Upscale bistros, trendy restos and sushi bars have been gobbling up greasy spoons for some time. But, thankfully, these family-run diners that celebrate the glory of the griddle and deep fryer and are a second home to many still have some fans.
At one time about 50 per cent of Montreal’s restaurants were owned by Greek immigrants, says the Quebec Restaurant Association, which means probably 99 per cent of the greasy spoons were Greek. But it has been 40 years since these immigrants flocked to Canada in the ’70s, first washing dishes and then taking over the joint, and many have cashed in their chips. Few today, especially those trained in the food industry, want the 70- to 80-hour weeks and low-profit margins bestowed by $4.95 breakfasts and $8.95 dinner specials.
The charm of diners has always been simple food, decent prices, friendly service from older professional waitresses who might have been your mother in another life. Over the long haul, the food might have killed you but the trip was worth it.
Diners and their menus, overflowing with fries and burgers, hamburger steak and pizza, club sandwiches and hotdogs, spaghetti and submarine sandwiches, exotic “Montreal smoked meat” and ersatz Caesar salad, have been hit by the wrecking ball of gentrification. Today even burgers and hotdogs have gone upscale.But despite the ravages of a mushrooming foodie culture and trendy restos flaunting Pappardelle au ragout de champignons sauvages or Cuisse de lapin en civet, there are a few spots left that celebrate the glory of the griddle and deep fryer, where food is necessity, not fad, and customers can come solo or in packs dressed in whatever happens to be on their back, no reservation required. And the waitress will quickly know your name.
Montreal’s Avenue Mont Royal East, once a derelict strip of cookie shops and grease pits, intersects the hyper trendy Le Plateau district. It’s “bineries” — basically baked bean counters — have all but disappeared in the avalanche of high-end restos such as Salle à Manger, Chez Victoire, Au Chaud Lapin, and a half-dozen sushi shops. Their terraces spill onto the sidewalk, and their long wine lists, pounding music and hyper young servers with pierced body parts and tight black clothes rule the road. Dinner with wine, tip and tax will cost you more than $100 easy and there’s no shortage of takers willing to eat up, despite having to scream to be heard on almost any evening of the week. But for those who want a meal without making reservations, made from ingredients they can relate to at a price that will allow them to eat the rest of the week, there are the fixtures of Tous les jours and Mont Royal Hot Dog. Eating here is like coming home to mother, without the laundry service.
For Anna Papadatos it has been home since she was 13. Anna runs Tous les jours, an eatery her father opened in 1975. The kitchen is open, bathed in light from the large picture windows, and from the grill comes the dozens of Prime Burgers that are the place’s specialty, made with homemade mayo – $4.95 for the burger, $8 if you want fries and a soft drink. Down the road, Chez Victoire offers its Burger côte levée – a spare-rib burger – for $19, Coke extra.
Papadatos spent her adolescence punching the cash here, and though she went to accounting school, the call of the grill could not be denied. When her father wanted out — he still works there part-time — she bought out his partners and went to work serving customers while her sister and brother took the cash and manned the grill.
Eat there once and Papadatos remembers how you like your chops, the dressing for your upscale salad of baby greens, tomatoes, sliced radish and cukes, baby corn and sliced red onion and what paper you like to read while eating solo. And she never tells you to take your elbows off the table.
The rows of banquettes are her home. Married without kids, she spends much of her life here, six days a week, as many as 70 hours a week. She’s proud of the fancy salads and homemade dressing that pretty up the plates of chops or hamburger steak and, to pacify the cholesterol fearing, she’s added calamari, salmon steak and grilled chicken salad. “My dad spent his whole life here,” she says. “Maybe he went to Greece three times in all those years.”
In fact, several Greek diner owners have sold out and headed back home after 30 or 40 years in the nightmarishly competitive restaurant business. Most came from Greece in the ’60s and early ’70s, fleeing poverty and a right-wing junta. Landing in Montreal and spreading west, they spoke no English or French but happily slaved over deep industrial sinks washing pots, pans and dishes. Many proved indefatigable, bringing over family members and buying their own restaurants.
Papadatos, 45, says selling the place would be a slight against her father and she plans on slinging plates for at least another 25 years. There’s nothing she’d rather do, she says. For a customer’s birthday she’ll plant a few candles in a dessert and sing Happy Birthday.
“It’s going to make their day and it’s going to make my day to make their day,” she says.
Papadatos has a sister in grease just down the road at Mont Royal Hot Dog, where Jennie Gioulpegiazis, 24, mans the cash for her father Dimitri, known as Nik, who’s been behind the counter for 36 years.
Ask Nik why so many Greek immigrants ended up making American burgers and Italian pizza and he’ll tell you it was language. “We couldn’t speak the language so we washed dishes,” he says. “You didn’t need to speak no language to wash dishes.” Nik says hanging in for several decades required discipline – fresh food, good quality, and of course, lots of sweat. “Hard work, no life,” he says, shrugging. Would he do it again? He smiles. “Yes.”
His daughter Jennie has caught the bug and, after college and esthetician school, she decided the restaurant was a better fit. She’s back to punching a cash, something she started doing at 12, a long sizzling grill and two pizza ovens her backdrop. “I love it,” she says, and putting in 12 to 14 hours a day is just part of the deal. “I like the fact it’s been here for so long.”
It’s probable the eateries and their proletarian menus will eventually lose the battle against food fetishists, calorie counters and cholesterol watchers in big cities, where taxes and rents keep climbing and appetite for exotic fare keeps growing. But Galipeau, the former window washer now scraping his grill at Mello’s, and tenacious women such as Papadatos and Gioulpegiazis won’t give up without a fight, something those of us with a yen for simple food at simple prices – arteries be damned – can be thankful for.
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