Red Vinly and Grey Linoleum

Red Vinly and Grey Linoleum


DinerScene.bmpMontreal is a veritable beacon in fine dining in North America, featuring such stars as Europea[1] on de la Montagne with its mouth watering discovery and tasting menus, le Filet[2] on Mount‑Royal E. with its succulent seafood plates, and Chez Queux[3] on St-Paul E. with its exquisitely prepared game dishes. However, Montreal is also home to a different class of eateries altogether, the praises of which often go unsung. Places that don't have glossy business cards or a trendy website. Places that rely almost exclusively on word of mouth and customer loyalty to stay in business. Places where poutine is served without pretention and that feel like a home away from home.

I am of course referring to Montreal's diner scene - not to the big chains like Nickels  - but to the wealth of independently owned and family run establishments whose diverse and colorful incarnations brighten our neighborhoods and offer a decent bang for our hard earned buck. Some of these restaurants have been in business at the same address for decades and have become veritable landmarks in Montreal, such as Beauty's[4] in the Plateau, Decarie Hotdog[5] in Ville St-Laurent or Jarry Smoked Meat[6] in Anjou.  Other more recent additions, such as Au Pied de Cochon[7], La Banquise[8] and Le Garde Manger[9], have filled a niche in the market by bridging the gap between casual and fine dining with such unexpected offerings as lobster or foie gras poutines. But most of Montreal's diner scene is fairly obscure, with hundreds of establishments frequented by and known only to local residents, like so many batter-dipped, deep fried gems.

And yet, all is not so cheery in Montreal's restaurant scene. Times are tough, and with so many upscale restaurants struggling and going under in this difficult economy, it's a wonder that these casual establishments - with their modest or even meager markups - manage to stay afloat. Their unlikely longevity is a testament not only to their success, but to their popularity, as equally evidenced by the popularity surge in television shows featuring casual eateries, like the Food Network's "You Gotta Eat Here" and "Diners, Drive-Thrus and Dives". So what's their secret? Montrealers love their comfort food, it would seem: familiar, down-to-earth dishes like tomato alphabet soup and a pizza-ghetti, washed down with an oversized tumbler of orange crush and polished off with a tiny bowl of pudding chômeur. On the other hand, Montrealers also love their fine dining, which doesn't prevent dozens of more upscale restaurants in Montreal from tanking every year. So what's the secret to diners' success? What keeps us going back to our favorite lunch roosts time and time again?

It might be a subconscious desire to root for the underdog, to scorn Big Business and make an effort to ensure that small business owners aren't pushed out of the market by all the McDriveThrus of this world. Perhaps some feel an almost familial sense of loyalty towards the restaurants they've been going to for years, where the waitresses remember their names and where they can just order "the usual". Personally, I admit to feeling a certain unadulterated joy at being able to kick my shoes off under the table and unabashedly eat with my fingers alongside other diners who are shamelessly doing the exact same thing. In today's high-tech, high‑stress, high-octane society, it has become something of a guilty pleasure of mine to kick back and relax with the local paper and a bottomless cup of mediocre coffee instead of endlessly running from one place to the next with a Smartphone in one hand and a mezzo frappuccino in the other.

So my neighborhood burger joint wouldn't be my first pick for a first date or an important business meeting. But a mid-week lunch with co-workers, or quick bite and welcome reprieve from cooking at home after a long day at the office? Bring on the paper placemats! Despite their bad rap, I think I speak for many Montrealers when I say that greasy spoons shall forever hold a special place in my heart, red vinyl, grey linoleum and all.



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