With No Tourists or Office Workers, Running a Restaurant in Old Montreal Is a Feat

One year into the pandemic, Old Montreal’s cobblestoned circuitry is still looking a little dull, even by end-of-winter standards. On one of Montreal’s most-recognizable thoroughfares, Saint-Paul Street, multiple storefronts have stood dark for months, including the one that housed watering hole and performance venue Le 2Pierrot, which shuttered after 46 years in November. In the time since coronavirus lockdown measures went into effect for a second time, on October 1, most of the neighbourhood’s bars have taken an indefinite hiatus, and, despite government permission, several restaurants have decided to forgo takeout and delivery altogether.

This is the case for Saint-Paul Street’s Polish eatery Stash Café, which is meant to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. Following Premier Francois Legault’s October 26 announcement that dining rooms would remain closed for an additional 28 days — now more like an extra 120 and counting — owner Anita Karski decided to pull the plug on her restaurant’s short-lived takeout operation. “Though we had many regular customers, friends, and family come to support us, it simply wasn’t enough to break even. Polish food is very labour-intensive and, in my opinion, does not travel well,” Karski says. Put simply, going completely dark was a way of managing the “financial hemorrhage,” she says.

Stash Café/Facebook

The decision to scale back rather than dive headfirst into the unknown of ersatz takeout operations has been a popular one around the city, but perhaps nowhere more than in Old Montreal, historically teeming with international visitors, office workers, and locals convening for a special occasion — all of which have been in short supply. It was one taken by some of the area’s newest and most notable dining destinations, places like chic brunch restaurant Dandy, capacious fine dining venue Monarque, and waterside natural wine bar Tiers Paysage.

“Yes, you’re losing at the end of the day because there’s zero income, but by opening you could lose even more if you’re not selling enough to cover those basic costs of food and labor,” Michael Tozzi, the owner of Dandy, says. After testing out takeout in June before Montreal’s summer reprieve of sit-down dining, Tozzi says he felt it just wasn’t worth it come October.

Dandy has hosted a couple of sporadic one-day pasta-themed takeout pop-ups, most recently one celebrating the restaurant’s terrible twos; other than that, it has stayed closed. “In the end, I think we made the right decision because people who worked in the neighbourhood are doing so from home,” says Tozzi. “Hotels are empty. It’s not that much of a residential neighbourhood. So yeah, it’s been a weird year.”

Part of that weirdness is a result of Old Montreal’s newly minted “bad rap,” Tozzi says. Since the summer, Montreal’s most picturesque part of town, drained of tourists and workers, has been in the news for a surge of crime-related incidents, including a shooting that injured five, reports of a man approaching two women with a machete, and a stabbing on de la Commune. “These are the types of things that never really happened here before. I used to feel so safe. But I guess that’s what happens with the lack of people in general, you know?” Tozzi says.

Karski says the upswing in crime is another major reason why she decided to temporarily close Stash. “I was concerned for the safety of my staff, who at the time were almost all women. There had been many dangerous incidents throughout the summer. Granted most of those happened after 11 p.m., but I myself felt uneasy about walking the streets after sunset,” she says.

Police have reportedly upped their presence in the area, and as the weather starts to warm and the days get longer, foot traffic has, anecdotally, seen an improvement, too. “There are hundreds more people walking the streets daily, a stark contrast to the deserted streets of all of 2020,” Karski says.

But better than 2020 doesn’t mean back to normal, nor good enough to keep the lights on. According to Brooke Walsh, the owner of 212, a new Italian restaurant, as long as tourism is nonexistent and the cold weather lull persists, his business will have to remain closed. 212, poised to have been among the most promising openings of the year, had been operating as a upscale casse-croûte named Wren’s up until the holidays, but has since gone into hibernation mode.

“We decided to shut it down for the winter and try to ride this out as long as possible because our project and team is incredibly expensive to operate,” Walsh says, explaining that steep rent, a business model dependent on a high volume of alcohol sales, and untenable delivery service fees coalesced to prompt the decision.

The pressure is even greater on new businesses like 212, which do not qualify for much of the available government aid given their lack of established payrolls and expenses. “Our investment and risk into our city’s hospitality, something our city is known for, is not less important than a business that opened in 2019,” Walsh says. “I have a new family, a wife on maternity leave. I’ve never done anything but hospitality my entire adult life. You shut us down, and then barely support us?”

Despite the struggle of young businesses like Walsh’s, other owners are still hedging their bets on the area. Among them is prolific Old Montreal restaurateur Thomas Vernis (Santos, Tommy Café), who is planning to expand his footprint in the neighbourhood with a hotel and lobby wine bar this spring — or whenever indoor dining resumes. “Yes, it’s been devastating, but I truly believe in a rebirth in the post-COVID era,” he says. “I’m putting my faith in the fact that once things get back to, let’s say, the new normal, Old Montreal will still be a staple for people that come visit our city.”

No matter what happens, boxing up his new offering and sending it out for delivery simply isn’t an option he plans to entertain, given Old Montreal’s geographically inconvenient position on the island, Vernis says. “The Uber Eats radius around Old Montreal is difficult because to the south, it’s water. To the east, it’s kind of a no man’s land with the Jacques Cartier bridge. And then to the north, it’s downtown, and to the west, it’s the Sud-Ouest, which both already have a trillion options.”

Le Club Chasse et Pêche/Facebook

Takeout remains an option, but with a relatively low population density compared to more residential neighbourhoods like those in the Sud-Ouest or the Plateau, owners say it’s a guessing game. Add to that a steady stream of construction projects — no surprise to Montrealers — and many abandoned the idea entirely.

These were among the factors that led restaurateur Hubert Marsolais to select his Plateau restaurant Le Filet as the pickup hub for his five-way takeout operation Trifecta. While his notable Old Montreal fine dining establishment Le Club Chasse et Pêche supplies its dishes for takeout via Trifecta, they cannot be picked up at the Old Montreal address itself. “At the beginning, for two to three weeks, we were doing pickup at both le Filet and Le Club Chasse et Pêche, but quickly realized that the roadwork and construction site around there were making it impossible,” Marsolais says. “It was a nightmare. We imagined that it would cause clients more stress than anything else.”

Marsolais is nonetheless confident of a rebound once sit-down service resumes — if the support shown by Montrealers to Le Club Chasse et Pêche over the summer is any indication of what to expect. Once land borders completely reopen, he expects a steady influx of visitors from New York, Boston, and elsewhere on the East Coast. “We are looking forward to that. We’ve always been more like a destination venue, with people coming from all areas, in Montreal, but also out of town.”

In addition to a relatively smaller pool of residents, the thinning of office workers, and disappearance of tourists, destination restaurants in Old Montreal must also contend with the reticence among many Montrealers during the pandemic to make the commute out of their neighbourhood for the purposes of a quick in-and-out takeout exchange.

Olive & Gourmando/Facebook

Well-established spots like breakfast and lunch icon Olive & Gourmando, however, are seeing that Montrealers can sometimes be coaxed out of their otherwise insular pandemic existences. “There are people who are actually getting in their cars and coming to see us from other parts of Montreal. That’s because we’ve been open 22 years. We are lucky that we haven’t been forgotten,” owner Dyan Solomon says. Her younger Old Montreal restaurant, Un Po’ Di Piu, which closed for two months in the winter until triumphantly reopening just last week (with a new menu more closely resembling Olive’s), has had a harder go of it.

For all the gratitude Solomon feels toward the fealty of her patrons, she’s overcome by disappointment in a provincial government whose financial relief she deems inadequate (often inaccessible), resources overly cumbersome, and decision-making inexplicable. “They’re acting like restaurants are disposable, but the irony is we’re also how the city gets its bragging rights,” she says.

Despite what she sees as the province’s blithe disregard, Solomon says her Old Montreal sandwich, soup, and salad shop has been routinely invoked for tourism purposes in the past. “My face, my name, and my restaurant have been used everywhere. At one point, a photo of Olive was plastered all around the airport,” Solomon says. “We are part of why people come to this city. The government knows that. The proof is in the pudding.” Though the province benefits from the cultural draw of establishments like hers, it’s one year into the pandemic and many believe it still isn’t acting like it.

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