[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".