In the late 1970s I was working in Montreal in a small 1960s tower still standing at 1080 Beaver Hall Hill. The street name harks back to Canada’s fur-trading days. Across the street was a typical Montreal tavern, I can’t recall the name now. It served draft and bottled beer and the tavern food of the era, some of which is still served in Montreal.
This tavern was a large room with small round tables and wooden, round-backed “bankers” chairs. The food included hamburger steak, french fries, french fries and gravy (no cheese, this was before poutine), spaghetti, pizza, and “farmer” sausage. There might also be tourtière and other French-Canadian foods, pig’s feet and meat balls in brown sauce, say. There were also small steaks, sandwiches including a club sandwich, and sometimes chicken or meat croquettes. (Croquettes seem to have disappeared from menus everywhere which is a wrong some retro-minded chef should correct soon).
I remember one waiter there, I think he co-owned the tavern. He was medium-height, slim, of calm disposition, with a pencil moustache. He was clad in a black, tuxedo-type outfit, the uniform of the Montreal tavern waiter then. You see similar dress in illustrations of English Victorian restaurants. Most waiters in Montreal by then were francophone but he was “English”. Nonetheless he spoke perfect French, unusual at the time for an “Anglais“. I think he told me he had been a policeman in an earlier career. He was probably 45 at most and could still be living. Like all good waiters he would linger with the clientele to have a chat but was Johnny on the spot when the place was busy.
Beaver Hall Hill is south of what used to be Dorchester Boulevard, and is now boul. René Lévesque, after the late separatist premier of Quebec. On the other side of Dorchester was and is Phillips Square, originally a high-end shopping enclave that served the gentry and merchant classes. You see the Square pictured in the early image above. That’s King Edward VII in the centre and he is still there.
In 1901 a Mr. Krausmann opened a restaurant on the Square’s east side, it was just outside camera range in that image, where the awning is on the right. The concept was a European cafe that mixed German and French influences, which may explain its formal name, the Lorraine Café. By the 1920s and through the second war, Krausmann’s Lorraine Cafe was a noted club venue which specialized in the dinner-and-show, an entertainment genre popular at the time in North America.
In the 1970s, sometimes I went to Krausmann’s too, by then it was just called Krausmann Tavern. I knew nothing of its 75 year history or glory days as a supper club. To me it was just a good tavern with a slightly offbeat menu. The star German dish, maybe the only Teutonic specialty on the menu by then, was the pickled pork knuckles. Perhaps it was from Lorraine, France, as Mr. Krausmann may have been. In fact, I once had a similar dish in Stenay, an old garrison town in Lorraine.
The shanks were brined and spiced, long boiled, and served with plain boiled potato and sauerkraut. It was very good with Labatt 50 or the other light-tasting beers of the time.
I left Montreal in 1983. A few years after Krausmann’s moved from the north side of Dorchester to the south side, taking occupancy where the ex-policeman had his tavern. I never visited that location but knew of the change.
In about 1990 Krausmann’s became Brisket, a restaurant that specializes in Montreal’s famous “smoked meat”, or cured and sliced beef piled high on a sandwich. It’s Montreal’s version of pastrami and corned beef in New York. Smoked meat has Montreal Jewish origins but, like the bagel, has long departed its original precincts to enter the general food scene.
While pickled pork and smoked meat may seem from different universes, both are cured specialties for carnivores. Brisket was new for the locale but in some ways it continued the older heritage.
Yesterday, I was walking down from Phillips Square to Beaver Hall Hill to look at these old haunts and lo there appeared the small, Victorian block of buildings that housed the policeman’s tavern, and then Kraussman’s, and now Brisket.
Men were doing repairs in the doorway. When I explained I had eaten there 40 years earlier, they kindly gave me a tour of the inside as it was closed until evening. It looked different than I remembered but the premises had been modified numerous times since the 1970s. Back then, small frosted glass panes typically formed the window casements in taverns, to prevent looking inside. This was common for Quebec taverns, and was probably required by law.
While the upper windows in the building have changed, look at the sidewalk level: the old frosted glass is still there!
The workmen introduced me to one of the principals, he was working in the kitchen. He was delighted to meet someone who had known Krausmann’s. Indeed the name is remembered in the restaurant’s current name, as Brisket is sub-titled Le Salon Krausmann. Not just that, he told me, improbable as it may seem, that the pig’s knuckle dish of former fame is still served – and follows the original recipe.
Their menu is a good example of how foods of various national origins can combine to form a culinary corpus in a particular area. We see spaghetti, pig’s feet and meat balls, a Middle Eastern dish or two, a hot chicken plate, (many) different poutines, and a range of hamburgers. Note the “Trappist Poutine”, I loved that one.
It’s typical popular fare for Montrealers, and Brisket pretty much covers the gamut. I didn’t get the chance to eat there unfortunately, but it is Stop No. 1 the next time I am in Montreal.
Krausmann’s had to have the pig’s knuckle dish on its menu when it launched in 1901. It is now 2016, and the same dish is still served, a hop and skip from the original location. No one has explained this to the Montreal eating public as far as I know. I doubt there are many other, if any, dishes in Montreal, or Canada for that matter, served continuously for 115 years!
You Montreal foodies on the prowl for the next sensation: go to Brisket and try its historic pork knuckles. Ask for it piping hot so you can see the steam rise as you open it up. Eschew french fries, much less poutine, on the side. You want plain boiled potatoes and sauerkraut. And drink cold blonde lager with it, the house serves Belle Gueule and St-Ambroise beer. It will do just fine, as good or better than Labatt 50.
You will taste quite literally history, not just a very good dish.
Addendum: see my following two blog posts for additional detail on Kraussman’s, including that the family was from Elora, Ontario.