Luna (What does the future hold for Montreal restaurants?)
The first restaurant I can remember ever really loving was an East Side Mario’s in a relatively obscure part of Ottawa called Bells Corners. I would have been about five or six around the prime of that love affair and the true object of my desire was an enormous sculpture of a cartoonishly ripe tomato — an iconic fixture of the restaurant’s facade. That tomato became the defining characteristic of that restaurant to me, so much so that in our family we never called it East Side Mario’s, we called it the Big Tomato. If you’ve never been to an East Side Mario’s allow me to describe it: it’s a classic chain restaurant, massive, wildly decorated in a wide-reaching motif of “Italianness” which includes everything from the Statue of Liberty to the leaning tower of Pisa to a basket of fluffy breadsticks on a red and white checkered tablecloth. I loved it there.
After the Big Tomato was Mekong, a Pan-Asian (but strongly leaning Vietnamese) restaurant in Ottawa’s Chinatown. The restaurant was in an old two-storey house and the owners had converted the attic into a very comfortable second dining room. Everyone knows when you go to Mekong that’s where you want to sit.
Later, in high school, one restaurant became a regular part of my life. A good friend of mine had a car and we lived about a 15-minute drive from our favourite pho place in Chinatown. You can probably imagine the look: pretty bare bones aside from the weathered, multi-colour printer paper taped to the wall with the “daily” specials that have been up for years and some dinky plastic tables covered in an easily wipeable plastic table cloth and a menu that after a few visits just becomes ornamental because you know what you’re ordering before you even arrive. I loved that place for so many reasons, but chief among them was that it was open from 10 a.m. to 5 a.m. daily and a large bowl of really decent đặc biệt cost $10 — I used to go about three to five times a week, sometimes more in the summer.
It wasn’t until I moved to Montreal when I was 18 that restaurants became a fixation. Ottawa is not a restaurant town. I don’t mean to bring down their industry — there are some truly excellent restaurants in Ottawa run by people I respect and admire — but generally speaking Ottawa is a place defined by its cleanliness and stable government jobs and not by its exciting dining-out scene. Montreal, on the other hand, has become a city of international repute almost solely on the back of its culinary reputation. Restaurants are serious business here.
I remember being 19 and eating the Duck-in-a-Can at Au Pied de Cochon and being confronted with the realization that restaurants in this city were different. Restaurants like PDC and Joe Beef were miles ahead of anything I had seen before and they were completely unconcerned with what was happening anywhere else in the world. I was discovering that the city I thought was all about pool-hall hotdogs, smoked meat and poutinewas actually a city with a powerful cultural identity deeply rooted in its restaurant scene. But that thing that makes our restaurants exceptional extends to the people of Montreal, too. We are gourmands — I’m not the biggest fan of that term, but what else do you call a skate-wing in brown-butter and hollandaise topped with black truffle, or duck-fat-fried potatoes with cheese curds and duck gravy, topped with a glob of seared foie gras? I got my first cooking job flipping burgers at a shitty late-night burger place on the Main shortly after this.
Over 10 years later, my life, and the lives of many people I know and love, is fundamentally linked to the restaurant biz. It’s the way we earn our living, but much more than that, it is our identity. To be a cook — or a bartender, a sommelier, or server — is a craft. It’s a gruelling, often thankless job done in the attempt to offer moments of happiness to strangers. Restaurants are meant to restore, to replenish that which is lost. Traditionally that’s caloric energy, and while one can make an argument about the basic “restaurants serve food and we need to eat” benefit, what restaurants restore is really much more diverse. Restaurants are more evolved than the simple feeding trough, filling our bellies as they deplete. They are community spaces, the venue of an anniversary, a seat at the bar with a new date. It’s a place where one can be moved by a bottle of wine, where the hazy golden hue of a cherished meal in Rome is revisited in a plate of perfect cacio e pepe. There’s an emotional restoration, too.
The thread of pessimism pervasive in our industry these days is focused on the future of restaurants. David Chang, in his recent interview in The New York Times, signaled an impending shift towards automation and delivery, essentially marking the end of dining out. It feels as though we’re living in the beta version of this reality right now and it’s hard not to imagine a version of this reality for restaurants persisting into the future. I, however, am not convinced.
You can’t synthesize or re-create the experience of eating at a restaurant. While it’s true that in many cases the food and wine of most restaurants can be delivered to your door, the best part of dining out doesn’t fit in the doggy bag. The ethereal way the room feels in the warm candlelit glow of a busy evening service, a dozen conversations humming along in a beautiful harmonious cacophony, only exists in the physical space. In some ways, I’m reminded of the replicators in Star Trek: anything the heart desires or the mind can conjure (so long as there is sufficient programming) can be replicated by the machine instantaneously, and while it may taste as good, it’s an illusion — it’s empty. Just as it’s true that we can now order a jar of cornichons, tartare and a bottle of wine from l’Express delivered to our houses, without the warm greeting at the door, the cascading light falling in through the atrium into the dining room, without the austere gaze of the perfectly appointed maître d’hôtel, it’s just a replication — l’Express without its soul.
It’s hard to think of Montreal without its restaurants. What would it be like? I’m biased in my view of things, there’s no doubt, but when I’m serving a customer from abroad and they ask me what they should do while in town, inevitably I will always ask, “Where are you eating?” According to the city’s records, there are over 7,000 restaurants in Montreal, and roughly half of those are what are designated as “full service” — what we would consider to be a conventional restaurant instead of a lunch counter or take-out spot. That concentration of restaurants is sort of an informal badge of honour we in the industry wear –– we have more restaurants per capita than New York City. Are we really supposed to believe that the restaurant scene in a city with such a penchant for eateries and where dining out is considered a major pastime will simply cease to exist?
We can expect change, that’s for sure. We can also expect a lot of restaurants to close in the near future, over the course of the next few months. Many of the restaurants that will close may have closed anyway; the industry is unforgiving, and we can’t shed a tear for every loss. What we can mourn are our favourite small family-run restaurants — you know, like your favourite cheap Indian spot, or the dumpling house or the spot that does a great kimchi jjigae. These are businesses that don’t do a lot of alcohol sales. Their margins are tight and so they operate on a system of selling volume. I hope that, for some, delivery has been able to keep them alive. I hope I’m proven wrong and that each one can make it through, but without a constant stream of revenue, I’m not overly optimistic.
As for restaurants as a whole, I don’t foresee the end any time soon. Automation has never been the issue — we don’t go to restaurants because we can’t get the food delivered. Like Helen Mirren said about Netflix when we were all concerned with streaming killing the in-theatre movie experience, “I love Netflix, but fuck Netflix! There’s nothing like sitting in the cinema and the lights go down.” The same can be said about restaurants. Convenience is great. More than that, businesses shifting their models to online platforms and restaurants and grocery stores offering home delivery has been essential, but it can’t replace the feeling of eating a meal at a favourite restaurant. It can only act as a bridge to better times.
Those times are coming. I’m not sure when, but when the dust settles and restaurants open their doors, my reservation will be in the books. Only time will reveal the extent to which this pandemic has affected our beloved restaurant industry. It’s quite possible an altogether different reality is what lies ahead, one I can’t even imagine. The juxtaposition of time is weird. The days drag on yet the state of the world is in a constant monumental flux day to day. Where we are today is likely very different from where we will be a month from now. It’s important to remember that the world has endured great hardships, including pandemics. Humanity has persisted and so, too, have restaurants. Why should this time be any different? ■
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(What does the future hold for Montreal restaurants?)