When Labib Salama opened the Egyptian Coffee Shop in 1997, he didn’t intend to found a landmark hookah establishment. Mostly, he’ll tell you, between drags from his long shisha pipe, that he wanted a place to hang out, since his wife didn’t want him to smoke in the house. Back then, this stretch of Astoria’s Steinway Street, now the center of a bustling Egyptian neighborhood, was mostly populated by Greeks and Italians, with a lone kebab shop. Today, the Egyptian Coffee Shop sits in the middle of dozens of hookah lounges, most of them decked out with sleek decor and fancy drinks. What makes Salama’s sleepy shop special, however, is emblazoned front and center on the awning outside: “First Hookah Lounge in America!”
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While it’s unclear whether Salama’s shop was the first in the country, it was certainly a pioneering establishment in the neighborhood, and that old-school charm remains evident. Several years after renting the small storefront for solely himself and his friends, Salama said the health department gave him an ultimatum: Either professionalize and open to the public, or get shut down. So Salama opened his doors, to enthusiastic reception. In those early days, longtime patrons say, attendees lined up outside to suck mint-flavored shisha from the glass pipes. It was nostalgic for the local Egyptian and Middle Eastern community, who missed the outdoor tea shops of home, and a novelty for other New Yorkers. As the neighborhood shifted and hookah lounges of every variety opened along Steinway Street, many of them throbbing with Arabic pop and reggaeton, Salama’s shop returned to its normal rotation of regulars. Salama, who is originally from Cairo, has worked as everything from a cook to a laborer with a traveling Sicilian circus, is the shop’s beating heart.
Today, visitors can step into the tiled shop at any time day or night (the cafe is open 24 hours) for thick Egyptian-style coffee, strong milkless tea, and apple-flavored shisha. More adventurous visitors can try saloom, an unflavored, unfiltered pipe, for $10, though the regulars may warn you against this if it’s your first time: The harsh smoke doesn’t go down easy. With vintage Egyptian films playing on a loop in the background, and conversation on everything from marriage to Middle East politics—the shop was a lively center of political discussion for expats during the Egyptian Revolution—time flows slowly in the Egyptian Coffee Shop. While it’s won him renown in the community over the years, and a place to smoke without disturbing domestic harmony, Salam does say there’s one thing that Egyptian Coffee Shop hasn’t gotten him. “I don’t make any money from this business,” he laments. For the old-timers who call Egyptian Coffee Shop home, however, business is besides the point.