Montreal restaurants reopening

Burgundy Lion

Montreal restaurants and the reopening challenge

The industry got the green light to restart on June 22.

Just in time for terrasse season, restaurants in Montreal were granted reopening rights — provided they abide by a hefty list of new public safety guidelines.

Those looking to go out after more than three months in confinement will find that their visit to a restaurant is a bit different from what they remember. The tables are spaced out, hand sanitizing stations decorate the dining room and your server will greet you with some combination of a mask, goggles or face shield. It’s not the most glamorous dining experience, but it’s how restaurants are able to open while still preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

“We’re used to doing our utmost to give the customer the best experience they can have, and now we’re doing things that we know will make it a worse experience but that we’re forced to do,” says Toby Lyle, founder of the Burgundy Lion group, which runs five gastropub-style locations in Montreal: Burgundy Lion, Brit & Chips (two locations), Bishop & Bagg and Wolf & Workman 

Despite the experience that Lyle and his team have had, preparing their restaurants for the June 22 reopening date posed a unique challenge. “It was a rush. It felt like opening a restaurant for the first time, and we were doing five restaurants at once.”

With the need to keep tables two metres apart, restaurants are running at half capacity at best. Burgundy Lion, if they’re lucky to get a lot of tables of four people all from the same household, is able to seat around 150 guests out of their usual capacity of 300.

Damas Restaurant opened with about a third of their usual seating space. Dan Gillis, sommelier at the Outremont restaurant, understands the need to wear masks and eye protection, but said he doesn’t think he’ll soon get over the barrier it imposes on service. “Talking about wine and food and anything you’re excited about, so much of that communication is non-verbal, and so much of it is lost. It’s a very strange feeling. I don’t know what to make of it yet.” 

Gillis is not worried about contracting the virus at work because they’re taking the new guidelines seriously and following all the necessary precautions. Places like Damas, which offer a fine dining experience, can more readily adapt to the public safety measures, he said. “Things are clearer, things are already a lot more rigid. The service is a lot more intentional.” 

MaBrasserie (Montreal restaurants and the reopening challenge)

Rosemont’s MaBrasserie is more of a casual brew-pub that serves food, but their large terrasse allows them to comfortably seat people outside while respecting the two-metre distance. So far, the clientele has been patient and understanding.

“Clients just spent three months in confinement so they’re used to washing their hands and respecting social distancing rules,” says Martine Lafontaine, head of business development at the bar. “The big difference is in the service. The servers wear a face shield and our cleaning procedures are very different. Menus are disinfected after each client, and the glassware is taken from the tables by the bussers, or the servers do it and immediately disinfect their hands.”

Montreal restaurants reopening
Dirty Pizza (Montreal restaurants and the reopening challenge)

Zac Clarke owns Dirty Pizza, which runs out of a small space on Mont-Royal E. Until he gets the approval to rebuild a terrasse in front of his building, he essentially can’t have clients sit to eat their meal. “I let two people eat [inside] yesterday but that’s about all I can fit,” he says. “There’s just no way I can seat four people and do the social distancing.”

Still, he says business was good during week one, since he’s just a short walk from Jeanne Mance Park and Mont-Royal Avenue has become a pedestrian street for the summer. “The numbers are definitely up, even without tourism. People are pretty antsy and they’re down to eat out.”

Making sure clients respect the guidelines means that workers in Lyle’s restaurants have had to do a bit more policing of clients’ behaviour, another challenge when you work in service. “It takes away that hospitality edge, telling people what they can and can’t do,” he says. “Most have been great but it’s only natural that after a few beers you want to be more social.”

“I don’t think we’ll get to a point where people will stop going to restaurants out of fear,” says Lafontaine when asked if the novelty of going out to eat might wear off with the new public safety measures. “If anything, people might not come because of the wait time.” 

Wine at Damas Montreal restaurants reopening
Wine at Damas (Montreal restaurants and the reopening challenge)

After just a few days of serving clients in-house, a lot still remains to be seen about the new wants and needs of the clientele. “There’s a whole bunch of unknowns,” Gillis says. “Wine in restaurants is expensive, much more expensive than it is to buy at a store, so are people going to be in a strange space about spending $100 on a bottle of wine?”

The laws may also loosen in July if these first weeks go well, and any issues that have come up will likely be worked out over time. “Something we worry about is the workers wearing the face shields when there’s a heatwave,” Lafontaine points out. 

“I’m most optimistic if restaurants behave ourselves and we give the authorities the confidence to reduce it to one metre, which would make a huge difference,” Lyle says. 

It’s not just on restaurants to respect the rules though — it’s on clients as well. 

Clarke says he would rather people who flout social distancing don’t come into his restaurant, to keep himself and his employees safe. “If you can’t show me, as a human, basic respect based on simple science, then I don’t want you around me at all,” he says. “It needs to be a symbiotic relationship.” ■

Burgundy Lion website.

Damas website.

MaBrasserie website.

Dirty Pizza website.

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.