View Full Version : Montreal Taverns a Generation Ago

08-07-2008, 17:45
[I posted this to a local Toronto beer website and thought some here might appreciate it].

I would like to offer reminiscences of Montreal taverns and their customs in the period from 1968-1983. In 1968 I became of age to drink, and in 1983 I left Montreal to live in Toronto.

There were older and newer taverns but my abiding impression of their decor is early rec room.

In 1968, taverns did not admit women. This was a hold-over from earlier times when beer drinking was regarded essentially as a man's pastime and a tavern was not a place for a lady. There did not exist the women's beverage room or mixed beverage room as in Ontario. Of course, women could frequent a bar proper and most of these were in full-scale restaurants or hotels.

I recall that while people of all backgrounds went to taverns, it seemed to attract more middle and working class people, and of course students.

There were so-called (or so I heard it termed when living there) French taverns, English taverns and mixed or downtown taverns. Of course, these distinctions were not airtight. Still, on the west side of town one usually heard English spoken, e.g., in Notre Dame de Grace, lower Westmount and Snowdon. In the downtown tavern it was mixed or French-speaking except perhaps in pockets around Guy and Ste. Catherine and parts of Verdun where English endured. East of Bleury Street the taverns tended to be French-speaking.

The food however was similar in all: pizzas, hamburgers, french fries with or without gravy (I never saw poutine when growing up in Montreal), ham steak, "farmer" sausages with brown gravy and onions (McGarry's or La Belle Fermiere and good!), pork chops, veal escalope, and tourtiere sometimes. And omelettes too: cheese, plain, ham and cheese, with mushrooms, Spanish-style, etc. An omelette with french fries was a popular order. Also, grilled cheese sandwiches.

The beer was a draft from Molson or Labatt, or O'Keefe before it merged with Molson I think it was. I distinctly remember one time in the Mansfield Tavern south of McGill University remarking with friends that the beer oddly looked green. It wasn't St. Patrick's Day. It had a light tint of hops but we did not know what hops were. This did not prevent our enjoyment of the beer.

Even then, before I really cared about beer quality or had purchased my first beer book (called A Book on Beer by John [yes] Porter), for some reason I watched what people ordered. You sometimes heard a call for a "tablette" (shelf beer), which meant the drinker wanted it unchilled. At the time I marveled that anyone would drink beer voluntarily in this way but now I often drink it that way myself.

I noticed too the odd dark beer served, porter. The brand I recall was Porter Champlain. It tasted to me like black licorice and I didn't really like it but I kept tasting it in the early 70's so that my palate was attuned to a better-quality ale by the time I noticed imports in the Quebec Liquor Board and the microbrewery thing started. In the spring, some breweries released a "bock" which was stronger than regular beer and tawny-coloured. Brador from Molson was popular for its extra strength. Apparently at one time it was an "ale" and was considered better before it became a "malt liquor" (I remember people talking like this if they were interested in beer beyond the norm).

Sometimes, people would order beer and say, "la table", which meant, cover the table (small round tables) in drafts! Students would do this after exams, say. Or one might say in the Montreal argot: "donnez moi deux draff". Or, "une grosse Molson, svp". Molson Export and Labatt 50 in the so-called quarts (22 oz. and you can still get them) were popular.

There was usually a choice of beers from the big three brewers in bottles but the draft only came from one of them (in each tavern, I mean). I remember that Labatt Blue, even in French taverns and even well before Budweiser and Miller appeared in Montreal, was making inroads on the typical tavern beer which was Molson Export, Labatt 50, O'Keefe Ale, Laurentide Ale or Dow Ale. I liked all of these.

There were no imports available, not even Heineken. No American beers either until licensed Miller and Bud came in in the later 70's. You could get some of these at English-style pubs and some restaurants in Montreal but not in a tavern. Carlsberg - a locally licensed version - came in in the mid-1970's.

Student taverns, like the "Manse", had their own character and I guess every tavern did. I recall the popular waiter at the Manse in my time was "Red" (after his russet-coloured hair), he was genial yet dignified man who enjoyed a joke and worked hard at his job. I recall one other waiter at the Manse, taller than Red with dark curly hair, equally good at his job. At another place, on Beaver Hall Hill where I went occasionally after I started working, a waiter surprised me because of his English background. Of course there were and are many Anglophones in Quebec. However, not too many at that time, at least in my experience, worked in taverns because your French had to be perfect and Anglophones then tended to be less bilingual than many French Canadians. But this man spoke perfect French, I forget now where he learned it, maybe he grew up in the East End of Montreal and I think he may have told me he was an ex-policeman. He was a dapper gent who, like the guys at the Manse, was a hard worker and proud of the good job he did.

If business was brisk they wouldn't tarry but otherwise they would take the time to have a word, share a joke, and ask about you and your family.

I never recall any significant unpleasantness in taverns. I tended to have a couple of beers, eat and leave, and at night I went home or (when younger) studied in the school library, so no doubt I didn't stay late enough to see any bad stuff. I think I do remember now the odd argument or fight, and people were then ejected, but this was a rarity in my experience.

Some of the taverns (returning to food now) specialized in a certain kind of food. Kraussman made great pig's knuckles in an Alsatian style - there was a fashion then for such taverns in Montreal. Kraussman still exists, not too far south of its original location, on Beaver Hall Hill or, as it`s called today, Cote Beaver Hall. I haven't been there in 20 years but I am sure the "PN" is as good as ever! Magnan specialised in roast beef dishes - and still does.

The Montreal tavern was a kind of fused Franco-English-Italian institution in the sense of the people who worked there and patronised them and beer and food offered. It had its own character and while it was never a lionized part of Montreal life (since it had a downmarket image), it had features of its own which were interesting to a young person living in Montreal at the time who was trying to get beneath the surface a little about the drinks and food served and people you encountered there. Of course, it was male-only and everyone (almost) could see by the early 1970's that this was outmoded and had to change. And it did, in the form of a renascent style of tavern called the "brasserie". The brasserie offered better decor and admitted women. It was okay but for some reason I never liked these establishments. When the old tavern started to disappear, I started to buy imports at the Quebec Liquor Board and bring beers from the States including the new microbrewery beers. And I started to go to the faux-English and Irish pubs. Soon, Quebec started to have its own brewpubs and small breweries.

As Ray Davies of The Kinks sang in his evocative song Walter, "people [and institutions I'd add] often change but memories of people can remain".


08-15-2008, 17:46
Thanks for that!

I am surprised by the fries with gravy and the lack of poutine. If I were going to add something to fries, it would be the fromage first.

08-15-2008, 18:06
Thanks and the issue of poutine in Quebec is an interesting one. One story has it that the preparation was common in country areas of Quebec and worked its way into the cities by the 1980's. However one gentleman, who owned a quick food restaurant in a rural town, has made a specific claim as inventor of the dish. As I recall the story, one of his customers suggested the idea, and the restaurateur put it together in a way which has become (increasingly) famous ever since. (This circa late 1950's). At first, poutine was regarded as a tasty but messy snack, one suitable for chip stands and the like but far from the bastions of haute cuisine or even good everyday cooking. But then it kind of became cool, and chefs started to make luxury versions e.g., with foie gras and the like. It went upmarket (somewhat).

I have only had it a handful of times. The best one was from a chip stand in Ottawa. At my age, this kind of food is basically poison so I don't seek it out very often.

But if you can picture a dim plain rec room-type hall, solid round tables with ironwork supports sorrounded by equally solid banker's-type wooden chairs, and glistening 10 ounce (used to be 12) glasses of cold draught Molson Export or Dow Ale, that was the setting to order a plate of fries with brown gravy or a veal parmagania or a cheeseburger with or without "les frites", in Montreal of that era.

Taverns offered humble food but to the best of my recollection, never served hot dogs (sausages, yes, but that is different). Hot dogs were the preserve of the chip stands in Quebec. These originally were built on roadsides (as everywhere), but Quebeckers loved them so that the stands implanted in the cities and now there are chains, Lafleur is one (and one of the best). I liked a hot dog all-dressed. In Quebec that means mustard, relish, and chopped fresh cabbage with onion in it. Hot dogs are sometimes grilled in Quebec but more often are steamed in large aluminum steamers. Served in a spongy bun, a hot dog delectably had its place in the dietary of Quebec Province. I also liked a Michigan, a hot dog with meat sauce poured over. (Why "Michigan" heaven knows, Tony, are these kinds of hot dogs known in your state?). And of course lots of french fries and today the chip stands all serve poutine or just with gravy. Ah, the good old days - oh also the key drink of the stands was pop (not alcohol in any form - it doesn't suit the chip stand ethos). And spruce beer was the local Quebec favourite - biere d'epinette and did it ever have a sharp taste of resiny spruce! This spruce beer had no alcohol, it was a pop. I recall that some steamed hot dog joints served a home made version, in a bottle looking like a seltzer bottle.

This was one slice of the atmosphere I grew up in in Quebec. I knew people who would say they wouldn't be caught dead in such places. These people and I saw things differently shall we say (some of these same people laughed at rock and roll, too, anyway I digress). Perhaps not having been born with a silver spoon, I tended to be more open to the food of humble establishments. I have since learned to enjoy many kinds of food and restaurants, but I will always retain a fondness for these simple, enjoyable places of my youth. That they were inexpensive was simply a bonus.


08-15-2008, 18:43
I'd like to have a spruce beer. Now that I think about it, I may have had one in the Pacific Northwest, but I'm sure that was different.

I've only had poutine a handful of times, and that was all in the last decade or so. Once the cheese was a shredded white one. Once it was a nasty cheese sauce. The best poutine I had was on a ferry crossing the Saint Laurent from Baie Comeau, believe it or not. The cheese was actual chunks of curd. Well, since this was rural Quebec, pretty much, it shouldn't have surprised me so.

08-15-2008, 18:46
Chunks of white curd was the original way, absolutely. That cheese was very popular in Quebec (it was used outside the confines of poutine too, of course). It was very young white cheddar. Quebec made and still does matchless cheese curds, so fresh they squeaked in the mouth.


08-15-2008, 21:55
Gary, thanks, a fascinating read. I will add it to my collected historical notes about beer and drinking life generally. I appreciate your perspective and recollections of what appears to have been a unique confluence of cultural and economic influences.


08-16-2008, 06:35
In 1974 or so, I went skiing in Mt Tremblant, spending a day in Montreal. Although my experience was limited, I did get to spend some time in the St Catherine area. This is where I was introduced to the mysterious malt liquor, Molson Brador (Gold Arm?).
At the time, it was only available in Canada and not exported.
On Tuesday, I received a gift of Molson Brador from a coworker who visited Toronto.
Amazingly, its exactly the same. (At least the way I recall it)

08-16-2008, 06:37
Brador is really good stuff. I drank a ton of it back in the day.
Joe :usflag:

08-16-2008, 07:53
It is true, the taste hasn't changed. It has a winy, malty taste (no esters though that I can detect) with a slightly acidic background. Full-flavored and refreshing for a strongish beer (to be sure in the commercial mold but still very good).

Small amounts are still brewed by Molson (now CoorsMolson). I believe it is all brewed in Montreal.

Brador means "Golden Brew", the Bra here refers to brassin (or brew).

I'd like to bring some to Gazebo since Joe knows it too but we are driving in a small two seater and the trunk is tiny. Maybe a few bottles to share amongst a few of us.


08-16-2008, 07:55
Thanks, Tim, for your kind remarks.


08-16-2008, 09:23
If you get out in the dairy parts of Wisconsin you can find fresh squeaky cheese curd. They sell it packaged in the cities, and you can get it breaded and fried at fairs, but for the really fresh moist springy stuff you need to visit a cheese factory on the day they are cutting the curd.