Cobble Hill

Half-Century Club: champion of longevity, Tripoli has been on Atlantic Avenue since the 1970s

June 13, 2024 Special from the Atlantic Avenue BID
Owner Mohamad Salem in front of his business, Tripoli. Photos courtesy of Atlantic Avenue BID
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This month, the Atlantic Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) paid tribute to a successful restaurant that has thrived for 52 years on the avenue. Opened 52 years ago by owner Mohamad Salem, he named the restaurant after his home city, Tripoli, in the north of Lebanon.

Originally a furniture designer and wood carver, Mohamad opened the restaurant in 1972 as a way to bring homemade Lebanese dishes to the Middle Eastern community of Atlantic Avenue. He reflected on the corridor back in the 1970s, describing it as the first community of Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Yemeni people in the country, with many moving from Washington Street in the nearly-extinct neighborhood of the Lower West Side of Manhattan. 

“This avenue was the center for Middle Eastern food in the whole country. These businesses also did wholesale for other communities in the United States. They used to come to shop here to sell products in their own locations far away,” said Mohamad.

Tripoli originally occupied the western corner of Atlantic Avenue and Clinton Street, where Mohammed used his design skills to make the interior look like a tent, and the space even had waterfalls inside. Given the nature of the unique interior, there was much anticipation from the community, and Tripoli served 111 customers on their opening night. 

“The next day, we had people in a line around the corner,” said Mohamad.

Tripoli generated a lot of buzz and became a destination for an eclectic clientele, like international scholars and students, and was host to prominent political figures and celebrities, including former mayor Ed Koch, for whom Tripoli was a notable favorite.

Muhammad Ali visits Tripoli and takes a photo with Mohamad Salem.
Muhammad Ali visits Tripoli and takes a photo with Mohamad Salem.

The restaurant moved to its current location in 1982 after a devastating fire, but Mohamad once again created an incredible interior that made guests feel like they were far at sea on board a ship. Today, this space is occupied by the Swallow Cafe, but one can still see remnants of its maritime-themed past, such as the lofted space that used to be the ship and the seaside paintings that still adorn the walls.

Tripoli offers Lebanese specialties that cannot be easily found elsewhere.  Mohamad explained that his menu has always been distinctive, even in the context of a large Middle Eastern restaurant corridor, because of the offering of homemade dishes. 

Owner Mohamad Salem and family inside the restaurant, which had an exuberant nautical theme, circa 1970s.
Owner Mohamad Salem and family inside the restaurant, which had an exuberant nautical theme, circa 1970s.

“My idea was to bring home dishes that were lost with the second and third-generation,” said Mohamad, explaining that he takes pride in the feedback over the years of his traditional dishes. “Many customers describe it as, ‘Oh, this is the way my grandma used to make it; I miss this.’ It felt like I was providing a service instead of a business.”

While one can find classic Lebanese dishes like fatoush, kefta kabob and hummus, there are also lesser-known foods like shish barak (small Lebanese meat pie-dumplings, cooked and served in a yogurt sauce made with garlic & cilantro), bamia (Fresh okra cooked with lamb chunks in a tomato sauce made with pomegranate nectar) and seleck b’loubia (celery and black eye beans sauteed with a mixture of onion, garlic and fresh coriander).

Mohamad believes that food can act as a pharmacy and that eating the right ingredients is the key to health. Tripoli only uses fresh ingredients for their dishes, never frozen or canned. Mohamad beamed as he described arriving at farmers’ markets as early as 5 a.m. to secure the freshest ingredients for his restaurant.

He also offers recipes for home health remedies and owns an importing business of all-natural Lebanese products like unfiltered olive oil, apple cider vinegar, carob molasses and pomegranate nectar. All of their products are grown organically on their family farmland in Lebanon. 

A view of the ship. This space is now the loft space inside the Swallow Cafe.
A view of the ship. This space is now the loft space inside the Swallow Cafe.

He explained that when he started his business, these authentic ingredients were hard to find, and substitute or chemical ingredients changed the flavor of the food. Using ingredients directly from Lebanon is another reason that sets Tripoli apart.

Mohamad still finds joy in serving this community and connecting others with the food of his homeland. “I don’t want to sell to a million people; I want to serve just enough,” he said. 

Tripoli is still owned by its original family, with his son, Nick, helping run the business. One can try all the delicious food at Tripoli Restaurant by ordering take-out or delivery online any day of the week or dining in on Friday through Sunday. Tripoli is an Atlantic Avenue treasure that is not to be missed.

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