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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Remembering the gregarious host behind Alberto’s Continental for 51 years

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our top headlines will appear in your inbox each Monday and Thursday.
Alberto Salum befriended many in Mérida’s expat community. Photo: Joe Stines

Mérida lost one of its most colorful and beloved raconteurs when Alberto Salum, co-owner of the once-famous Alberto’s Continental, passed away on Oct. 1.

For decades, his Continental restaurant and patio were a must-see for visitors, and he was its gregarious host. Major media took note and world travelers packed Alberto’s for years.

Alberto’s, a romantic restaurant of the old school, closed in 2013 after 51 years, and briefly had an incarnation as Patio 57, run by relatives. It was on the corner with 64 in a converted 1700s hacienda with sensuous curved Moorish arches, a mosaic floor imported from Cuba. Its antiquity was underscored by countless antiques and oils, softly lit and over-the-top charming.

Alberto Salum stands while friends and patrons enjoy music in the Continental courtyard sometime in 2013. Photo: Lee Steele

The loquacious Alberto was in his 80s when he and his family closed the restaurant down. Mérida had already changed quite a bit from its 1960s, ’70s and ’80s heyday, back when it was listed in guide books and travel stories. In 1985, The New York Times’ R.W. Apple Jr. included Alberto’s “lime soup” and “excellent Arab dishes” in a nationwide list of recommended dining spots.

Nearly 10 years later, Susan Spano of the Times called Alberto’s “a culinary institution.”

“At my courtyard table there, I could see the stars between the branches of an ancient rubber tree. Candles glowed. A guitarist played. The menu featured Mexican, Yucatecan, and Lebanese dishes — which make surprisingly happy plate mates,” wrote Spano. “Alberto’s is not cheap, but if you order one of the complete meals, you can get away for about $20, including drinks.”

Alberto’s Continental was packed with antiques. Most were sold off when the restaurant closed in 2013. Photo: File

I got to know him a little late in the game. The restaurant scene was already changing and Alberto’s was past its heyday. He owned the Continental along with his siblings, but he still presided over the restaurant like he was Toots Shor or Prince Michael Romanoff.

“He lived the advice he gave to other restaurateurs: Treat the dining room like it’s your own living room,” I wrote at the time on my blog.

We would hear the most shocking gossip, too, mainly involving long-dead celebrities.

“He would bend our ears with plenty of tales, which I choose to believe are all 100 percent true.”

By then, the restaurant was fairly limping along. The only other visitors, while we were there, had apparently only come to see the art that was for sale. Much of Alberto’s massive collection was already gone — although many old santos, wooden chests, and old wooden furnishings are offered along with the property. Its wooden sign with swanky cursive lettering was particularly iconic, and ended up in a private home.

“No one met Alberto and left without a story, memory or artifact,” said Joe Stines, a close friend. 

Last we saw Alberto when he was a guest at a cocktail party, and he had just shut the restaurant. Maybe it was just me, but he already appeared adrift and deflated.

“We can only hope that Alberto will get bored and re-open at some stage in the future, though he is now over 80 and may have really decided this time to retire,” an admirer on TripAdvisor wrote at the time. “I will keep a lookout, just in case.”

Alberto Salum’s great-grandfather came to Mexico from Syria in 1894. Menu specialties were Lebanese, with Mexican dishes and Yucatecan seafood mixed in.

Fodors recommended the restaurant shish kebab, fried kibbe, hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, almond pie, and Turkish coffee.

The great expat author Diana Kennedy even name-drops Alberto Salum in her 2000 cookbook, “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.” They are described as being in his kitchen, charbroiling a chicken when she introduces a recipe for Pollo en Escabeche Oriental.

“He was the walking history of old Centro and early tourist who visited,” said Stines, a Florida native who was part of the international community that became close to Alberto. “We miss him every day.”

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