Sunday, August 17, 2008

Montreal Culinary trail part II

Yesterday I let you in on the story behind Schwartz's and "The Main". Part two of the comfort food trail starts at a sad marking of the demise of a Montreal institution.
Ben's had sat on the south side of De Maisonneuve at Stanely since 1908. It was open 24 hours and was always a bright shining beacon even in the wee hours of a winter's morning.It was a favorite of celebrities, politicians and anyone else looking for a smoked meat sandwich after a night on the town.
It had an authentic feel.
The waiters (only men waited on tables) wore white shirts with black bow ties, black trousers and an old fashioned white apron tied around the front. Though it claimed (much disputed) to have invented the smoked meat sandwich, I'd rank it second to Schwartz's on the taste scale. Regardless the location, art deco interior, and "feel"of the place made it unique.
Up until the 1990s it reigned supreme, but in 1992 Irving Kravitz passed away and control passed to his wife and son.
Irving had been passed the restaurant from his dad Ben and he had continued his family tradition with a passion and zeal.
Accounts of why vary, but it seems wife and son were neither as interested or dedicated to the the mythical "stuff" which made the restaurant special.
The beginning of the end had begun.
The hours were cut back (12:30 am closing), prices went up, food quality and clientele dropped off.
The celebrity photos covering the walls were now more a curiosity for tourists than a reflection of current status and in December 2006, the deli shut its doors due to a general strike by its staff.
It would never open again.
The building still stands,(soon to be demolished) and most of the curios and fixtures have been boxed and stored away, but you can still get a sense of its old time feel when you cup your hands around your eyes and peer inside.
Montrealer's who witnessed its decline over a number of years, weren't really broken up. Anyone who once lived in Montreal and don't now, and remembers a pre or post hockey sandwich (the old forum was just down the street) will be wistful at it's passing.
Or not.
I am anyway.
C'est la vie.
The Montreal Pool room ( St Laurent Blvd just South of St Catherine) still operates albeit in the premises next door to its original location (a fire shut it down for 72 hours and necessitated the move).
Nothing about pool and everything about steamed hot dogs, its open late and $1.25 gets you a "steamy" with mustard, relish and slaw.
Don't even think of asking for ketchup on the dog.
That's sacrilege I'm told.
Its not the nicest area of Montreal, but the hookers and sex shops have slowly disappeared (still there but not as numerous) from the block. Go before 10pm if you're the nervous type.OK.
C'est tout.


Anonymous said...

Ben's passing is totally depressing but, as you say , the passing happened long before the closing.
A last visit to Ben's just before the strike spoiled many great memories.
The sandwich was always better at Schwartz's but Ben's was good, and a much better location and a real part of being downtown.
Great pictures.

Terry said...

I've been expecting comments like this and know the guy who made it was. That's why I published it. Let's call him " D". I had a thought a minute ago as I drank white wine from a coffee cup and smoked a ciggie out side my "smoke free" hotel in Montreal tonight. I loved Ben's because it was a place where I was accepted in a city that didn't want me. I guess that's why the sandwiches always tasted better. I lived in Montreal when to be "anglo" was crap. At 22 or 23 or whatever the hell it was ....that felt equally crap.
Ben's was a bastion where people didn't care what the f*ck you were at 3 am.
That to my unformed brain felt good and being alone here in Montreal and a sorry ass anglo made me feel grateful. So that's why I mourne its passing. Long time guys like "D" have other reasons.
Nite all

Anonymous said...

Hey T,

I followed into your footsteps and went to Katz’s this weekend. The sandwich was good, but, not being such a great fan of "heart-attack food", it struck me as outrageously priced. It’s a deli after all, and shabby looking too!


Anonymous said...

I was wondering where you where educated ? What uni you went to ? thats if you did ? your way with words is poetry ,*.*.* and all :) to an uneducated like me LOL or myself :) i have to drop in that my daughter has just got into uni doing Law and Buisness ,very proud mum :) and my son has just heard he is doing a higher deploma in computers ??? single mum and no money to speak off, Anyway getting back to you love your sharering your past times ,but reading it felt your lonelyness,:{ i hope that all these bloggs will lead to a book :) one day :) love to be able to drop your name as an author LOL i might then be seen to half a brain :) lol penny xx

Anonymous said...

Terry - Thanks for the walk down the culinary memory lane. I too have eaten at all of these places -Schwartz's, The Main, Ben's. I have eaten at all of these places with you. Those were dark times for both you and me. Although tough, at least it brought us together as friends. There were fun and funny times squeezed in there somehow. Remember that drive in the driving snow storm to Dawson - bathrobe and sleepers.

Anyhow, Montreal is a more welcoming place now - I think for everyone. It is good to see that Schwartz's and The Main have survived. To me, Ben's was always a place that you would see everyone mix, even if they might not come from the same place or even get along out in the "real" world. I do remember seeing Leonard Cohen eating there once. That was pretty cool!

I haven't had a smoke meat for a long time and I must get back to Montreal soon and give my cholesterol a boost.

Thanks again for the memories of a city that actually has turned out all right.


Terry said...

Hey Lennie
Yep Katz's is expensive. but you have to admit it's tasty!
Its not a place for herbivores and though a bit of a dump, I think that adds to its charm. Refined dining its not.....

Anonymous said...

Let them eat....


Anonymous said...

Maybe they read the blog? Today's Globe and Mail lists Heritage Canada's top 10 Endangered buildings. and there it is , Ben's Deli.
Mainly for the Art Deco sign of course but still, someone cares.