Strange as it may sound, fall is perhaps my favorite season. It is a melancholy time of the year and I guess I have become a kind of a romantic guy. I love watching the leaves turn red, then gold under a cloudless brilliantly blue sky that makes it easy to pick out the honking geese heading south.
And I love eating Thanksgiving turkey with raucous relatives assembled to reminisce about days gone by. Somehow, during the meal every year, as the wine begins to flow freely, the cacophony of the gathered multitude begins to abate and conversation turns to remembering the “good old days”.
And so it was also this year.
My son reminded us that he had been the disc jockey for four years at the popular bar called DJ’s Pub on Crescent Street.
“A street Johnny Vago invented,” I said. “If I remember correctly, they called him the King of Crescent Street.”
The street, which opened around 1860, was originally in the form of a crescent, starting northward from Dorchester Boulevard. (now Boulevard Rene Levesque)
The first bar on Crescent Street opened in 1967 and was the Sir Winston Churchill Pub, partly owned by Hungarian emigre Johnny Vago who came to Canada in 1951, bringing with him a café culture and bonhomie characteristic of post-war Europe. Vago’s discotheque, originally known as the Don Juan, was first on nearby Stanley Street. It relocated as a basement pub without a dance floor on Crescent after the basement of the Stanley Street building had to be re-engineered since parts of the Don Juan’s dance floor had begun to fall into the Montreal Metro tunnel that was then being dug beside it. (Wikipedia).
With the help of the dynamic and popular bartender Margo MacGillivray, the pub turned into a great success. Vago bought the building and expanded the pub upward by creating Winnie’s Pub and Restaurant on the second floor. The three-storey complex (the top floor was called Karenina’s) became the favorite watering hole of Montreal’s Anglo intelligentsia – the writer Mordecai Richler, the boulevardier extraordinaire Nick Auf Der Maur, Ted Blackman, George Balcan, Gordon Atkinson, Richard Holden, and Irwin Steinberg were among the regulars.
Vago’s other bar on Crescent Street, called Casa Pedro, was to the north, at the corner of Burnside Street (now de Maisonneuve Boulevard). It became the headquarters of the Hungarian immigrants who streamed into the city after their 1956 revolution. (Stephen Vizinczey is rumored to have penned his bestseller In Praise of Older Women while sipping Espressos there, the film-maker Robert Lantos and the journalist George Jonas – my classmate at elementary school in Budapest for four years – were among the regulars.)
Southward from Winnie’s toward St. Catherine Street, Thursday’s Restaurant offered fine French Cuisine, a spectacular open terrace on the first floor from where you could see everything that was going on down on the street, and a tunnel in the back by the kitchen that led to the Hotel de la Montagne one street over for the convenience of amorous couples. In its heyday, Thursday’s was home to a large chunk of Montreal’s younger “it” crowd, from lunchtime till 3 a.m. in the downstairs club.
There was a disco at the north-east corner of St Catherine and Crescent Streets, originally called Friar’s Pub, that morphed into DJ’s Pub (named for Derek Johnson, a former race car driver and well-known figure on the local bar scene) that also catered to a younger, but wealthier, crowd. My son was THE discjockey there for four years.
Les Halles, opposite to DJ on the other side of the street was perhaps the best French Restaurant in Montreal in its heydays. Featuring authentic painted signs from its eponymous Paris’s Grand Marche it was managed by an amiable Frenchman from Normandy called Jacques Landurie who kept calling me his “petit cousin Hongrois” with a misspelled name (Landori).
The Seahorse bar was located downstairs from Les Halles – a long narrow place that was packed most weekends with university-aged kids. The restaurant above had to suffer the constant annoyance from the younger clientele downstairs.
Close to the Burnside corner, opposite Casa Pedro, the relative newcomer, Le Newton’s Bar and Restaurant, created waves of discontent in language police circles because of the arrival of another new English sounding name – a no-no in those days. The waves abated when it was discovered that the place was owned by the Villeneuve family. Gilles Villeneuve was an outstanding Quebec-born champion Formula 1 racecar driver who died in 1982 in a crash while racing in Belgium. (Newton is the English translation of Villeneuve).
This short stroll down Memory Lane would not be complete without visiting the Troika Restaurant, situated on the East side of Crescent Street between Burnside and Sherbrooke Streets, “far from the madding crowd” to the south.
In 1967, Ted Lewkowski my client and Henry Voychik, a passionate wine collector and my classmate at McGill decided to create an upscale “Russian” restaurant on Crescent Street, the street Johnny Vago, the maniacal Hungarian promoter ‘formulated’ in his mind and turned into reality.
They rented the semi-basement space of an old building a block and a half up the hill. They found a third partner for the venture – also Polish – who helped dig out the rubble and enlarge the space, repair the brickwork of the walls and install the required equipment. For decoration, they bought yards and yards of red brocade that they draped artfully over the old mirror-frames hung from the walls they had bought for a song from pawnbrokers on Craig Street. Ted had an old Russian musician friend whom he talked into playing sentimental Russian songs on opening night and, voila, MONTREAL’S LEGENDARY TROIKA RESTAURANT WAS BORN with Sacha, the Russian violinist, a regular fixture.
Troika soon became a very popular upscale restaurant. Its most famous “regular” was Peter Ustinov, the British actor and film-maker and longstanding friend of Ted Lewkowski. Ustinov came to Montreal often to visit his friend and to eat caviar – gratis at the Troika, of course.