McCord’s Menus, Notes on Imported Beers
The McCord Museum of social history in Montreal is a branch of the city’s internationally-known McGill University. The McCord has placed a fascinating series of restaurant 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.
The collection, under the radar for online collections of digitized menus, mainly takes in Montreal menus from between 1967 and 1969, but some are from earlier, and a few from outside Montreal in Quebec.
They are grouped under the headings transportation, special events, clubs and associations, advertising and promotion, and general. Hospital menus are included, surely an overlooked area of food historical studies.
See here for the index page. One must scroll through each group to view the items, and there is no master list. Some menus are numbered by hand, but not consecutively. Still, it doesn’t take long to go through each group.
The menus were gathered by Shirley Courtis who worked in research at Noranda Mines, a natural resources company, see its history here. I imagine she assisted an executive who collected the menus as a personal interest.
The website identifies specific individuals as the donors, perhaps Noranda executives or others with connections to the company.
Below I discuss the menus in general, with notes on imported beers they featured. These beers are to be distinguished from beers available at the Montreal tavern (la taverne), a male-only resort that sold beers, generally tasting quite alike, made by Quebec-based breweries.
Types of Restaurant and Menus
The restaurants cover classic French style, Québecois (often called then Canadien), seafood, Italian, deli, steakhouse, Chinese, German, Hungarian, and “Continental” or hotel-based.
Some were of modest class but most catered to a high-end market. The scans are high-quality and the colour reproductions equally so. Menu graphical design then was a true art, a tradition from the 19th century, especially for the covers.
Some menus offered detailed historical notes and even recipes. Mother Martin’s menu, from a downtown business restaurant I patronized numerous times, contains an Alsatian recipe. Mother Martin’s specialized in French provincial and Québecois dishes.
Before becoming a restaurant Mother Martin’s (La Mère Martin) was owned by a descendant of the Quebec Hart family, of whom I’ve written for their c. 1800 brewing recipe, perhaps the oldest commercial brewing recipe in North America.
My Personal Connection
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 dined in comparatively few given that most were in the luxe category. I was on a student budget, when dining out was a special occasion.
Nonetheless, I lived in Montreal until 1983 and so had the chance to dine in a few marquee names later, when I was more prosperous, shall we say. In Old Montreal, the historic and tourist section, I recall a memorable meal at Restaurant St. Amable of quail with green grapes. The dish duly appears on St. Amable’s 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 resort between classes or spells at the library.
At the time I habitually swept my eyes over things I never ordered to focus on two or three favourites, usually involving smoked meat. Looking at the menu today I instinctively did the same thing, except it’s 45 years later and Ben’s has long disappeared from the Montreal scene.
A number of restaurants in the group, but only a few, still exist including Moishes Steak House and the Bar-B-Barn, a rib and chicken restaurant.
The Arrival of British-style Pubs
Starting in 1967 with the Cock and Bull a spate of British and Irish pubs opened in Montreal. Two, the Fyfe and Drum and John Bull, were near what is now Concordia University downtown. I frequented them with friends during my years at university, 1967-1975.
My alma mater was McGill but the British-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 having a beer in town we generally went to the tavern, a male-only establishment as noted above. In about 1978 the dual-sex, differently-appointed “brasserie” was created. All new licenses issued could only be for the newer type of establishment. The tavern offered inexpensive drink and food, and was working class- and student-oriented, although some middle class men went as well.
The British-style pubs were a cut or two above and were really themed restaurants, often featuring live music, but those near a university often retained a student ambience.
There must have been a dozen of these pubs in Montreal by the early 1970s. A later entrant, founded 1977, is Chez Alexandre on Peel Street which is still going strong and was instrumental in introducing U.K. imported draft beer. It was founded by an immigrant Frenchman, Alain Creton, who runs it to this day. I saw him there a few years ago and he had hardly changed.*
Then as now, the first floor was a French bistro, and the second floor, a pub, now called John Sleeman Pub.
These pubs were stylized, rather distant versions of the real thing. It was the cultural power of the British pub that appealed – that it was inevitably an interpretation hardly mattered.
These British and Irish pubs were spurred IMO by the highly popular British pub in the U.K. pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67, which I discussed in this post.
Beer in Montreal Restaurants
The most beer-oriented menu is in 1969, from Charlie Brown’s Ale and Chop House, see in Partie III, the third group of the general category. These beers represented a larger selection of imported beer than was usual for the time. The listing appears in the third image above.
An imported, apparently draft beer, brand not stated, was also available at Charlie Brown’s. Perhaps it was Heineken or another international lager rather than an English ale, as Chez Alexandre always claimed to be the first to offer (in the modern era, certainly) draft British beer and Guinness.
Possibly though one of the bottled beers, maybe the customer’s choice, was poured into the large draft-style glasses. To my recollection the British-style pubs only sold bottled beer before Chez Alexandre introduced British draft and Guinness in the early 1980s.
I think Charlie Brown ceased operating around 1970. I will discuss in a future post the Sir Winston Churchill Pub, now called Winnie’s. A popular watering hole, it soldiers on, some 50 years later, in the Crescent Street entertainment district.
Other Restaurants and Beer
Other menus had a smaller selection of the imports Charlie Brown’s featured but except for Harp lager and Pilsner Urquell, it seems Charlie Brown had them all.** A German restaurant advertised Helles and Dunkel by the barrel but these may have been domestic productions. No Quebec brewery then to my knowledge made a dark lager. Maybe for the Dunkel those barrels really dispensed porter, still made at the time by the large Quebec breweries.
Many menus are accompanied by restaurant reviews clipped from the Montreal Gazette or Montreal Star, which adds to their value. Helen Rochester wrote them for the Montreal Star, and her work came to life again through these reviews.
Food reviewers rarely mentioned alcohol due to the “family newspaper” ethos, so her reviews don’t mention beer. Still, they make good reading.
Another beer list of note is from the stylish Kon Tiki at the Mount Royal Hotel, see again in Partie III. The colour reproductions of signature Tiki drinks are stunning with a 1960s, Day-Glo vividness.
Beer was a sideline at Kon-Tiki but still they had Brading from Ontario, a stock ale; Carling, perhaps Red Cap Ale or the lager; Dow ale; Bass ale; Labatt, probably its “50” brand; Molson, this meant the Export Ale then; O’Keefe, an ale; and Guinness. The Brading was an unusual in being sourced from Ontario, probably because the Mount Royal Hotel was a select destination for visiting Ontarians.
(Today the Mount Royal, considerably altered, houses commercial and retail premises).
Some menus listed Guinness as an import but it was made in Canada starting in 1965 as the Labatt history timeline confirms. It was similar for Charrington Toby, which had been brewed in Canada since 1962 as confirmed in Allen Sneath’s book Brewed in Canada. Then, as now, a locally-brewed brand of foreign origin was sometimes touted as imported. I think probably the restaurateurs often did not know the true source, then or indeed today.
Do I remember drinking any of these imported beers? I do remember Whitbread Pale Ale’s sweet grainy character. I remember Danish Tuborg for its elegant, cakey taste. Guinness at the time seemed quite burnt-tasting and unlike any typical Canadian beer.
I must have tried McEwan’s Scotch ale and Bass ale, in fact I have a memory of a scented, amber beer for the Bass. I did enjoy Pilsner Urquell and Beck’s too but remember thinking, even then, the long route to destination did them no favours.
I also recall an English draft beer in an Indian restaurant, early 1980s, and enjoying the combination of flavours. It may have been Watney’s Red Barrel, that type certainly.
Note re images: The images above, except for the last, were sourced from the McCord Museum’s digital menu archive identified and linked in the text. The last image is from Bouteilles du Québec, a bottle-collection site and discussion forum, see here. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*This interview with him last year in a Montreal newspaper explains his durability. The story focused on the French bistro style at Chez Alexandre but in the early years he also ran a pub on the second floor in the British style, or perhaps Parisian-British style. Indeed the interview mentions his innovative role in importing draft beer in Quebec. Creton states his first importation was in 1982. It shows how relatively spare the beer scene was in Quebec then. But a few years later (1986) the first modern brewpub started up, the Golden Lion in Lennoxville, Quebec. Today the province is a craft beer haven. To my best knowledge, the Golden Lion is still going strong, buoyed in part by the local private school, the venerable Bishop’s.
**The Hunter’s Horn downtown offered Harp lager. The “Horn” was a resort of Montreal’s English-language journalists and other media.