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PIGLETS AND RESTAURANTS

In Montreal’s restaurant business, you really needed a gimmick

PAUL WELLS September 5 2005
The Back Page

PIGLETS AND RESTAURANTS

In Montreal’s restaurant business, you really needed a gimmick

PAUL WELLS September 5 2005

PIGLETS AND RESTAURANTS

The Back Page

In Montreal’s restaurant business, you really needed a gimmick

PAUL WELLS

PEOPLE DON’T REMEMBER how tough it was back then. The restaurant business was more competitive in Montreal in the 1950s and ’60s than in any other town in Canada. You needed a gimmick, a hook. After Davey Radler’s pop started with the piglets, it kind of set a new standard. Where’s the running piglets, people would say.

You’d go to one of the big banks on St. James Street in your best suit, looking for a loan. But if you didn’t have a gimmick, the loan officer would just stare at you. Then he’d shrug.

“As we began to talk, it came out that [David Radler’s] father had owned Au Lutin Qui Bouffe, a popular Montreal restaurant in the 1960s that attracted patrons by having tiny piglets run around the floor.”

— Peter C. Newman, Maclean’s, Aug. 29,2005

“I don’t see any running piglets here,” he’d say. And that was how you knew you wouldn’t be getting a loan.

You couldn’t blame the bank guy. He was just protecting his investment. A restaurant without something special just wouldn’t last. If you just wanted to put out a nice plate of penne with some chianti and maybe a bowl of spicy olives, you were dead. Dead.

Nate Federhoff started it all. Restaurants in Montreal were all pretty much the same in those days, until Eaton’s hired Nate to manage that fancy dining room they used to have on the top floor. This was in maybe 1954. First thing Nate does, he changes the name. Before, it was just the dining room at Eaton’s. Now it was Au Castor qui Déçoit. We all laughed. Look who’s putting on airs. But that first weekend Nate had to turn the clients away, it was so busy. That sure wiped the smirks off our faces.

Still Nate wasn’t satisfied. After two months he bought a stuffed penguin from a flea market in Knowlton for $7. I’ll never forget it. He brings this penguin in to Eaton’s and

parks it up front so it’s standing beside the maître d’ when you walk in. People went crazy for that stuffed penguin. There were lineups down two flights of stairs. People standing in Bedding and Linens waiting to get upstairs for a meal.

But you remember how Nate was. Enough was never enough for that guy. Two months after the penguin, he hired the blind guy who played the spoons. That kicked off

the big riot that put him out of business for good.

Still, we’d all learned our lesson. After the name change and the penguin, you couldn’t just run an ordinary restaurant with an ordinary name any more in Montreal. Tommy Calabrese caught on real quick. He’d been running this sleepy little lasagna joint on Mountain Street called Chez Calabrese. One day I’m walking past his place and he’s put a new sign up, Au Lapin qui Devrait se Calmer. I look in the window and Tommy’s hired three of those Shriner guys in their little cars to drive around between the tables.

Well, you know the rest of the story. By 1960, Tommy was rich as thieves. “I’m tellin’ ya, Dutch,” he said to me once, “the idea just popped into my head. Shriner cars! Shriner cars!” In no time, he’d opened new locations in St. Leonard and Chomedey. Always with the Shriner cars. People ate it up. Pretty soon Tommy was spending $200 a month just on those little hats they wore with the tassles. They kept flying off. Those Shriners, they drove fast.

By now we were in the legendary days of the Montreal restaurant business. You didn’t only need a gimmick, you needed a good one. Clowns with balloons wouldn’t do it. Jimmy “Pants” Lafleur opened a Chinese restaurant on Panet called La Dégringolade du Prêtre. Jimmy’s hook was that every fourth plate he served was actually crawling with live spiders. Pretty soon the mayor was a regular there. But that only lasted until Nicky Voukalatis opened that steakhouse with the hidden trapdoors, Au Pilote Endormi. One time Pierre Trudeau was having lunch in a comer booth with Jean Lesage, debating transport policy, and just as Lesage started raising his voice, the trapdoor opened under him and he fell right through the floor! Boy, after that, you couldn’t keep Lesage away from that place with a stick.

I’m not sure when the golden age ended. Some folks trace it back to that business with the alcoholic knife thrower at Au Sénateur Gonflable in ’71. Me, I think it was already over before that.

Leave it to Patty O’Hearn to ruin a good idea. When he opened that combination crêpe joint and maternity ward on Ste. Catherine Street in ’69, the public just turned on him. I’ll never forget that classic line from Vic Vogel: “Are you sure it’s bechamel sauce?”

Patty died broke a couple of years later. The golden years never last. [’ll

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