When Chef Walid “Willie” Saleeby makes traditional Lebanese food, he’s replicating the dishes his mother and grandmother made for him in Lebanon when he was a boy. It’s not about working off a recipe, he says, but remembering all those tastes and textures — that’s what makes the best traditional meals.
“You probably remember the first dish that your mother cooked for you that you really loved,” says Saleeby, owner and head chef of Willie’s Lebanese and Northwest Cuisine in Springfield. “It’s just incredible how it impacts your taste, and the memory stays with you.”
For Saleeby, who ran Willie’s on 7th Street for 25 years until the building was sold in 2008, that sense of family and warmth is all part of making a good meal. With his friendly handshake and overflowing aura of hospitality, Saleeby makes it easy to feel welcome at Willie’s.
Traditional Lebanese music plays outside the restaurant, with a cluster of elegant tables and a fire pit for outdoor diners. Inside, Middle Eastern-style lamps and pictures of Lebanon span the walls, complementing the cozy atmosphere decorated in purples, dark reds and yellows. The restaurant opened last month, and since then, it’s hosted visitors from Eugene and Springfield alike, some who remember Saleeby from his past restaurant ventures.
“We wanted to make it fun, and so far it has been,” Saleeby says. “And when people see these familiar faces here, they get really excited about it. It’s like coming home.”
Saleeby brought all the favorites from his previous menus — steak Diane, fresh seafood and lamb — and added traditional Lebanese fare, including appetizers called mazza and a few dishes that he hopes will broaden the palate of those interested in new experiences. “I love to see people try something different,” he says.
But most guests will be acquainted with dishes on the lunch menu, like the shish tawook plate, a delicious combination including a tangy chicken kabob with rice, chewy pita bread and fresh salad with a garlicky dressing.
That’s the atmosphere Saleeby and manager Moses Kimbell want to create: a menu that provides both familiar and novel foods. Already, Saleeby says, he is winning people over by getting them to see food in a new way. “For some reason, the majority of people don’t like cauliflower, but they haven’t tried the way we have it here,” Saleeby says. “We say, ‘Just take one bite of it,’ and they love it.”
“So few people have had fried cauliflower,” Kimbell says, “but it is amazing.”
Saleeby says that fresh ingredients are key to making authentic Lebanese food. All his ingredients are locally sourced, including fresh-squeezed juices for making cocktails at the bar. His menu includes a selection of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free items, all made from scratch.
But Willie’s has more than just the best produce — it has heart as well. Saleeby tells his cooks to imagine that they’re making a meal for their own family. “I want them to put their heart and soul into it,” Saleeby says. “Don’t just throw something on the plate. And that’s what makes the difference.”
Willie’s is open for lunch 11:30 am to 2 pm Monday through Friday, for dinner 5 to 9 pm Monday through Thursday and 5 to 10 pm Friday and Saturday, and the bar is open 11:30 am to 9 pm, at 400 International Way in Springfield.