Important Montreal Food History (With Notes on Imported Beers c.1970)
The McCord Museum of social history in Montreal, a branch of McGill University, has placed a superb series of menus on its website. They are of great interest to food and drink scholars, collectors of culinary ephemera, and students of Montreal and Canadian history, among other potential users.
The collection is under the radar for known online collections of digitized menus. The McCord’s group mainly takes in Montreal restaurants from 1967-1969, however some menus are from earlier periods and some from outside Montreal.
They are grouped in different ways, by transport category, special events, clubs and associations, advertising and promotion, and a general category comprising six parts. There is even a hospital menu section, surely overlooked in food historical studies: Ph.D prospects in food studies, hark.
The menus were gathered by Shirley Courtis who worked in research for Noranda Mines, a Quebec-based natural resources company, see its history here. I’d imagine, given the lack of an apparent connection to food history, that an executive wanted to collect the menus.
The McCord website states they were donated by specific individuals, perhaps Noranda executives or with some connections to it.
The restaurants cover many categories – classic French, Québecois (then often called Canadien), seafood, Italian, delicatessen, steakhouse, Chinese, German, Hungarian, hotel-based, and more.
There are restaurants of modest type but most tended to the higher end. The scans are high-quality and the colour reproductions often quite stunning. Menu graphical design then was a true art, continuing a tradition from the 19th century, especially for menu covers.
Some of the menus have detailed historical notes and even recipes. Mother Martin’s restaurant, which I patronized numerous times, offers an Alsatian recipe of interest. This restaurant covered French provincial food and some Québecois specialties.
Incidentally, before becoming a restaurant purpose the building housing Mother Martin’s had been owned by a descendant of the Quebec Hart family, of whom I’ve written in terms of their c.1800 brewing recipe. It is probably the oldest published commercial brewing recipe in North America.
In this post I want to talk about the beers that appeared on these menus, especially imported beers. First, let me say I am a native of Montreal and was 19 in 1969, so I lived in the period these restaurants were active and remember almost all the names.
I had dined in a comparative few given most were high-end. I was on a student budget, and grew up middle class when dining out was a special occasion.
Nonetheless as I lived in Montreal until 1983 I had the chance to dine in some marquee names later, when I was more prosperous and sophisticated, shall we say. In Old Montreal, the historic and tourist section, I recall a memorable meal at St. Amable eating quail with green grapes. The dish duly appears on the St. Amable menu in the McCord collection.
It was eerie looking at the menu for Ben’s Delicatessen. Ben’s was near McGill University and a frequent lunch or dinner spot between classes or spells in the library. At the time I habitually swept my eyes over things I never ordered to focus on two or three favourites, usually a smoked meat offering.
Looking at the menu today I instinctively did the same thing, except it’s 45 years later and Ben’s is long disappeared.
A number of restaurants, but very few, still exist including Moishes Steak House and the Bar-B-Barn, a rib and chicken restaurant.
Starting seemingly in 1967 when the Cock and Bull pub opened in Montreal a spate of British and Irish pubs opened. Two were near what is now Concordia University downtown, the Fyfe and Drum and John Bull. I sometimes went to them with friends in my university years of 1967-1975.
My alma mater was McGill but the English-style pubs were further west, near Concordia University, then called Sir George Williams University. So we walked the 15 minutes through the downtown to go there.
When out for beer we generally went to a “tavern”, a male-only establishment until about 1978 when it turned into the differently-appointed “brasserie”. The tavern was cheap both for drink and food, more working class and student-oriented, although many middle class people went too.
The British pubs were a cut above and were really themed restaurants but the two I mentioned retained a student ambience as they were near the Sir George Williams complex.
There must have been a dozen or more of these pubs in Montreal by the early 70s. One of the later arrivals, in 1977, was Chez Alexandre on Peel street which is still there and claimed to bring in the first U.K. imported beer. It was founded by an immigrant Frenchman, Alain Creton, who still runs it to this day. I saw him there a few years ago and he had hardly changed!*
These pubs were stylized, rather distant versions of the real thing. It was the cultural power of the pub idea that appealed, the simulacrum hardly mattered. After all, few knew the real thing anyway. But certainly when I first went to England around 1982 I remember thinking the pubs were completely different at home.
This Canadian pub phenomenon was stimulated in part by the British pub the U.K. featured at Montreal’s Expo ’67 world’s fair, which I wrote about earlier.
See here for the index page of the McCord menu collection. One has to scroll through each group to view them and there is no master list. Some are numbered by hand, but not consecutively so that doesn’t help much. Still, it doesn’t take long to go through each group.
The most beer-oriented menu is the 1969 menu of Charlie Brown’s Ale and Chop House in Partie III, the third group in the general category. The beers on the menu represent a larger-than-typical group of imported beers available in the city at that time. The list appears in the third image above.
The beers were probably available in outlets of the Quebec Liquor Board for retail purchase, that was the pattern at the time.
Charlie Brown’s was noteworthy as well for offering some type of imported draft beer, brand not stated.
Perhaps it was Heineken or another commonly available lager rather than an English ale, as Chez Alexandre always claimed to be the first to import (in the modern era, anyway) British beer and Guinness. Was Charlie Brown being careful when it stated simply “Imported” for the draft, without reference to brand or even the word ale? But another possibility is, there was no draft, the menu does not use that word.
Maybe tankard, half-yard, yard, were simply measures in which bottled beer was poured and charged accordingly.
It appears Charlie Brown had ceased operating by about 1970, certainly when I entered the work force in 1976, it was not in business.
Other menus in the collection offered a smaller selection of the imports featured by Charlie Brown’s but except for Harp lager and Pilsner Urquell, which appear on one or two other menus, I think Charlie Brown had them all.**
I should add that a German restaurant advertised Helles and Dunkel by the barrel but the beer may have been domestically-produced. No Quebec brewery then to my knowledge made a dark lager. Maybe those barrels really dispensed porter, which was still made.
Many menus are accompanied by restaurant reviews clipped out of the Montreal Gazette or Montreal Star. This adds a lot to their value. Helen Rochester wrote these for the Montreal Star which I read all the years I lived in Montreal. Her work came to life again through these reviews.
Reviewers rarely mentioned alcohol of any kind then due to the “family newspaper” ethos that prevailed, so her reviews of pubs and the German restaurants don’t mention beer, sadly. Still, they make good reading.
I’ll mention one more beer list diverse for its time, from the stylish Kon Tiki in the former Mount Royal Hotel, also in Partie III. The colour reproductions of its signature tiki drinks are stunning with a 1960s Day-Glo vividness.
Beer was a sideline, but still Kon-Tiki offered Brading from Ontario, a stock ale type; Carling, probably Red Cap Ale but perhaps the lager; Dow ale; Bass ale; Labatt, the 50 brand surely; Molson – this meant the Export Ale then; O’Keefe, an ale; and Guinness. The Brading was an unusual non-Quebec Canadian beer, probably because the Mount Royal Hotel attracted many visitors from Ontario.
Some menus list Guinness as an import but it was brewed in Canada starting in 1965 as Labatt’s history timeline confirms. Ditto for Charrington Toby, it had been brewed in Canada since 1962, see Allen Sneath’s Canadian brewing history, Brewed in Canada. Then, as now, a locally brewed foreign brand was sometimes billed as imported. I think often the restaurateurs hadn’t a clue either way.
I will discuss in a future post the Sir Winston Churchill Pub, now called Winnie’s. It soldiers on, some 50 years later, in the Crescent Street entertainment district as a popular watering hole.
Last point: do I remember drinking any of those imported beers? I remember Whitbread Pale Ale’s chewy, sweet grainy character. I remember Tuborg for its elegant, cakey taste. Guinness at the time seemed quite burnt-tasting and unlike any usual Canadian beer.
I must have bought McEwan’s Scotch ale and Bass. I did enjoy Pilsner Urquell and Beck’s too but remember thinking, even then, that the long route to destination often did them no favours.
I also recall an English draft beer (keg) of some kind, c.1978 in an Indian restaurant, a combination that immediately struck me as brilliant.
Note re images: The source of the images above, except for the last is the McCord Museum’s digital menu archive as identified and linked in the text. The last image was sourced from the Bouteilles du Québec site, a bottle-collection site and discussion forum, see here. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*This interview last year (in French) in a Montreal newspaper with Alain Creton explains some of the reasons for his durability. The story focuses on the French bistro nature of Chez Alexandre but in the initial years, he ran a pub on the second floor with an English aspect. Indeed the interview mentions his apparently innovative role in importing draft beer in Quebec. I found of particular interest that Creton states his first importation was 1982, I’d have thought it was earlier, but apparently not. It shows at a minimum how relatively minimal the quality beer scene was in Quebec then. It was only a few years later though (1986) that the first brewpub started up, the Golden Lion in Lennoxville, Quebec. Today the province is a craft beer haven. To my best knowledge, Golden Lion is still going strong, buoyed in part by a local private school, the venerable Bishop’s.
**The Hunter’s Horn offered the Harp lager. This pub was a resort of Montreal’s English-language journalists and other media.