A Day’s Worth of Meals from Three World-Renowned Casual Eateries
Montreal, Quebec is a captivating city. It has a charming historic district, a vibrant downtown area, a mountain in the middle and some of the finest restaurants in North America.
But the foods with which I grew up have nothing to do with foie gras, Nouvelle Cuisine or maître d’s in white jackets. They were the foods in which working-class families indulged on Sundays, or for a special occasion. They were hardy, satisfying and unique to Montreal. In fact, although the families who owned the original restaurants have long sold, and let others grow and expand their businesses, the food still tastes the way I remember it.
When you first enter the original St. Viateur Bagel, the aroma of baking bagels greets you and enfolds you in an olfactory hug, and you know that your day is about to get off to a magnificent start.
Founded in 1957 by Meyer Lewkowicz, a Polish Holocaust survivor, St. Viateur Bagel is famous for its delectable circular treats throughout Canada, the US and abroad.
Now expanded to a total of four bakeries and three St. Viateur Bakery-Cafes in the Greater Montreal Area, current owner, Joe Morena, along with his three sons and his partner, Marco Sbalno, still hold to the company’s traditions of quality and consistency. The process and recipe have not changed from the bakery’s beginnings. Hand-rolled, boiled in water and honey, sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds and baked onsite in a wood oven, the bagels are prepared and sold to loyal consumers 24 hours a day.
As a child, I took the bagels for granted, having grown up a few short blocks away from the original location at 263 St. Viateur. Now, I can’t visit Montreal without bringing back several dozen for the enjoyment of my family, friends and myself.
Although Montreal is a bilingual and cosmopolitan city, known for its wealth of gourmet restaurants, local and international celebrities are among St. Viateur Bagel’s repeat customers.
So, what are these seeded gems like? Well, first of all, they do not resemble the ubiquitous bagels found at your local bakery, or, heaven forbid, your local supermarket. Smaller in size, with a clearly defined and larger hole, at first glance, the uninitiated glutton might give them a pass, but one taste of a fresh-from-the-oven bagel, and the addiction is full-blown.
As for the taste, here is how I described it on a recording made during a recent visit to the original location in Montreal. “The bagel is a perfect balance of a slightly crisp outer layer with a generous amount of sesame seeds., while the interior is smooth and tender, but not doughy. The taste is slightly sweet with a hint of wood smoke. It’s like taking a bite of heaven!”
While savoring that celestial creation, I had the opportunity to ask Manager, Saul Restrepo, “What makes these bagels so special that people come from every corner of the globe to enjoy them?”
“When you are in Montreal, and you can get nice hot bagels any time of the day,” he responded, “when you go back to New York, or wherever, when you think about bagels, and you remember the time you had a hot bagel right out of the oven, that memory stays with you. The bagels are Montreal, and there’s a bit of Montreal in the bagels.“
There are approximately 1,000 dozen bagels baked and sold every day at the original St. Viateur Bagel bakery alone. “Humans like bread,” said Restrepo, “and this is more than bread.”
The Carnivore’s Perfect Lunch
A morning exploring the history, culture and shopping of Montreal can definitely work up an appetite. So if you planned your tour wisely, you should find yourself in the same neighborhood where you had breakfast, at the oldest deli in Canada, Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen.
This eight decades-old restaurant is so popular, you should be prepared to stand in line for a table. This is especially true on weekends, when locals and tourists congregate to indulge themselves in some of the best smoked meat sandwiches on the planet.
As a child, a trip to Schwartz’s was a rare treat that was something to look forward to and to savor.
Rain or shine, we would patiently – okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration – wait in line, anticipating what was to come.
As we slowly moved closer to the door, we would catch an intoxicating whiff of smoking beef every time it opened. And then, it was our turn.
When you first step inside, you might be tempted to wonder what all the fuss is about. Average-looking chairs and Formica tables are crowded together, and if you’re only one or two, you will be sharing your hard-won space. But then, you notice the man with the sharp knife thin-slicing smoked meat with the skill and precision of one of those kamikaze chef’s in the Japanese restaurants. Only this guy has no intention of sending anything up in flames. That’s not how Schwartz’s does “well done”.
Schwartz’s has a variety of tempting edibles, but then and now, we’re there for the sandwiches that have made the restaurant famous. When Simon, the boys and I are in Montreal, our standard meal consists of a mound of warm, perfectly seasoned smoked meat, bracketed by two slices of fresh rye bread. You really need a fork, because there’s so much meat, half of it stays on your plate when you pick up your sandwich.
Along with our sandwiches, we share an order of hot, crisp fries, some better-than-average slaw and as many of Schwartz’s jumbo pickles as we think we can manage. We usually get both sour and half-sour and share.
Having an aversion to fat, I always opt for the lean sandwich, while the guys prefer the regular version. One evening, our waiter invited us to sample a piece of lean beef and a piece of regular. Despite the higher fat content, I had to admit that the fattier version had more flavor. Now, if I could get the flavor without the texture, I’d join the guys.
On our last visit, we arranged for me to have a sit-down chat with Schwartz’s General Manager, Frank Silva, during a brief lull in the activity. Working at Schwartz’s for 34 years, and managing it for 14 of them, one would think that he had seen a lot of changes, but that’s not at all the case. Although there are four partners who currently own the restaurant, including super-star, Celine Dion, Frank said that he has seen only minor alterations. If something breaks they try to fix it, and if they can’t, they replace it with something similar.
When asked whether he thought the partners might try to expand to other areas of Montreal, Frank didn’t rule it out. However, he believes that Dion and partners will strictly adhere to the way things have always been done. “There will never be franchises,” Frank said with complete certainty. “People say that the whole world’s changing, except for Schwartz’s, and that’s the way we like it.”
The staff at Schwartz’s is professional and friendly. Many have been working at the restaurant as long as, or longer than Frank. For example Master Cutter, Johnny Goncalves, has been wielding his knife for 40 years.
The beef used to make Schwartz’s world-famous sandwiches is Alberta brisket, trimmed to specification, and delivered daily.. Then it is marinated, hand-rub with a secret blend of spices and aged in barrels in the refrigerator for 10 days. Following this treatment, the meat is smoked onsite for eight hours, and steam for three hours. Then it’s show-time for Johnny, who hand-slices it paper-thin for the ever-hungry crowds.
Schwartz’s goes through approximately 8,000 pounds of meat during an average week, but Frank’s beef order rises to 13,000 to 14,000 pounds in summer, when tourists make Montreal their destination. Frank has it down to a fine art. He knows what to expect and when, so there’s always enough, with little waste.
Savoring the crowded but friendly atmosphere, as well as the outrageously delicious food is the quintessential Schwartz’s experience. But if you’re in a hurry, you can arrive in the late afternoon, or later in the evening and you will probably be able to walk right in. Or there is a take-out window right next door, where you can carry your food away, or eat it at the tables in the back. This feature was opened five years ago, and is as popular as the restaurant.
Even after 34 years, Frank still enjoys Schwartz’s food. “I still think it’s a great meal,” he said. And the company at the restaurant can be quite extraordinary. “Whenever you walk into this place,” , Frank noted, “you never know who you’re going to sit next to: Halle Berry, Celine Dion, a football player or a hockey player. You name it, they’ve been here. It’s easier to say who hasn’t eaten at Schwartz’s than who has.”
Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen
3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard
Montreal, Quebec, H2W 1X9
Dinner on the Bone
At the end of a long, but satisfying day enjoying the beautiful city of Montreal, there’s nothing more belly-warming than a St. Hubert Barbecue chicken dinner. But, in order to get the full benefit of your meal, you first need to forget everything you thought you knew about barbecue. That’s right, Texans, let go of the tomato-based concept of the perfect sauce. Tennesseans, drop the notion of sweet and smokey. And, for my part, I’ll erase any thought of the best barbecue sauce in the U.S.A.; my beloved vinegar-based Carolina barbecue sauce. Also, forget about pulled pork and hushpuppies. The glorious stuff you are about to devour is in a league of it’s own.
Well, what’s so special about the sauce? Beats me. The blend of spices and other ingredients have been a closely guarded secret since Hélène and René Léger opened their first restaurant at 6355 St. Hubert on September 25, 1951. Once you’re hooked, though, you can, if truly desperate, purchase the sauce from the supermarket.
All I can tell you about the sauce is this:
- It’s brown
- It’s fairly thin
- It’s savory, with no sickly-sweet taste (sorry, Tennessee)
- The ingredients are so well balanced that it’s almost impossible to distinguish any one flavor, although I think I detected just the slightest hint of cumin
- Anything soaked in it tastes great
- It’s addictive
In 1952, St. Hubert became the first restaurant in Canada to offer free home delivery, but that was only the first of St. Hubert’s firsts. The restaurant was the first in that category to advertise on TV, and it was also the first to go smoke-free, a full year before Canada enacted national anti-smoking laws.
My earliest memories of St. Hubert barbecue centered around the growling of my stomach and the ringing of our doorbell. Out of a brown paper bag emerged boxes of hot rotisserie chicken, fries, white hamburger buns and that intoxicating sauce. Let me tell you, everything on my plate got drenched in sauce, and tasted wonderful. Even the bun, soggy to the point of disintegration, was infused with deliciousness.
St. Hubert Barbecue is now a Canadian chain, but most of the restaurants are located in Quebec. The first restaurant seated 78, but most now seat 250.
When you enter, you’re greeted by somewhat of an upscale decor with cozy booths and subdued lighting. But both the dress and noise level speak of down-home casual.
We usually opt for the meal of my childhood, which never disappoints. Not being very hungry, one evening, I decided to try the French onion soup (what was I thinking?), which was tasty and cheesy. But if I’m going to expand my St. Hubert horizons again, I’m going for the ribs.
With each meal, you have a choice of creamy or original slaw. They’re both good, so I get a bit of each. The desserts are also superb, but they’re decadent and the portions are generous. Unless dessert is your dinner, or you have a hollow leg, you probably want to share one between at least two.
Okay, I’ve talked about everything but the chicken. If it wasn’t for the sauce,it would be the main event. St. Hubert uses grain-fed chickens, treats them with TLC and dresses them up with more secret ingredients. Then those happy birds are rotisserie cooked to golden-brown perfection. The meat greets your taste buds with a soft, friendly “hello” that is juicy and subtly flavored. If the sauce hadn’t been created, this chicken would proudly stand on its own. But, did I mention the sauce?
So, how many chickens are served in the over 100 St. Hubert Barbecue restaurants? The answer is approximately 22 million per year. That’s something like 88 million bellies warmed by chicken alone.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that eating all these glorious foods in one day is tantamount to nutritional bankruptcy; a desecration of the body temple. Of course, the slaw and pickles could count as vegetables, but you still come up up short on vitamins and you certainly will overload on carbs and fats. If you’re on vacation, however, a one-day splurge won’t kill you. So, whether you eat it all in one go, or spread it out over a couple of days, enjoy the heck out of it!
The three afore-mentioned eateries are very different in what they serve and how they serve it. What they have in common is their commitment to quality and consistency that has stood the test of time.