In 2016, Marc Cohen, Sefi Amir, Annika Krausz and Ethan Wills, the owners of Lawrence and Boucherie Lawrence, opened their most popular venture to date: Larry’s. Most won’t need an introduction to this wildly popular day-to-night café-cum-natural wine bar, it’s been lauded as one of Montreal’s essential restaurants by everyone from The Gazette to The New York Times. It’s a restaurant built around a concept of offering a somewhat utilitarian kind of dining experience: a long list of simple, small-plate dishes that range from breakfast classics to a simple but delicious fried porkchop.
Lawrence, Larry’s sister restaurant, went through a transformation two years ago. Confronted by the realization that Larry’s casual small-plates format was quickly becoming the industry trend, Cohen’s meat and two veg style of cooking, while delicious, was no longer interesting to the standard Mile End clientele. Lawrence entered into a more contemporary era. The room got a spacious reno and the food, while still steeped in classic Lawrence flavours, became smaller, more finessed and refined. The restaurant broke away from the traditional three-course dinner format and dipped its toes into the world of contemporary fine-dining.
Then, of course, COVID-19 struck and restaurants, as we know them, changed. But perhaps not all for the worse. Larry’s has moved its operations into the space usually occupied by Lawrence where a take-out operation has been running successfully for months. Larry’s, due to its miniature size, has remained closed. However, for a limited time, Lawrence will be taking over the Larry’s space as a pop-up, serving a seven-course prix-fixe dinner prepared by chef de cuisine Endi Qendro, with optional wine, cocktail or non-alcoholic pairings by sommelier Keaton Ritchie and bartender Elizabeth Yu.
“Like every other restaurant, right now, we’ve been thinking about how to best be able to offer what we normally offer,” says Cohen — but as we know, things are far from normal. “We had the idea to start a very small Lawrence pop-up in the Larry’s space. It seemed like a small enough space to be able to navigate safely and gently. It’s sort of a first step on the road to getting things back to normal.”
It’s a concept that many have been playing with — a gradual return to traditional service and food served on proper plates. Most restaurants have opted to build temporary terraces to take advantage of the summer weather. Lawrence, in addition to the few seats they’ve set up outside, is moving operations indoors.
“We’re going to have six tables of two. We’re going to have plexiglass dividers installed. We’re fortunate that the windows in the front open completely so it can be nice and breezy. You can expect to be greeted warmly by Sefi or by Keaton and we’re going to try to cultivate a relaxed and comfortable restaurant experience. Sure, we’re going to be wearing masks, but I think that’s something that people are slowly getting used to.”
While the object of the pop-up is to offer a sense of normalcy, the menu concept and restaurant format is something entirely new. “It’s going to be seven courses —two menus to choose from, with a decent amount of overlap between them. One of them is going to be completely vegetarian, which we’re excited about. It’s not going to be super fancy, it’s going to be in the Lawrence style, but smaller plates, fixed format.
“The set menu format is something I’ve been interested in exploring for a while. The ramifications, in terms of food cost and waste, are very attractive.”
Under normal circumstances, a 12-seat, fixed menu, restaurant format would be unthinkable — you simply couldn’t make enough money to survive. But COVID-19 has ushered in an unprecedented era of experimentation.
“It is definitely a good opportunity to explore because under normal circumstances there’s always this feeling that if you try something new and it’s doesn’t work out, you’re going to be judged. We’re in this time where everyone is doing something weird, trying new things. I think, when the dust settles, some of those things are going to work some of them aren’t, but I don’t think there’s any shame in trying something new.”
Cohen’s experimentation extends outside the restaurant menu and format —there’s experimentation in the payroll, too. The past few months have uncovered many glaring inequities in the restaurant industry, not the least of which was a demand for payroll and gratuity reform. Tipping, as a concept, has long been a contentious topic, particularly given the division between servers and cooks, but tipping also contributes to an uncomfortable power dynamic between servers and clients —some in the industry are proposing a ban on tipping. This radical concept has been tested with mixed results over the past few years, but Cohen and his staff are attempting to abolish tipping by working a gratuity into the price of their fixed menu.
“It feels like that conversation is happening,” Cohen says. “People are aware of it and people are interested in making things better in the world and [abolishing tipping] is a way to do it in the restaurant industry.”
At face value, the Lawrence at Larry’s pop-up is another bit of restaurant experimentation, nothing more than just figuring out how to keep business afloat amidst mounting uncertainty and ever-changing safety regulations. But it’s really much more — it’s a vision, an ephemeral mock-up of a utopic restaurant. Most cooks and chefs don’t relish the stress of cooking for hundreds of people every night — if they could make a living from it, many would like to open something small and cook the food they like for a few guests. Likewise, in the front of house, it’s an imagining of a relationship between servers and clients where money doesn’t loom omnipresent over the interaction. Servers are able to tend to their tables in a caring and attentive manner while also being able to comfortably protect themselves from poorly behaving customers without fear of losing wages. Cohen is taking advantage of a rare opportunity.
“I think everyone is really accepting of any change and innovation right now — almost expecting innovation. We have to see that as a positive.” ■
Lawrence pop-up at Larry’s (9 Fairmount E.), seatings at 6 and 8 p.m., prix-fixe menu $75 per person, gratuity included, pairings and tax excluded. Reservations recommended: 514-349-1070. See more details here.
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