Sunday, December 17, 2006

Smoked meat, part 3

Unlike my previous two smoked meat posts, this one is actually about smoked meat. Or, more precisely, the absence of it: I heard on the radio this morning that Ben's Deli, the venerable restaurant on de Maisonneuve Blvd. in Montreal, has closed its doors for good. I actually had to stop what I was doing (the dishes, although I can usually find any excuse not to do the dishes) and even said to myself (since the cat wasn't in the kitchen at the time), "Wow."

Sure, some will argue that Ben's was not exactly good eats: for one, it was ridiculously unhealthy. Others will argue that the best smoked meat in Montreal is actually served uptown at Schwartz's (and it's not a point of view I would necessarily disagree with). Still, I have a soft spot for Ben's, not just for its Montreal history (Leonard Cohen was a regular, and luminaries such as Trudeau ate there) but for my own personal history: after all, Ben's was the first downtown restaurant I ate at.

When I was growing up in the West Island of Montreal, I used to go to about three or four Montreal Canadiens hockey games a year, owing to the fact that my dad's employer had season tickets. Going downtown with my father to take in a game was always a treat - in fact, some of my fondest memories of my childhood were those evenings I spent with him at the Forum. My dad wasn't much of a hockey fan, but I was a fanatic, particularly of the Habs (Guy Lafleur was my hero). So when my dad managed to procure tickets, we'd make a full night of it, which usually meant beginning the evening at Ben's to enjoy a succulent smoked meat sandwich (with a side of fries, of course). Even as a pre-teen, I was taken with quaintness of the experience: the brightness of the space, the elderly and stoic waiters with their bow ties, the meat itself spilling out of the rye bread. I loved it!

Our family moved away from Montreal back in the 1980s, but almost every time I went back, a visit to Ben's (and usually Mike's Submarine, also a staple dining experience from my youth) was de rigeur. And it's amazing how little the place changed - it was almost exactly as I remembered it (although I'd usually order a Molson 50 instead of a coke). I haven't been to Montreal for a couple of years, but the next trip (and I have been thinking about going next year for the jazz fest; for one, my fave jazz musician, Keith Jarrett, is scheduled to play with his trio) will just not seem the same without steady Ben's.

Another part of my youth, dismantling.

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