The McCord’s fab Menus

McCord’s Collection

The McCord Museum of social history in Montreal is a branch of the city’s internationally-known McGill University. The McCord has archived, including on its website, a fascinating series of historic Canadian restaurant menus. These are of great interest to food and drink historians, collectors of culinary ephemera, and students of Montreal and Canadian history.

The collection, somewhat under the radar, mainly takes in Montreal restaurant menus between 1967 and 1969. Some predate that period, and a few are from restaurants outside Montreal (in Quebec Province).

The collection is organised under the headings Transportation, Special Events, Clubs and Associations, Advertising and Promotion, and General. Hospital menus are included, an overlooked area in 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 are not consecutive. Still, it doesn’t take long to review each group.

The menus were gathered by Shirley Courtis who worked in the research department at Noranda Mines, see its history here. I imagine she assisted an executive who collected the menus as a pastime, as the subject matter has no apparent connection to Noranda’s business.

The website identifies various individuals as donors, probably Noranda executives or others with connections to Courtis or her boss.

Below, I discuss the menus in general, with notes on the imported beers they featured. These beers are to be distinguished from beers at the Montreal tavern of the era (la taverne), a male-only resort that sold beers brewed in Quebec.

Restaurant Types and Menus

The restaurants cover classic French cuisine, Québécois dishes (often then called Canadien), seafood, Italian, deli, steakhouse, Chinese, German, Hungarian, and Continental/hotel cuisine.

Some restaurants were of modest class but most catered to a high-end market. The scans are high-quality and the colour reproductions often striking. Menu graphical design then was an art, a tradition descended from the 19th century, now mostly lost.

Some menus contain historical notes and even recipes. Mother Martin’s menu, from a downtown business restaurant I patronized numerous times, offers a recipe from Alsace. Mother Martin’s specialized in French provincial and Québécois food.

The building that housed Mother Martin’s (La Mère Martin) earlier had been owned by a descendant of the Quebec Harts, of whom I have written for their c. 1800 brewing recipe. It is perhaps the oldest surviving commercial brewing recipe in North America.

My Personal Connection

I am a native of Montreal, and was 19 in 1969, so I lived when these restaurants were active and remember most of the names.

I dined in comparatively few given most were in the luxe category – I was on a student budget, and dining out was a special occasion.

Nonetheless having lived in Montreal until 1983 I had the chance to visit a few marquee names. This was after I started working, and was more prosperous. In Old Montreal, the historic and tourist section, I recall a memorable meal at Restaurant St. Amable, quail with green grapes. The dish duly appears on the St. Amable menu in McCord’s collection. Seeing it caused a frisson after all these years.

It was eerie too examining the menu for Ben’s Delicatessen. Ben’s was near McGill University and a frequent lunch or dinner destination between classes, or spells at the library.

In Ben’s I would sweep my eyes over things I never ordered to focus on two or three favourites, usually involving Montreal’s specialty of smoked meat (corned or salt beef). Looking at the menu today I instinctively did the same thing, except it’s 45 years later and Ben’s has long disappeared!

Some restaurants in the collection still exist but only a few. Moishes Steak House and the Bar-B-Barn, a rib and chicken restaurant, still continue but few if any others.

British-style Pubs Invade

Starting in 1967 with the Cock and Bull Pub on Ste. Catherine Street West a spate of British- and Irish-style pubs arrived. Two, the Fyfe and Drum and the John Bull, were near what is now Concordia University downtown. I patronized them during my years at university, 1967-1975.

My alma mater is McGill, and the British-style pubs were further west, near Concordia University (then called Sir George Williams University). We walked the 15 minutes through downtown to get there.

When having a beer out we generally went to the tavern, a male-only establishment as noted above. In about 1978 the dual-sex, differently-appointed “brasserie” was created. New licenses could only be issued for this newer type of beer parlour. The older type offered simpler drink and food and only basic atmosphere, intended for a working class/clerical or student clientele. The tavern was destined to disappear, an index of changing times.

The British-style pubs were a cut or two above these others and were really themed restaurants, often featuring live music.

There must have been a dozen by the early 1970s. A later entrant, founded in 1977, is Chez Alexandre on Peel Street which is still going strong. It was instrumental in introducing British draft beer to Montreal. 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 has hardly changed.*

Then as now the first floor of Alexandre was a French bistro. The second floor was the pub, now called John Sleeman Pub.

These pubs were stylized, rather distant interpretations of the real thing. The potent cultural power of the “British pub” drew the people, the rest mattered little.

These facsimile pubs were spurred IMO by the highly popular British pub at Montreal’s Expo ’67, which I discussed in this post.

Beer in Montreal Restaurants

The most beer-oriented menu in the McCord is from 1969, for Charlie Brown’s Ale and Chop House, see Partie III, group #3 of the general category. The beer list is shown in the third image above.

A 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 (in modern times anyway) to offer draft British beer and Guinness stout.

Charlie Brown ceased operating about 1970, but had an enduring influence. 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 featured fewer imports than Charlie Brown. Except it seems for Irish Harp lager and famed Pilsner Urquell it seems Charlie Brown had them all.** A German restaurant downtown advertised Helles and Dunkel in the barrel but these may have been domestic brewings. No Quebec brewery then to my knowledge made a dark lager. Maybe the Dunkel in those barrels was really porter, still made at the time by Canadian breweries.

Many menus are accompanied by restaurant reviews clipped from the Montreal Gazette or Montreal Star, which adds to their interest. Helen Rochester wrote these for the Montreal Star, and her work came to life again many decades later.

Restaurant reviewers in the dailies then rarely mentioned alcohol so no form is discussed.

Another beer list of note was at the stylish Kon Tiki at the Mount Royal Hotel, see again in Partie III. The colour reproductions of its signature Tiki drinks are quite stunning with Day-Glo vividness.

Beer was a sideline at the Kon-Tiki but still the bar offered Brading Ale from Ontario, an old-style stock ale; Carling, either Red Cap Ale or the lager; Dow Ale; Bass Ale; Labatt’s, probably the “50” brand; Molson, this meant Export Ale then; O’Keefe, an ale; and Guinness stout. Brading was unusual being from Ontario. Any non-import beer then in Montreal usually was brewed in Quebec.

The Mount Royal attracted visitors from Ontario, hence probably this choice. The Carling may have been brewed in Ontario too.

(Today the hotel, considerably altered, is commercial and retail premises).

Some menus list bottled Guinness stout as an import but that form was made in Canada starting in 1965 as a Labatt historical timeline confirms. Ditto for Charrington Toby Ale, first brewed in Canada in 1962 as Allen Sneath confirms in his book Brewed in Canada. Then, as now, a locally-brewed beer of foreign origin might be touted as imported. The restaurateurs themselves hardly knew the difference, or cared, in most cases.

Envoi

Do I remember any of these imported brews? I do. I remember Whitbread Pale Ale’s sweet grainy character. I remember Danish Tuborg for its elegant, cakey taste. Bottled Guinness at the time (well, technically not an import) seemed burnt-tasting and quite unlike any Canadian beer I knew.

I have a memory of a scented, amber beer for the Bass Ale. I enjoyed Czech Pilsner Urquell and German Beck’s but remember thinking, even then, the wending route to destination did them no favours.

I also recall British draft beer in an Indian restaurant in the early 1980s, and enjoying the match with the food. It may have been Watney Red Barrel Ale, that type, certainly. The Worthington name rings a bell too, 40 plus years on.

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.

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*This interview with Creton last year in a Montreal newspaper explains his durability. Creton states that his first importation of beer was in 1982. It shows how relatively meagre was the beer scene 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 knowledge the Golden Lion is still going strong, buoyed by venerable Bishop’s University nearby.

**The Hunter’s Horn downtown, vaguely in the Irish genre, offered Harp lager. The “Horn” was a resort of Montreal’s English-language journalists and other media.