Eating & Drinking

Iconic founder of Al’s Steakhouse passes away — the pageantry he created lives on

Above: a collage featuring the founder, Al, who appeared in advertisements for Al’s Steakhouse in What’s On Magazine (now called Where Magazine, and sister publication to Ottawa Magazine) for more than two decades.

On Wednesday, March 2, Ottawa lost a legend.

Halim (Al) Saikali, the founder of Al’s Steakhouse, passed away after falling and injuring his head while strolling around his Florida neighbourhood. He was 88 years old.

Through his own blood, sweat and tears; his boldness in taking risks; his smarts and charm, Al Saikali transformed himself into a successful restaurateur, securely surrounded by influential friends and acquaintances. Here was a Lebanese boy born in the Mediterranean countryside where, despite olive groves and cherry orchards, Kfarmishki was a much impoverished town. Saikali immigrated to Ottawa in 1950. The 20-year-old’s first job? Washing dishes at a downtown bowling alley. Two years later (his uncle let him sleep on the couch), Saikali bought a modest diner in Eastview (now Overbrook), and later a coffee shop on Elgin Street. An eye on the prize, though, had him still scrimping and saving. Having visited the steakhouses of Montreal in the mid-60s, Saikali figured Ottawa was ripe for some modern glitz. In 1966, Al’s Steakhouse was born.

Al’s Steakhouse isn’t closing anytime soon — not while the Saikali children are in charge. Coals are being stoked for the next steak as we speak. But with Al’s death, it feels like more than a man is gone. An era has crumbled away — an era, as described by Mark Twain in 1878, “of the mighty porterhouse steak an inch-and-a-half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle…” A baked potato on the side; a salad with Al’s special garlic dressing. Plain, simple fare, laid out on starched linen.

Or maybe you’re just here for the Manhattans. Because food is definitely not the whole picture.

Prime steaks feed movers and shakers, the see-and-be-seen. Proof is plastered all over the Steakhouse’s dining room walls — photos of the famous, scrawl-signed: politicos, celebs, whoever showed up. A record of the high, the mighty, the powers and glories that were. Visit Al’s for your history lesson. This is where Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Jean Chrétien once dined, and where the white-suited Colonel Harland David Sanders (of KFC fame) dined when he visited the capital in 1973. Freewheelers Larry O’Brien, Rick Chiarelli, and John Baird clinched many a deal here. It’s where Gene Simmons and wife Shannon Tweed, when in town for 2009 Bluesfest, were mobbed for autographs on their way to dinner.

Al would want the high-rolling pageantry to continue, wouldn’t he?