THUNDER BAY -- When Aaron Gillingham bought the Salsbury Grill from its previous owners in 2017, he had plans to change it completely and open a restaurant serving tacos and poutine, similar to a restaurant he had opened and owned in Ottawa before moving back to Westfort. However, during the transition period when he started working alongside the previous owners, he changed his mind. “Why fix what’s not broken? Why try and reinvent the wheel, when the restaurant was doing very well?”
Gillingham closed the restaurant over the summer to renovate and prepare for reopening. He kept the layout, the tables and the chairs, redid the floors, gave the interior a fresh coat of paint, and acquired a liquor license. The Sal reopened in September 2017 as a full-service diner, open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks.
“When we opened again, the regulars came back, and it was nice to get the seal of approval of all the old regulars. They were coming five days a week, every single day. Everyone was very happy, we had very little to no pushback,” Gillingham says.
He tweaked the menu by adding some appetizers and tacos, but kept all the old favourites. The sale of the restaurant included a couple of secret recipes, which he adheres faithfully to.
“Originally, this place was a Greek restaurant, with a strong Greek following. The dressing was original, and we make our own dressing the same way. People come specifically for the greek dressing. The gravy is the other big seller here. Everyone asks what the recipe is, and I’m not allowed to give it out because it’s been passed down from owner to owner.”
Gillingham says the diner goes through over 60 pounds of gravy in a week.
Fish and chips are a popular too, especially on Fridays. Unusual for Thunder Bay, the Sal’s fish and chips are made with catfish. “It’s always been that way,” Gillingham explains. Customers can choose between a traditional English crispy batter and a lighter corn-fried version. If you order two fish and chips (dine in or takeout) you get the second one for half price.
“When a new restaurant opens, it’s like you’re trying out the new shiny toy in town, everyone always flocks to a new restaurant, but I didn’t expect we’d be this busy for as long. It’s been an overwhelming support from Westfort and Thunder Bay,” he says gratefully. “I had to hire eight people within a month of opening!” He now employs 14 staff and also caters events about once a week.
Open from 9 to 9 Tuesday to Saturday and from 10 to 4 on Sundays with breakfast served all day, the Westport gem on Frederica Street West has attracted a steady stream of diners.
“I always tell people, if they’ve never been to the Sal, get a hamburger, a poutine, so that they can try the gravy and experience what this place was like. If they have been here before, I always tell them try the tacos, the apps, some of the newer things I’ve brought in,” Gillingham suggests.