Those were the days…

Vancouver-based Brian Nation reminisces on his blog about a beery Montreal summer night in 1967 when he and a few friends enjoyed the company of the likes of poets Robert Lowell, George Barker, and Robert Creeley. The venue was the long-gone but well-storied Swiss Hut on Sherbrooke Street, near Ave. du Parc.

I’ve seen many references to the fabled Swiss Hut over the years. In the 1960s, it seems, there were fewer choices when it came to boozy libations. There were plenty of seedy taverns — for men only — and a number of music venues that sold drinks in the evenings (after you paid a cover charge to get in), but not so many places where you could go for just a sociable and civilized drink or three.

For some reason the Swiss Hut — which I assume was a licensed restaurant, not a bar — became a popular spot for what today we might call “the alternative crowd.” Hippies, draft dodgers, poets, pundits, gadflies, commies, and separatists all gathered at the Swiss Hut — most likely in separate booths — to drink beer, scheme their schemes, and generally thumb their noses at the dull ordinaries.

What a time that must have been. I feel nostalgic for those days even though I wasn’t even there — I was far too young and far too distant. Still, those references. You can’t read a ballsy book about Montreal in the 1960s without finding a couple of them, maybe a lot.

For example, there’s an obscure book by Ronald Lee called “Goddam Gypsy,” which is part novel, part memoir, and all cocksure swagger from a self-proclaimed Montreal Romani. While the book is no great feat of literature, it did provide me with an understanding of the Roma, where they come from, and what they’re about, despite (or perhaps in spite of) Lee’s gushing boosterism.

There were many scenes in that book in which the bell-bottomed and bekerchiefed Lee repaired to the Swiss Hut to lecture some ignoramus or other about the high moral qualities of that Roma who just picked his pocket, and how the sudden loss of his wallet was his own damn fault as he had let the obviously superior Roma gentleman (or woman, or child) outsmart him.

All this talk of a fabled restaurant makes me wonder if such a place exists today. Sure, we have many hip places where smart and odd and daring people meet, but are any of them legendary? Or will they ever be? Perhaps the problem is that we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to bars, cafes, and pubs. So many that the movers and shakers of our generation are too widely distributed across them to make any one of them stand out.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’d rather have too many bars than not enough — especially since, as I get older, I am becoming more and more disdainful of noisy crowds. But still, there’s a part of me that wishes I could go back in time for a couple of weeks and hang out at the Swiss Hut with all those poets and gypsies and other n’er do wells (many of whom did rather well).

On the other hand, I’d likely be disappointed. It probably wasn’t the beehive of activity I like to imagine. History and nostalgia have a way of compressing things while at the same time expanding them. Back then, the denizens of the Swiss Hut probably had no sense of the one-day legendary status of their hangout. All they were doing was sitting there, drinking beer, smoking, and talking — and probably wishing there were a few more watering holes around.

26 thoughts on “Those were the days…

  1. Another place I’ve heard stories about from those days was the Bistro on de la Montagne, or – as it was almost certainly called back then – Mountain Street.

    Nowadays I imagine it depends what your scene is. Les Foufounes has an almost legendary cachet for some, Le Bifteck for others. They’d turn up in any memoir of the indie music scene, as would Casa del Popolo, probably. But bohemian conversation cafés? La Cabane??

  2. Howdy!

    You’re all getting old. There have been and will continue to be tons of places like the Swiss Hut, the Rainbow, etc. All it takes for a place to become “legendary.” Is for some not half-bad writer to wax nostalgic for their school days.

    The older the writer is, the less familiarity the reader has with the subject.

    Depending on who you’re talking to we could add the following:

    Cabaret du Mado, Stornaway, the Blue Angel, Les Folies du Large, the American Tavern, Vehicule, Nantha’s, DiSalvio’s, what the heck was it called before DiSalvio’s (with the Aardvark)? and with a little research into back issues of the Mirror and Voir I could come up with scads more.

    Ed, you make the point thusly “I could go back in time for a couple of weeks…” You don’t do that sort of stuff anymore, you still can, but as you say you’re “more disdainful of noisy crowds.” Start writing about where you hung out when you were 22, and make it legendary. Or conversely, get your butt outa the suburbs, and start showing up late for work, and you’ll find what will become legendary, now.

    Then, to attack the question of what is legendary now?
    Barfly, Casa, Divan Orange, Foufes, Laika, Cafe Campus, Bily Kun, Le Boudoir, Chez Baptiste, Inspector Epingle, and there are others.

  3. I find that the Cock ‘n Bull still fulfills those requirements; you’ve got your ole tyme bar flies, your displaced Brits and Brit wannabes, occasional students spending their last few bucks on a pint, pretty good chinese food (not kidding), drunk uni profs bitter about not becoming more renowned, etc. Granted, you’ll get your underaged crowd on Friday nights, but they all hang around the pool table.
    I haven’t been in a while, but it’s nice to know that I can walk in and still recognise some of the patrons.
    Two bars, now defunct, that I completely miss are Tavern American and another one, but can’t remember the name; it was on Guy, just north of Ste-Catherine. They tore it down in the late ’80s, for a development project that never went up, so it’s now just an empty lot across from the metro station.
    And let us not forget Café du Poète.

  4. I’ll never forget Café du Poète! But I wouldn’t say it was legendary.

    There are, of course, plenty of notorious bars around, but the question remains — in 20 or 30 years from now, will anyone remember them? Will there be any folklore or nostalgia for any of them? Will any be known as the former hangout of by-then famous people?

    Kate makes an excellent point about the Bifteck. Heck, even I spent time there in the 90s, but because I’m not in a band, I didn’t have a big sense of its status as an indie band hangout. I knew it was, but I didn’t feel it because I wasn’t directly a part of it.

    And that’s one of the points I was trying to make, vis-a-vis the Swiss Hut. At the time, people probably didn’t think that in 30 years time, people would still be talking about it.

    Zeke is correct too, in that legends are not naturally occuring — they are human-made. While no place I hung out when I was 22 is worth mentioning, all it would take is a handful of people to start blogging and journalizing about the Copa in the 90s, or Else’s, for example, and the seeds of a legend would be born. To really flourish, however, it would need names. Famous people who say they were there at the time. While a few local notables were regulars at both the Copa and Else’s, none are yet “famous,” although perhaps its just a matter of time.

  5. The place on Guy above Ste-Catherine was the Royal Pub, and I still miss that damn place.

    If I had to pick just one contemporary joint as having a future as a legendary hangout I’d pick Barfly, if only because so many bands play their first gig there that some famous players are bound to be among them.

    But there are other reasons: the regular musical features such as house blues bands and bluegrass night; Peter Mika playing that old upright piano; the outwardly hardbitten but actually soft-hearted coterie of regulars; Anthony’s gruff Habs-mania (and the savvy blend of sports-bar kitsch with alterna-dive unadornment). Not to mention the sometimes-legendary anniversary parties, free pool in the age of everything-for-a-price, the lone magnificent maple tree in a very shady and grungy backyard…(it’s been a while since I dropped in; that tree better still be there).

    If I still smoked, I’d be there way more often. (And I’d be willing to wager that when the smoking ban comes down, the place will gain momentary notoriety as a Smokers’ Last Stand.)

    That’s if I had to pick just one. There are others that will be long-remembered, too.

  6. nick auf de mar made else’s his home every weekend afternoon, vic vogel can be caught there often enough, along with throngs of other local mini-celebs (gazette writers, artists, dancers)…

    but barfly is what you want if you want to wax nostalgic now about a place filled with storied regulars, drinkers, musicians, poets, failed and accomplished intellectuals, punks, rockabillies, puking students and stoned mothers, dogs, rugby players and madmen, trained clowns & acrobats, old geezers and pimply teens … one problem you face is (anglo) montreal’s inability to produce (or lack of interest in) stars. no one has yet replaced richler at grumpys(?), who: yann martel? andrew steinmetz?

    My theory is that (anglo) Montreal is in a glorious transition from power to fringe, and that in about 5 years you’ll see a host of new writing, film, art (music is already there, I’m told) exploring this voluntary internal-exile in a paradise that is home.

  7. Depends what you mean as “legendary.” There’s Stanley Pub, La Skala on Park. Had another one in mind, but it slipped through the cracks of my memory.

    Funny, visiting before I came to live here, I found a whole bunch of interesting old men who seemed to have written for the “Village Voice” in their youth. Lots of Quebec sculptors or wannabes hung out on the back terrace of “Bar St. Sulpice,” but I can’t find anyone like that in those places anymore. Probably because I don’t inhabit them the way I used to.

  8. Woo hoo, those anniversary parties at Barfly! Actually, I’ve only been to one, about five years ago. Fidget was launching a CD I think, and there was a birthday cake going around that had been laced with “herbs.”

    I remember seeing Nick at Else’s a lot on Sundays, often with the Gazette crowd, but just as often by himself at the bar with a stack of papers. It didn’t seem like any kind of beehive though — more like a bunch of guys griping about work and looking for some quiet time away from their spouses.

    Skala is something else, too. One of my booze buddies used to live right across the street so we’d land there now and then. Quite the place.

    Nobody has mentioned Bar St-Laurent (BSL) yet. That place was quite hopping in its heyday. I was never a regular.

  9. I think I was at that same party, Blork. According to the young lady who baked that cake, the special ingredient was fungal — but you couldn’t taste anything shroomy about it. (It wasn’t especially strong, either.) I don’t think I’ve been to all the anniversary parties since, but the ones I have been to were all low-key by comparison. I wandered into the most recent one and didn’t even know it until I paid up and the beer was $3/pint.

    BSL may or may not go down as legendary, but I suspect that strip as a whole stands a chance, with the Copa as the anchor. One late, lamented establishment was the Double Deuce, which is where a lot of the Barfly regulars used to hang out. I didn’t know the Deuce myself, but the stories always seemed to be extra-wild. (The space is right above the Copa, now occupied by Korova.)

  10. The Suiss Hut was a barbacue chicken place on Sherbrooke St. W opposite Durocher Ave. They had great fries and served lots of beer. It was patronised by students from L’ecole des beaux arts, beatniks and later hippies, artists, bums, and other low caste members of montreal society. Its main attraction was the beer was cheep and they asked no questions (age). Everybody sat in wooden booths and hung their coats on the primitively carved wooden hands which protruded claw-like from the side of the booth. Another benefit was they closed around 3:30 AM. I hung out there in the early to late 60’s. If you were bored, you went there because there was always somone you would know. Most of the patrons and regulars never seemed to go home. There was a front room where most of the patrons would be eating their chicken but there was a back room consisting of about 15-20 booths filled with people drinking beer which was served in bottles by the quart. I heard about it from my older brother who hung out there in the 50’s. he was a student at l’école des beaux arts and thats where all the students hung out. Over the years it began to attract other groups of misfits and miscreants. I had fond memories of this place but alas it was torn down, I think in the seventies to make way for a hotel.

  11. I think the thing about places like Swiss Hut is
    that they didn’t set out to be “hip” places. It’s
    jarring to me to hear the names and descriptions and
    then discover they are being talked about because
    they were full of interesting people.

    Some of the places Kate mentions were set up to
    be “hip” from the beginning, so you expect to
    find musicians and the like there. But these
    other places were hangouts because they were
    convenient, or cheap, or were tolerant of
    people hanging around without spending much
    money. They are remembered because of the people,
    not because of the atmosphere without those
    people.

    Michael

  12. I lived in Montreal off and on in the sixties and when I was there I was at the Hut every night, as were a large number of my pals and cronies. David’s wrong about the hours. I know they didn’t stay open till 3:30 AM because I knew the closing times of several bars that some of us would go to one after the other as they closed. The Hut was always followed, (at 1 or 1:30 when they closed) by the Spanish Club (Casa Espagnol) which had flamenco music and dancers and was frequented by a more mixed English and French (and Spanish, of course) crowd which included Leonard Cohen, Andre Major, et al, and a gorgeous bombshell named, no kidding, Booby – for good reason. Or reasons, I should say. As I left Montreal in 67 I have no knowledge of other, more recent clubs, or their status as “legendary”. In my opinion a place can’t be legendary until everybody that went there is dead.

    I’m pretty sure the Bistro was on Crescent St but I could be wrong about that. I usually started out there before heading to the Hut. Actually, I’d start out in any convenient tavern where beer was cheapest but no women were allowed. Beer was a dime a glass so I’d quickly down a whack of them before heading to the real bars for socializing and whatnot. I’d be pretty well hammered by the time I got to the bars so saved considerable money by getting started in a tavern.

    Other hangouts from my youth are El Cortijo and La Paloma, in the same block on Clark, just south of Sherbrooke. One of them became Club Sarajevo or something, which I only know about because jazz musicians I know have played there. Stanley Street had a number of great coffee houses. The Pam Pam was one. There was one called “La Place” where Sun Ra played for the six or so month period that he lived in Montreal in the early sixties. The Seven Steps (later the Potpourri) was a bookshop on Stanley with a coffee house in back. Bob Dylan may be the most illustrious of the many folk artists that played there. This was very early in his career. 1962 or 63, I think. Whew . . don’t get me started on the folk clubs. That’s a whole other chapter.

    Speaking of de la Montagne, or – as it was almost certainly called back then – Mountain Street do many people realize the street was named for the Rev Jehosaphat Mountain and not the mountain. That name change is another example of Soviet style revision of history for dubious political reasons . . . well, I won’t go there right now.

  13. Wow! Do these postings bring back a pack of memories! The Seven Steps became the Rainbow Bar & Grill. Count the steps. Oh, no! It’s part of the “Y” now. Even Nuriev went to the Swiss Hut. The Black Cat was on the corner of Sherbrooke and Jeanne Mance. I dodged guys with hard-ons the size of Mount Royal on that dance floor. I was trying to remember the name of the Spanish Club where all the deep-thought politicos that I knew hung out and where I said goodbye to my ex in a hale of barf projectiles. And they ate at the Byzantium on Parc or the Rosemarie on Stanley where the Alcan building now stands. The Black Door coffee house had 10 cent sandwiches and coffee for lunch; and 25 cent hot lunches. You had to hurry. It was only open for two hours. I walked into La Bodega one day and found the whole of the RCM (you know, the front for the FLQ that tried to oust Jean Drapeau before he bankrupted the city) sitting in silence. And sitting incongruously amongst these French, English and Jewish political intellectuals was one of the somewhat aging, well-nourished floozies seemed to get Nick auf der Mauer’s moxie going. I preferred El Gitano’s, however, where I sat for a year until I was crowded out by well-dressed Bourgois(es). These établissements were mostly east of McGill. The places that I knew of could be divided by being east or west of McGill. On the west side were the “upscale” eateries like the Hungarian Carmen, Rosemarie, and Pam Pam (purveyors of cake made from nut flour and cherry soup). “An expresso allongé, my dear, with a slice of halzelnut torte.” What was the name of the sister restaurant to the Carmen? It was the Swiss something. The Bistro was on Crescent with the Coffee Mill right next door. The Café Prague was below de Maisonneuve. The man who owned it was actually a Sudetenland German, one of the many displaced people who rolled through Montreal in the 40s and 50s, sparkling for a few years, maybe even a decade, and then rolling on. Of all of these places, and these were only a few, Mazurka’s and the Café Campus still remain. It’s ironic they’re both on the same street now. The Café Campus was kicked off of Queen Mary when it finally became too raucous for that street. I don’t know how it could have gotten more raucous. Even in my time, it was known for couples making out on the dance floor, and it was even rumored that some lucky couple had made love during one inspiring tune.

  14. The Seven Steps was bought by French-Canadian folk artist Jacques Labreque and then by Gary Eisencraft who turned it into the New Penelope which later moved to Sherbrooke, next to the Swiss Hut!!!

  15. Frabjous — hardons the size of Mount Royal?? You mean the owners thought they had a glorious peak, but everyone else just saw a little rise?

    Also, was el Gitano the less than stellar Spanish restaurant of the same name that still survives on Parc near Milton? (Disclaimer: I don’t want to trash a place based on one visit, but it was really a disaster the one time I went about two years ago. Still, it could have been an off night, since they just keep going, and going…)

  16. El Gitano and La Bodega are both still there, on Ave. du Parc (or at least they were a few months ago). I keep getting them mixed up — I’ve been to the larger one, on the west side (south of Milton) and it was OK but not stellar. I think that’s La Bodega. Never been to the other one (east side, north of Milton).

  17. El Gitano is the smallish one on the east side. Aaaah, memories of bone-dry paella with rubber shrimp and leathery mussels… I think La Bodega closed down recently, but I’m not sure; will remember to have a look next time I’m in the area. Not that it matters, since that kind of rustic Spanish cooking is done to my liking at places like Don Miguel, the Spanish Club and the Sala Rossa. Sorry, bit of a tangent…

  18. This interests me primarily because my British mother and Ontarian father met at Loyola College in 1967… and conceived me. I have now moved here and am desperately looking for an apt. (If anyone can help, email chercheplateauappartement@hotmail.com) Anyway, it is highly unlikely, but remotely possible, that you knew my parents… hey, perhaps you were instrumental in my conception!

  19. Well, I certainly wasn’t — I was only seven years old at the time and lived 1000 miles away! But some of the others commenting here might have.

    Finding an apartment on the Plateau can be tough. Good luck!

  20. I think if you’re updating this to later dates BSL would definitely count from the mid-80s until about 94-95 or so. In the mid- to late-80s though it was the place to go on the Main. In my mind Bifteck took over from BSL, with quite a bit of overlap, in the early 90s, when BSL fractured with BSL 2 up on the corner of Bernard or St Viateur or whichever it is.

    There’s always the Copa as well, but one that shouldn’t be forgotten is Bar G-Sharp, which of course was the bar that used to be in the space Barfly now occupies. Gary Sharp was a legend and tons of folks played there in the day.

    Also in the mid-90s for a brief period was a place that enjoyed a lot of notoriety – Monkey House, on Roy at St-Dominique. I had always been partial to bluegrass and country, but I remember that it was at the ‘House where I first heard ex-punks playing the old tunes, and doing it very very well. I think the lineup was called the Royal Mountain Jamboree, and it featured a lot of well-known musicians from other bands including the Snitches and others. Matt from Barfly was one of the bartenders.

    Any recent history would be remiss if it didn’t include some mention of Bistro 4, where Laika is today. Several of Rufus and Martha Wainwright’s first shows were there at Jake Brown’s YAWP events, and I remember standing by the bar at the back chatting with their mother about Rufus’ burgeoning career. And that’s not to ignore Knurl. No, not for a second.

  21. There was a club across from the Hut, I think, & up the block a bit called the Casa d’Espagnol. My memory of it’s a bit hazy – it was a place that stayed open even later than the Hut. I have vague recollections of a Spanish dancer (male) – think it might be where I learned to dislike flamenco!

  22. Dear Blork
    I came across Brian Nation’s and your comments on the Swiss Hut after idle searching for old times from when I was a Canadian ” immigrant landed/ recu”.
    I lived next to the Swiss Hut for a few months in 1966; for a few weeks in January / February and a month or so in the summer. It becomes a strange tale, but it was a pivotal moment which has put Montreal at the centre of my consciousness for a lifetime. I couldn’t stay on in Canada and had to go back to Blighty to get educated. However, it might be worth including in your chain of comments to illustrate the nature of one of the British hanging about Sherbrooke Street and Mount Royal in the sixties.
    At age 18 I was in a dead-end physical job in the English Midlands in 1963. I was hanging out with a gang – getting caught up in violence, beer and motorbikes. I’d got to Grammar School at 11+, (God knows how), but as I was from a really poor coal mining family, 7 of us, I couldn’t put it to use, so I left school with no qualifications. I applied to the Canadian Government to emigrate as a trained foundryman and they paid for me to fly out to join my aunt in Laval des Rapides. I had never met her before, and for various reasons I couldn’t adapt easily and I left to find work in 1965 in Schefferville PQ in the iron ore mines.

    There I met McGill arts students who were resitting papers and working temporarily for the Iron Ore Company of Canada. What was amazing was that, as in the Montreal suburbs, these people treated me as an intellectual equal and a drinking companion. In my home town even the pubs were segregated on a class basis, – I’d never met a university student. At my grammar school, in the late 50s, upper class school prefects were entitled to beat you with your indoor shoe for various misdemeanours.

    An upper class Mcgill student called Charles Douglas Sauer befriended me in Schefferville, I think his Dad was a famous geographer, perhaps from the States, and a fantastically generous student at UBC, ( who I can only remember as named Dennis from Knockmaroon Road in West Vancouver,) both said look me up when you get out of the bush.

    The next year, I looked up Chuck Sauer at McGill and he found me a place to sleep at 410 Sherbrooke Street with other students, including British, right next to the Swiss Hut, were we all drank regularly. Somebody found me an ID card so I could wander around the campus and go to classes if I wanted to, – which I did – it was fabulous.
    I know the Beatles were big at this time but this was filoxenia that the Greeks would marvel at.
    There’s more to this story but thanks for the opportunity to write down this bit.
    With best wishes from retirement in Wales,
    Joe.

  23. Grumpy’s went flat due to the departure of Margo (now at Winnie’s), which also prompted Richler to barely frquent Grumpy’s in his later days. Grumnpy’s also held the likes of Nick “off-the-wall” and Charles “done-ebery-bar” Dunbar (sadly, like Nick, left us much too soon).

    Segue into a question: would anyone who knew Dundar please contact me. I’m writing a book with him as main character. Thanks!

  24. What I’d like to know is, where is Gary Eisencraft now. I knew him in the mid-sixties. He tried to talk me out of moving to N.Y.C. god bless his heart. I left Montreal and later bumped into him in the village where he was scouting for musicians to play at his place in montreal. I’m in Calgary and new on the web so looking up many past friends. Artists, musicians. What happened to the Penelope?

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