Ben’s Restaurant is dead. After 98 years of business, capped by a months-long employees strike, the owners now say they will not reopen.
My first visit to Ben’s Restaurant was twenty one years ago. In the summer of 1986, my then girlfriend and I borrowed my Dad’s car for a rambling road trip from our home in Nova Scotia. The journey included a couple of days in Montreal, and on our second day in town we spotted Ben’s Restaurant on Boul. de Maisonneuve. It was hard to miss, with that enormous RESTAURANT DELI sign wrapping around the corner, and BENS written vertically over the door.
We were students, and on a very tight budget. To us, notable restaurants were things to look at, not places in which to eat. But a quick check of the menu proved it wouldn’t break us. As we gazed in through the enormous windows, and perused the various photos of old-time celebrities who had eaten there, I was captivated. There was something very American about the place, specifically, something very New Yorkish. Never having been to the U.S., let alone New York, I was hooked.
We went in. We were seated in the window at a creaky Formica and chrome table. A moment later, the waiter appeared, a tall, freckled man, probably in his late thirties. He was dressed in black pants and a white shirt with a little bow tie, and he wore his gingery hair in a comb-over.
There was something about him that made an immediate and indelible impression on me. He was one of those people you sometimes meet who pique your curiosity for no particular reason that you can put a finger on. Although if I were to think about it, it would start with his job. Where I grew up – a town utterly devoid of interesting restaurants – waitering jobs were for young people who had no other options, or for their fiftyish mothers. You never saw a grown man, someone who could be someone’s Dad, waiting tables.
Adding to the mystery was his somewhat brusk manner. Not rude, just slightly distracted and impatient, as if he were really the restaurant’s accountant and was just filling in while the real waiter stepped out for a moment. He asked for our orders and wrote it down on a pad, concentrating on the task of getting the information while ignoring the waiter’s duty of welcoming us as guests and making us comfortable.
I found it exotic. I never liked being called “honey” and “dear” by somebody’s mother while I ordered my dinner. This waiter at Ben’s was a completely different animal. A fascinating creature, I wanted to know more about him. Who was he? How did he come to be a waiter at Ben’s? Could he sustain himself and a family on a waiter’s earnings? Is he stuck with this job or is it his chosen work?
We ordered smoked meat sandwiches and fries. They arrived a few minutes later on Melmac plates. Melmac! I hadn’t seen Melmac since the 1960s! I looked around at the chipped Formica tables and the slightly rusty chrome, at the fading old photographs on the wall and the Dad-aged man-waiters, and decided that we had really stumbled onto something. This place was authentic. It wasn’t just recreating 1950s kitsch – it had never gotten over 1950s kitsch!
The smoked meat sandwich – my first ever – was delightful. I had never seen such a thing – a ball of steamed brisket thinly sliced and placed between two very small pieces of rye bread. It was piled high and difficult to eat without spilling meat all over. I decided to use a fork to eat some of the meat, breadless, until the sandwich was of a reasonable proportion – a technique I use with smoked meat sandwiches to this day.
But I couldn’t help but think that the sandwich would have been better if the bread were of a larger diameter. Why serve it as a ball – as tall as it was wide – when you could use a slightly larger loaf and serve it like a proper sandwich? I was also unimpressed with the fries, which were of the standard frozen variety like you’d find at any diner. Worse, I felt gypped, as there were only about eight fries piled into the tiny Melmac bowl.
Overall, however, it was a memorable experience, made better by the presence of old Irving Kravitz sitting by the cashier, lording over his domain. The son of the original Ben Kravitz, Irving was a friendly old geezer, at least 80, who I later learned spent most of his time just sitting there greeting people as they entered and left.
Two years later, I moved to Montreal, and have lived here ever since. In those first few years, I was terribly broke. Yet I managed to make it to Ben’s Restaurant a couple of times a year. Old Kravitz was always in his chair by the cashier, and the tall gingery waiter was busy waiting on tables. One afternoon as a friend and I were leaving, a burly man pushed past me on his way in. I looked back and saw Jacques Parizeau beaming with delight as he pumped old Kravitz’s hand in greeting.
Ben’s Restaurant, circa 1990
Unfortunately, those fries never improved; nor did the decor. As my experience with other restaurants grew, the bloom on the rose of my first impression of Ben’s gradually faded. Then, old Kravitz died in 1992.
By the mid-90s I had stopped going to Ben’s altogether, although I would occasionally walk by and look in through the window. Most times, I’d see the gingery waiter. The tables and chairs were visibly aging. The photographs continued to fade. The Melmac remained.
A couple of years ago, I made one last visit to Ben’s. I was feeling out of sorts, bored with the usual downtown lunch options, and wanted to do something different. I thought I’d visit Ben’s to see if anything had changed.
Nothing had. That’s when I realized that there can be too much worry about remaining “authentic.” By not changing anything in the restaurant, the owners – by now a collection of disinterested heirs – changed the one thing that made Ben’s great; its vitality. As the restaurant ran into the ground, it lost the verve that gave Ben’s its importance.
Where Ben’s was once a brightly-lit beacon, a buzzing hive of activity at the core of the downtown Montreal experience, all that remained were the fading physical elements and the old Melmac plates with too few fries. Ben’s suffered the same fate as the fabled Warshaw’s – the owners didn’t realize that stasis leads to atrophy, that the “authentic experience” of the place was rooted in its vitality and its importance to the people it served.
The waiters at Ben’s have been on strike since July. By September, I knew that it was curtains for Ben’s, that the place would never reopen. The grievances of the striking waiters are a sign of the extent to which the owners have distanced themselves from caring about it. Yet they present an illusion of caring by reportedly turning down a $10 million offer for the property from the developers of a skyscraper planned for the adjoining lots.
I passed Ben’s Restaurant while out for a walk one afternoon last October. It had never looked so bad, the door padlocked due to the strike and its windows encrusted with grievance stickers. I could see that the old Formica and chrome tables and chairs had been removed, as well as the old photographs. A handful of striking waiters stood around on the sidewalk, absent-mindedly holding their en grève signs. One of them was the tall waiter, now more grey than ginger. He stood there in the cold afternoon light, looking, as usual, like he should have been doing something else.
I still had the urge to know about him and his life. In the twenty one years since he placed that first smoked meat sandwich on the table before me, my own life had tumbled over many twists and turns. Like most of us, I’ve celebrated highs and suffered lows. Overall, things have gone much better than I would have imagined. But what about him? What adventures has he known in that time? Have the past two decades lived up to his hopes? Now in his late fifties, on strike in front of a restaurant that will never reopen, does he have a backup plan? Does he know what he will do next?
I turned and walked back to my office. At the corner, I glanced up at the artist’s rendition of the L-shaped skyscraper that will wrap around the shell of Ben’s Restaurant – designed so because the owners had refused to sell. I wondered if the developer has a second set of architectural plans, unknown to the public, that incorporates the space where Ben’s sits, in anticipation of a takeover. I wondered if the refusal of $10 million was just playing hardball, or if the owners were waiting for the strike to squeeze the last breath out of Ben’s so they can say it was the employees who killed the family legacy, not them.
The developers have not yet turned a sod for the new building. Anything can happen, especially now that the strike can be blamed for the demise of the restaurant. But the ball is in the developer’s court. Do we hear $9 million?