A couple of weeks ago I visited my coiffeuse (female barber) and, after she had attempted to tame the hair on my head and face, I looked out the window and saw brilliant sunshine under a clear blue autumn sky.
So I decided to walk home. No car for me!
I headed north on Boulevard St Laurent (Saint Lawrence Boulevard) and marveled at how the plethora of stylish, highly modern-looking stores on both sides had gentrified this wide avenue, once home to grungy stalls owned by freshly minted immigrants peddling a wide variety of merchandise.
I turned left on Rue Bernard, crossed Avenue du Parc (once Park Avenue) and found myself in front of LESTER’S one of the four iconic Montreal Delis specializing in SMOKED MEAT.
Montreal-style smoked meat is beef brisket with spices. The brisket is allowed to absorb the flavors over a week. It is then hot smoked to cook through, and finally is steamed to completion.
Who “invented” it is subject to passionate debate.
Ben Kravitz and his family served smoked meat sandwiches to Montrealers for almost 100 years, beginning in 1908 from a store on St. Laurent Blvd. at Duluth St. that he ran with his wife, Fanny, and eventually from Ben’s Delicatessen at De Maisonneuve Blvd. and Metcalfe St. until it closed in 2006. This photo dated Nov. 10, 1951, is labeled Benjamin Kravitz, “smoked meat sandwich king.” Montreal Gazette Archives
The restaurant, open 23 hours daily and closed only for cleaning, was a popular late-night dining haunt for celebrities and movie stars.
The building housing the place was demolished in 2008. The large red art deco letters from above the main entrance are now on display in the Communication Studies and Journalism (CJ) building on the Loyola campus of Concordia University.
Myer Dunn opened Dunn’s Deli on St Catherine Street in 1927 to sell smoked meat. The business (franchised across the country) is still owned and operated by the Dunn family.
Still in its original location on St. Lawrence Boulevard, using its original recipe and practicing old-world standards of excellence, Schwartz’s was founded in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania. In March 2012 the Nakis and Angelil-Dion (as in the star Celine Dion) families purchased Schwartz’s.
The business seems to be thriving. There is always a queue – mainly of tourists – outside day and night.
I have now told you about three of the four iconic early practitioners of the art of making Smoked Meat in Montreal.
Let me now talk about the fourth one, the one in front of which I was dawdling on my way home from the barber.
I crossed the street and went in. The manager was glad to see me. I asked for Billy Berenholc (Lester’s owner) whom I knew well. “On holiday” said the manager. “By the way,” he added. “I have news for you. Billy has sold Lester’s to Montreal chef restaurateur Kevin Fung who has plans for expansion throughout the country and internationally.”
“How long has Billy’s family owned the business?” I asked.
“Since 1951 – about seventy years.”
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Montréal is an eater’s city, a true foodie destination. From poutine and steamies (steamed hot dogs) to haute cuisine featuring the finest products from the Québécois terroir, Montréal has something for everyone. But if there is one thing that has secured Montréal’s place on the world’s food map, it’s the city’s smoked meat! (Jason Lee)
Let us hope that the “new” owners of these traditional smoked meat eating places will continue to respect the essence of old style Montreal Smoked Meat as expressed in an ad published in 1884 by Aaron Sanft (a butcher from Lasi, Romania).
“A. Sanft Kosher Meat — 560 Craig Street, Montreal’s largest butcher shop, clean and fresh meat daily. Manufacturer of salami, smoked meat, corned beef, smoked beef and sausages. Same quality as New York. Guaranteed not to spoil.”