Syrian who previously worked as a chef in a swank Lake George Resort in New York. When he decided to go out on his own, he moved to Boston and opened his own restaurant, The Nile. Initially, the restaurant was in a small room, and his menu and clientele were all Syrian. As of 1951, there were about 16,000 Syrians in the Boston area. 

Over time, the restaurant grew to two rooms, and the menu expanded to include American dishes as well. For entertainment, the restaurant had a juke box, with a number of records of Syrian music, though all of those records were made in Egypt. The slogan of Deeb Salem and his restaurant was  “The Most Famous Syrian Restaurant This Side of the Pyramids.” 

Salem stated that the difference between Syrian and Greek cooking, both which favor lamb as the central meat course, was largely the seasoning. “The Greeks…favor a rather higher style of seasoning than the Syrians, and use a good deal more oil.” Salem also mentioned that at the restaurant, they cooked everything in a special butter, which was made from sheep's milk and imported from Syria. This butter was expensive, costing $2.50 a pound, which translates to about $25.70 in today's dollar. 

In addition, Salem mentioned that numerous adventurous diners came to his restaurant, as well as some celebrities, such as "Danny Lewis." The writer was unable to place that alleged celebrity, but from later newspaper references, the owner might actually have meant Danny Thomas.  

On their typewritten menu was their signature dish, Lahm Mishwi, also known as shishkabeb or lamb en brochette, which is lamb barbecued on steel skewers, The Syrian style called for a slice of tomato and onion between each square of meat. As for the choice of lamb cut, the Syrians usually preferred the fatter meat of the lamb forequarters, but Salem used a leg of lamb as Americans generally didn't appreciate the fatty meat.

Also on the menu was Dahood Basha, ground lamb with Syrian spices, onions, green pepper and tomato sauce with pine nuts. The pine nuts were also imported from Syria, and used in many native dishes. There was also Lubiah bi Lahm, a stew of garlic and string beans.

Salem was a pastry chef, and with a lack of humility called himself “the best.”  He presided over the preparation of Baqlawa, a pastry of paper-thin layers of pie crust stuffed with crushed walnuts and pistachios, and Halawa, which was made of sesame seeds, sugar, and oil of bergamot. His son, John, did most of the barbecueing, while his wife Rose did all of the other cooking; She had a great reputation as a cook for “the great ladies of their native Syria” so had wanted to work at the restaurant. John and Rose would continue to work there for the length of its existence. 

The Boston American, September 15, 1958, ran another advertisement for The Nile, emphasizing Shish-Kabab, another term for Lahm Mishwi. This word change might have been an effort to appeal more to non-Syrians, using a more familiar term.

A Harvard professor cooking at The Nile? The Boston Traveler, June 19, 1961, wrote about Mrs. Esma Durzi, a professor of Arabic at Harvard University. In addition, she was a cook at The Nile restaurant! She generally worked at the restaurant from 8am to 3:30pm, and then taught her class, four days a week, from 4pm-6pm. Esma was a native of Palestine, having attended the Training College for Teachers in Jerusalem. 

In 1948, Esma and her family fled to Cairo because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They wanted a good education for their children and moving to the U.S. seemed like their best option. She came to the U.S. with her family in December 1958, and lived in Cambridge. 

The Nile had about 300 customers each day, and Esma prepared much of the food in advance, except for meat that was cooked to order. She ws certainly a hard worker, starting her day at 5am, preparing dinner for her family for that night, and never complaining about those long hours.

The Nile acquired plenty of fame, and numerous celebrities that came to Boston dined there. For example, the Boston Herald, November 30, 1961, reported that limousines stopped at The Nile, picking up food for the wife of King Saud, who was undergoing medical treatment at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. King Fahd also dined there as did the Aga Khan, the Kennedys and Jimmy Durante. 

Unfortunately, in April 1963, The Nile had to close its Hudson Street location. The Boston Traveler, February 13, 1964, reported that The Nile lost its property when the site was taken for the Turnpike extension. That required The Nile to relocate its restaurant. Would The Nile be able to survive at a different location? 

The new location of The Nile reopened by March 1964. The Boston Globe, March 8, 1964, published a very basic advertisement for the  Nile Restaurant, now located at 78-90 Broadway, and mentioned their specialty, Shishkabob.

The first major review of the new location was presented in the Boston Herald, June 28, 1964, calling it "one of city’s most popular dining establishments." The restaurant had three dining rooms, decorated in red and black, with pillars, grooved arches, and Babylonian murals. The Harem cocktail Lounge was "complete with flying carpet" and with "deep red color effects and murals worth thousands of dollars od shepherds and nomads roaming ancient lands." In addition, "Tropical trees and waterfall embellish the entrance to the dining and lounge areas." This was a major step-up from their prior location. 

The Nile was operated by George, John, Rose and Deeb Salem, with John being in charge of menu preparation. The restaurant was open for Lunch from Monday to Friday, from 11:30am-3pm, with lunch starting at 99 cents. It was also open for dinner, seven days a week,until 10pm, and Cocktail time was from 12pm-4:30pm, offering drinks at 59 cents. 

The kitchen "uses rare recipes which have been handed down through generations of the Salem family, some of whom were royal chefs in the Near East." One of their appetizers, said to be a favorite of Cleopatra, was Hoomis Bi Tahini (ground chic peas, sesame paste, and seasoned Nile style). It was also mentioned that lamb dishes were a speciality, including Lah’m Mishwi (lamb on skewers) and Kharouf Mihshee (barbecued stuffed lamb). 

A few months later, the Boston Globe, September 27, 1964, provided their own review of The Nile, noting it "brings a new note in Middle Eastern 'savior faire' to downtown Boston." The article also stated that "the chic and mystery of this dining oasis is typified by a cocktail called Cleopassion--a potent mixture of crème de menthe, crème de cacao, cream, and grenadine."  

The restaurant had a palm-framed grotto in the lobby and  a “...pyramid design is reflected in metallic gold panels and a smoky blue ceiling of geodesic pattern.” There were also imported bronze filigree lamps. “There is privacy in the booths set in alcoves reminiscent of minarets.” In addition, there was black enamel detailing and red tablecloths. 

The food was served in American or Arabic style. You could order the Roast Lamb Kharouf, a tender lamb leg stuffed with ground lamb, rice and spices; which was “hailed in international chefs’ competitions in Paris.” The Tossed Salad a la Nilehas a distinctive dressing of fresh lemon, five kinds of olive oil, a hint of garlic and mint.” There were Stuffed Grape Leaves; Stuffed “Koosa” squash simmered in tomato sauce, and Eggplant stuffed with lamb and pignoli nuts. They also served the classic shishkabob, served five different ways. For dessert, you could enjoy their flaky honey pastry.  

That same issue of the Boston Globe, September 27, 1964, also had a half-page advertisement for The Nile, part of which is provided above. The ad stated, “The Harem lounge, complete with flying carpet, is hung with paintings and tapestries dating from 1900 back to 1086 when Spain was ruled by the Moors or Almoravides.” It also stated, they serve “..original near east food prepared in the old way by Mrs. Rose Salem the mother of the Salem family,...” In addition, it was noted they had private function rooms which could seat 30-125 people.

In a brief mention, the Boston Herald, December 18, 1964, printed, "A new place to try is the Nile Restaurant in Park Square, known for its Syrian food. Seasonings are suited to every taste.” 

Sad news for the Salem family, The Nile and the Boston community. The Boston Globe, July 6, 1966, reported that the patriarch of the Salem family, Deeb G. Salem died on Thursday. He was 75 years old and had lived at 9 Maplewood Street, West Roxbury. He was said to be a nationally known restaurateur, who had operated the Nile Restaurant for 32 years. He had been considered an expert in the preparation of Near Eastern cuisine. The Boston Herald, July 6, 1966, also had an obituary, noting Deeb Salem was a native of Lebanon who came to the U.S. over 60 years. 

The Nile restaurant continued to operate and the Boston Herald, August 24, 1967, highlighted George Salem, calling him the “king o’ the kabobs.” When making his shish kabob, “He marinates cubes of lamb in a delicious lemon-oil concoction that’s seasoned perfectly with dried mint and garlic.” George even gave his recipe to the Herald so they could publish it for their readers. All of the ingredients could be easily found in any grocery store, and many home cooks might even have all the ingredients already. 

Unfortunately, the restaurant lasted less than three years after the death of Deeb Salem. The Boston Globe, January 23, 1969, noted that the U.S. District Court had foreclosed on the restaurant, which was placed up for auction a short time later. There wasn't any indication in the newspapers as to the reasons for the downfall of The Nile. 

As a bit of a coda, the Boston Globe, July 29, 1970, published an article about Asma Durzi (referred to in a prior newspaper article as Esma Durzi), who was a cook for ten years at The Nile restaurant. She was currently still teaching at Harvard University. She now catered parties at her home, usually creating Near Eastern dishes. She provided a couple recipes to the Globe, including Eggplant-Sesame Dip, Rice with Orzo, and Stuffed Squash.

For about 35 years, The Nile was the most popular Syrian restaurant in Boston, a nationally known restaurant where celebrities and even heads of state dined. It had a humble start, a small room on Hudson Street, and grew over time, and was a true family affair, owned and operated by various members of the Salem family. The patriarch, Deeb George Salem, left behind an important legacy, helping to make Near Eastern cuisine more mainstream. The history of The Nile should not be forgotten. 

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