Time slows down when I enter a Montreal diner. It slows down because the menu is so long, and it takes forever to read through and decide, for certain, what to order. It slows down because the plates are so big that it takes forever to eat a meal. And it slows down because conversations with friends, family, or simply the same waiters as last time are so enjoyable, and the jukebox soundtrack even more so.
Mister Steer is one such diner. It opened in 1958, with nine seats on the corner of Ste Catherine and Bleury. Working-class and immigrant populations flocked to it for the popular Steerburger, a kosher hockey-puck patty with lettuce, tomato, and onion.
“I would say 90 per cent of our customers were Jewish,” James Gaspar, owner of the Mister Steer restaurant, told me. “That is, until the French Canadians [...] figured out we had a pretty good burger, and that they should give it a shot.”
Gaspar took the restaurant over from his parents about 30 years ago, noting how natural the transition was.
“When my dad needed someone to wash dishes, I was a high school student, and he would call me at recess to come in and wash dishes,” Gaspar said. “You kind of grow into the business that way, don’t you?”
“It is almost generational in the sense that father brings his son, father dies, son gets married, brings his children,”
The restaurant is now located at 1198 Ste. Catherine W., near Drummond Street. Despite a renovation that took out its counter seats—which Gaspar claims was a big mistake, since older customers have a certain reverence for them—Mister Steer aims to maintain the same unique charm that the original place had over 60 years ago. An old telephone sits at the entrance, and “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire booms out of the jukebox. Even now, Gaspar notes that Mister Steer’s success is still mostly driven by the same simple burger that launched the business years ago.
“It is almost generational in the sense that father brings his son, father dies, son gets married, brings his children,” Gaspar said. “You have no idea how many people, even when they leave Montreal to other cities, other countries, when they come back to Montreal, one of the first places they visit to eat is Mister Steer. They want to revisit their past, their nostalgia, their times they used to live here, how they love the Suzie Qs [curly fries], and that has not changed. It’s generation-to-generation.”
Mister Steer is but one institution in a myriad of Quebec diners. The restaurants’ popularity is made obvious by the number of terms that refer to them, such as diners and greasy spoons. The Québécois diner even has its own name: Casse-croûte, French for “breaking crust” (Casser la croûte), or, more colloquially, “snack bar.”
On the menu at a casse-croûte, owners put together a list of guilty-pleasure basics. Regional casse-croûtes add their own flair.
“You’ve got your homemade hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, and poutines,” David McMillan, chef at Joe Beef, writes in The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts. “And [there are also] some specialties like hot gravy-soaked hamburgers and all-dressed hot dogs (with the works) dipped in batter and fried. I’ve had a Ti-Gus burger, which is an all-dressed burger on a plate, with a ladle of Kraft Thousand Island dressing poured over the top.”
As the world around these restaurants changes—and as rent where these low-cost restaurants dwell rises—Québécois food remains a mash-up of its European influences.
“I would have a hard time [finding] a francophone in Quebec who doesn’t enjoy spaghetti or a diner [that] doesn’t serve spaghetti,” said Caroline Durand, an associate professor at Trent University. “And something like spaghetti with an Italian kind of sauce, with smoked meat on top, might be described as authentically Québécois. So, yeah, there are some mixed dishes [...] that I think could only emerge in Montreal that have this veneer of authenticity.”
Durand, who researches nutritional discourse in Quebec history, spent 11 years in Montreal completing her undergraduate and master’s degrees at Université du Québec à Montréal and her PhD at McGill. The invocation of these restaurants sparked powerful memories of her time in the city.
“There are some people who might even argue that authenticity doesn’t really exist because every culinary culture is in a constant state of transformation,” Durand said.
“Going out to this type of restaurant is the type of choice that’s pretty much always made in connection to another activity,” Durand said. “To me, these restaurant experiences are pretty much always connected to going out with some friends and having a full night out, going to a place to watch the hockey game or going to a bar.”
The comfort these diners continue to supply, even in their advanced age, comes from upholding their original look. A diner’s warm and inviting atmosphere typically began with tiled wallpaper and leather-bound seats. Today, they often remain stuck in that past, merely refreshing the seats or switching the tiled wallpaper for actual tiles.
“All design is a choice,” Gwendolyn Owens, director of curatorial affairs for McGill’s Visual Arts Collection, wrote to The McGill Tribune in an email. “Montreal has restaurants that look like French bistros [...] as well as diners [...], and what [customers] want is an experience that to the eater feels [...] authentic.”
In the search for authenticity, however, Montrealers might end up running in circles. Given that ‘Montrealized’ spaghetti and poutine originated from an eclectic combination of ingredients, it can be tough to track down a single origin story. Frédéric Giuliano, an archivist at McGill University Rare Books, has found difficulty in tracing the history of the beloved items on casse-croûte menus.
“There’s more of an oral tradition to the history of poutine,” Giuliano said. “Where did it start? Drummondville, or, where?”
Durand pointed out that culinary authenticity is tricky to pin down, since it is always shifting. Nonetheless, some insist on specific eating conditions, much in the way that some insist on seeing a movie in the theatre.
“There are some people who might even argue that authenticity doesn’t really exist because every culinary culture is in a constant state of transformation,” Durand said. “So, there are people who would claim that authenticity is always a construction. But, that might not be the definition that would satisfy everyone. There are some people, for instance, who claim that to have authentic poutine, you absolutely have to have it in Quebec with a specific kind of cheese and in a specific kind of establishment.”
Durand adds that Québécois food—the kind served in these establishments—is currently undergoing a re-evaluation as part of a larger project to re-examine the roots of Québécois culture.
“There is [...] a sincere attempt to revitalize a kind of cooking that wasn’t always appreciated,” Durand said. “If we go back maybe 20 [or] 30 years ago, there would be a lot of contempt for a dish like poutine. Outsiders would look at that and say ‘this is absolutely disgusting, people could not seriously eat that,’ and people could interpret that dish as a sign that Quebec culture is actually not something prestigious at all.”
Yet, this working-class food culture is present everywhere you go in Montreal. Traditional restaurants form the backbone of their neighbourhoods so much so that the city’s culinary tradition is founded on an especially-close cousin to the diner—the deli. Montreal has adopted the deli’s signature food—smoked meat—as an iconic city staple.
“Not only was it cheap food, but it was easy to get. It was super accessible,” Nathalie Cooke, associate dean of the McGill Library (Archives and Rare Collections) and founding editor of CuiZines journal, said. “That made it quite a bit more popular as well.”
Schwartz’s opened in 1928 and found its home at 3895 St. Laurent in 1939. It is right across from The Main Deli, which opened its doors in 1974. The Main takes its name from the anachronistic nickname for St. Laurent—the street that acts as a pseudo linguistic divider for the city. To the west, Montreal is primarily anglophone; to the east live the francophones. But, these diners, delis, and casse-croûtes act both as meeting places and melting pots. Linguistic barriers be gone; we just want our food.
Every six weeks, my uncle takes me to get a haircut. Either before or after, we go for a meal at one of these classic Montreal restaurants. The last four times, we’ve gone to Greenspot, the diner that sits like a relic from a distant Québécois past in rapidly-gentrifying St. Henri, and ordered the club sandwich. It’s a big plate—the sandwich comes with thick-cut french fries, coleslaw, a pickle, gravy, and mayonnaise on the side—and it has been dynamite every time.
Nostalgia is a powerful force: Diner food, in all of its simplicity, never fails to stand the test of time. In our conversation, Gaspar told me about a customer who returned to Mister Steer about five years ago.
“A fellow comes in, he’s got this tan, he’s about maybe 70 years old, sits down,” Gaspar said. “And, I’m standing, I don’t know, five feet away from him, and I watch him. He doesn’t look at the menu, [and the] waitress comes up to him, [and he says] ‘Give me a number seven [a hamburger and a hot dog]’ [....] I was intrigued. So I go up to him and say ‘Number seven? When were you here last?’ [He says] ‘40 years ago.’ [I said,] ‘How come forty years ago?’ He said, ‘I live in Florida now.’ A man who’s been away for 40 years remembers the number, sits down, orders it, says it was exactly the same way it was 40 years ago.”
Nostalgia is a powerful force: Diner food, in all of its simplicity, never fails to stand the test of time.
Construction surrounds the Mister Steer location in every direction, tearing up the very foundations of the downtown core. However, in spite of its ever-changing neighbourhood, the diner remains a comfortable sight and a homely familiarity. Most of all, this type of food in this type of place just hits the spot.
“Sometimes, a plain old hot dog can be very good if it is done a certain way,” Durand said. “I certainly would prefer that particular food item to be toasted, not steamed. I think all-dressed has to have cabbage and onions and relish. If there’s no onions, you can’t really say it’s all dressed. But I would say any hot dog you have in Montreal would be superior to a hot dog you would have in New York.”
Giuliano agrees that the mere thought of neighbourhood casse-croûte food is a truly remarkable power.
“There’s a chemical reaction in my brain when I talk about poutine; I instantly get hungry,” Giuliano said. “I’m definitely going to have a poutine tonight because we talked about it.”