The Main Deli Steak House Montreal smoked meat

An ode to the Main

“The sandwich was piled so high with meat, it defied gravity. The coleslaw was tart and savoury, the pickle was fresh and briny, the fries were generously salted but somehow almost sweet, complementing the Cott’s black cherry that would have won the cola wars if only they were allowed to enter the competition. The Main’s smoked meat special was clearly the greatest meal in all creation.”

If I recall correctly, the Main Deli was the second place I ever ate smoked meat. 

My father had a ritualistic approach to the meal. If it wasn’t being served at one of the old, established delis in the city, it likely wasn’t worth eating, he’d caution. So I, a Montrealer sans pareil who quite literally wrote the encyclopedia entry on our city’s greatest culinary contribution, didn’t even taste one until about the age of 10 on a rare trip downtown. 

That first one was at Bens De Luxe, formerly located in a nondescript three-floor brown brick building at the southeast corner of Metcalfe and de Maisonneuve (an equally nondescript drab brown hotel now stands in its place). 

Bens’ facade was all windows and hints of streamline moderne, the subtle signature of the building’s architect Charles Davis Goodman. If the intent wasn’t to recreate Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, I’d be be floored — picture windows with a view inwards to steaming cups of coffee, generous helpings of pie rotating under glass, yellowing cardboard prints of TechniColor ice cream sundaes, jars of pickles and sport peppers, karnatzle, vats of yellow mustard and the autographed headshots of celebrities only my grandparents might have recognized. 

Jean Béliveau at Bens delicatessen Montreal
Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Béliveau at Bens

That trip to Bens was an event. My father hated looking for parking downtown, but other business made going into the city unavoidable. “May as well take the kids and wife, too, make a day of it.” I was told I’d be eating something special, something distinct, something that was supposed to be part of my cultural DNA. “Mordecai Richler ate there, so did Jean Béliveau — all the big celebrities eat there,” I was told. “Wow… you don’t say…” I had only the faintest notion of who either of those people were, but all of this was secondary to going into the city. Despite the long-dead Ben Kravitz’s claims to have invented smoked meat — claims repeated deadpan by the bowtie-clad, recently unionized middle-aged waiters who hustled you back out the front door no more than 20 minutes after you had arrived — Bens was well past its prime by the time I got there in the mid-1990s. I seem to recall my father saying something as he studied the bill, incredulous at what diner fare could cost a family of four, loud enough to be heard by all the people who couldn’t have cared less: “That’s pretty steep for a smoked meat sandwich.”

There were plenty of restaurants all over the West Island that were proud to serve “authentic,” “old-fashioned” smoked meat, but I think these descriptors, coupled with their locations — across asphalt parking lots in strip malls that had been farmer’s fields just a decade or so earlier — made my father wince. He had this thing for authenticity, and though he loved living in the suburbs, he seemed to feel that just about everything in it (and most of the people living there, too) was fake. I think he felt cheated out of having an authentic experience with his kids, something akin to going to an Expos or Habs game, or stopping by Ogilvy’s to take in the Christmas display. By the time I got there, Bens was a tourist trap. Like a lot of the downtown that had been given a 1980s corporate makeover and now seemed to be marketed uniquely to the tastes of tourists, Bens was no longer an authentic Montreal experience — it belonged to people who didn’t know better.

About a year later, he’d have his revenge, in a manner of speaking. A cousin of mine needed to get a uniform from a Verdun haberdasher, and this being the mid-1990s (and my father being from Côte-des-Neiges), dining anywhere in the Sud-Ouest was out of the question. In his at-the-time unquestionable logic, a trip to pick up pants in Verdun presented a golden opportunity to then drive across the city to go have lunch at the Main.

I kept wondering if he hadn’t finished his sentence. The Main what? Attraction? Event? Was it the central or primary or ultimate iteration of a greater group, series or collection?

I asked him where we were going: to the Main. Which is on what street? The Main.

Were we eating at a restaurant or on it?

Despite the oversized glowing red neon sign of what I can only describe as vaguely hebraic looking letters set against a two-floor backdrop of off-white aluminum siding, I made my way to the sports bar located next door, as it not only looked more like a restaurant to me, it looked like a far cleaner, more inviting restaurant.

My father called out to me, incredulous, asking me where I thought I was going. I had never been to the Plateau before, never been to the Main, had no idea where these places were in relation to where I lived. He hurried me inside along with my brother, and, along with my older cousin, we made our way to a back booth. I wasn’t impressed. It was old, everything was a little greasy and I still wasn’t entirely certain this was a restaurant, or at least a reputable one. The waiter came to take our order and my cousin asked what their vegetarian options were. “This being a steakhouse, not many” came the curt reply. My father was a little embarrassed, “Sorry, I forgot about that.” My cousin is an easygoing fellow who happily ordered a triplet of latkes while the rest of us got the same exact meal, ordered with a fluidity of speaking that nearly made it seem like the well-rehearsed ingredients of a trademarked fast food hamburger: a jumbo smoked meat sandwich, fat, with coleslaw, dill pickle and French fries on the side, along with a Cott’s black cherry to drink.

the main smoked meat sandwich
A smoked meat sandwich at the Main, circa 2011

It was the single greatest thing I had ever eaten up to that point in my life. The sandwich was piled so high with meat, it defied gravity. The coleslaw was tart and savoury, unlike the creamy, sugary, neon-green concoctions KFC forced upon anyone who ordered their fried chicken dinners. The pickle was fresh and briny and so large that it was almost a meal unto itself. And the fries were generously seasoned with salt but somehow almost sweet, complementing the black cherry beverage that would have won the cola wars if only they were allowed to enter the competition. I found it curious that the Main had such an extensive menu, or that they even bothered advertising the fact that they could chargrill a steak to perfection. Who could possibly have cared? The Main’s smoked meat special was clearly the greatest meal in all creation. 

A little less than a decade later, I had achieved something of an unwritten life goal in that I was able to eke out a very marginal and meagre existence living in weird apartments in strange parts of town, going to Concordia (though not necessarily studying) and working a revolving door of peculiar and pathetic jobs. I didn’t care because I could do something I had so deeply coveted in my childhood and adolescence, which was to live in the big city. I walked Montreal’s streets looking for inspiration, often entire days at a time, looking for what was to be seen. I tried to figure out what the city was and how it worked simply by moving through it, watching it all pass my eyes like an endless b-reel. And though I didn’t really have the money for it, the Main’s accommodating hours of operation, generous portions and discreet wait staff made it an ideal place to haunt. A good place for poor people to eat like kings and watch the world go by.

I was, for a brief period of time, a regular-enough customer to be recognized by the otherwise exasperated purple-haired waitress and the sly, subtle, presumably Serbian waiter who smirked at my bloodshot eyes yet reverently called me sir nonetheless. I took everyone I knew there, ended late nights out there, started a few long days there, sipped coffee engrossed in conversation there. She didn’t know it at the time, but I took my future wife there, and I’m convinced that consuming the Main’s piece de resistance menu item, the ‘meat-on-meat-with-a-side-of-meat’ platter, impressed her enough to keep dating me (if for no other reason than to see what else I might eat). I can’t recall exactly, as I think I was pretty stoned at the time, but I have a vague memory of having read at least a little bit of Trevanian’s The Main, while having a smoked meat sandwich at the Main, which in case you’re not aware was located on St-Laurent Boulevard, which is known to those of us with the inside scoop by its commanding nickname: the Main.

There was a time, 15 or more years ago, when the Main always seemed full whenever I’d go there, even if it wasn’t the elderly clientele who used to live in the neighbourhood the wait staff seemed to prefer. Filling it were the hipsters actively reconquering the Plateau, searching for something authentic, and finding it in ancient Eastern European Jewish comfort food prepared by Sri Lankans in a business owned and operated by an Italian. I was happy to see them there — it felt like something quintessentially Montreal was being passed on to a whole new generation, accepted for what it was and recognized as needing no improvement.

Peter Varvaro Sr.

There was another time, perhaps a decade ago, when I realized the Main was no more. The restaurant may have closed its doors just yesterday, but in truth it died shortly after its longtime owner and operator, Peter Varvaro, passed away in 2013. The business was later sold to people who wanted to bring about big changes and revamp the business. I went there around the time of the 2014 World Cup, and noticed that they were selling those goddamned vuvuzelas and various other related paraphernalia by the front counter. Big screen TVs had been installed where tasteful headshots of various menu items once hung. The staff seemed to have been completely replaced, the menu had a bunch of new items on it that had no business in an Eastern European Jewish delicatessen, and worst of all, the smoked meat tasted very different — cheap, processed, inauthentic.

That the Main managed to soldier on this long before finally calling it quits is actually kind of impressive. Maybe they finally got the spices right, maybe people just didn’t care. I don’t know… my last Main Jumbo was served a long time ago and certainly not the last time I was there. My last meal was a disappointment, though they were asking for feedback about the changes. I told them they should put everything back the way it was, the way they had prepared things before. Certainly, they should go back to smoking their own meat. They told me they were just working the kinks out, that it would be back to normal soon enough. I remember looking at the ‘fun’ new multicoloured paint scheme that was supposed to proclaim ‘this ain’t your grand-daddy’s smoked meat!’, a design that was as subtle as a head-on collision between an ambulance and a firetruck in front of a carnival convention. A paint scheme borrowed from the pawn shop next door. I never went back.

As I write this, I realize who I am. I am old — or at least stepping solidly into middle age, but what’s the difference — an elder millennial complaining that things aren’t the way they used to be. Restaurants come and go all the time; it’s really nothing to get choked up about. And yet it’s not that I’m nostalgic for my youth. Often enough, that smoked meat sandwich at the Main was a much needed pick-me-up in otherwise dark and dreary times. Times without love, without stability, without purpose. Some times I’d rather forget than remember. Times I’m happy are far behind me. 

I’m not nostalgic. I lament the loss of something that seemed very authentic to me, something that was replaced by a cheap imitation before shuttering, without fanfare, just another business failure in a city struggling to get back on its feet. I wonder what of the old city of my youth I might one day show my children, and cringe thinking that the Main’s tradition continues in two small delis out in the depths of the West Island suburbs that I worked so hard to escape. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.