Story by Rod Charles
MONTREAL — There’s an institution in Montreal that you have to visit, and I’m not talking about the Bell Centre or Notre-Dame Bascilla. I’m talking about Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, the home of the original, and tastiest Montreal smoked meat sandwich I’ve ever had.
I was first introduced to Schwartz’s in 2003 during a road trip with three of my buddies, one of whom insisted we have our lunch in this nondescript restaurant on Saint-Laurent Boulevard. We drove across the city through heavy traffic to eat there and upon arrival, I honestly couldn’t have been more unimpressed.
It wasn’t my idea of elegant Montreal dining, that’s for sure. The place was tiny, and at first glance it didn’t appear that there would be room to fit two people inside, let alone me and my friends. Like the entire street, it just seemed ordinary. Unless you were specifically looking for this place, you could easily miss it. The only thing giving away the greatness of this establishment was the row of people lining up outside — locals and well-informed tourists alike — patiently waiting to get in.
Well you know what they say, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Founded in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, this restaurant has served supreme smoked meat from a recipe of spices that has never changed and done so in an old, familiar, well-worn, and comfortable building that sits in the same location it always has. Ask any Montrealer the direction to Schwartz’s and they’ll tell you. It’s a true landmark, and for good reason — it’s simply one of the most incredible (and cheap) lunch experiences you’re ever going to have. All the things that had made me apprehensive about this restaurant on my first visit are the reasons I now can’t stop coming back.
“We actually started out as a steakhouse. Up to about 1967, our main dish was rib steak,” says Frank Silva, general manager of Schwartz’s. It was Expo ’67 that our famous Montreal smoked meat really took off, and it was the ’76 Olympics when the whole world found out about us.”
And how. Tourists, athletes, politicians, celebrities have all made the trek to this Montreal landmark to see what all the fuss is about. Halle Berry, Jon Bon Jovi, Michael Dukakis, Tim Allen, Howie Mandel, Celine Dion, members of the Montreal Canadiens and Alouettes are just some of the rich and famous who have had lunch at Schwartz’s, where sandwiches cost less than $7.
For those who love people-watching, one of the interesting things about this establishment are the customers in the line at lunch. People wait for a seat without complaint, knowing they won’t be standing long. Those who are already eating enjoy their meal, but don’t loiter, realizing that people outside are eager to get in. Those waiting and those eating respect each other and the process, and for that reason the line moves with the efficiency of a well-run airport gate at Trudeau International.
If you want a slightly less chaotic experience, time your visit between 1-2:30 pm. It will still be busy, but at least you’ll get a seat faster.
“One of the main reasons for our success is we haven’t changed the recipe of our smoked meat. We don’t cut corners,” says Silva. “We marinate for 10 days. We peel our own potatoes. There are no freezers here, everything is fresh.”
The smoked-meat sandwich is the main dish, and most people who visit order it — usually with French fries and Schwartz’s trademark dill pickle on the side. But it’s not the only tasty item on the menu. Try the salami sandwich ($5.75) and if you’re trying to cut down on the fries, order their delicious coleslaw ($2.40). One thing you will notice is these sandwiches are heaping with meat, something Silva is really proud of.
“Our community expects nothing less, like I said before, we don’t cut corners,” says Silva. “If you come to Schwartz’s and leave hungry, then it’s by choice.”
MORE ABOUT SCHWART’S DELI
Location: 3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard, Montreal
Menu: Take-out and sit-down menus are available and you can also order online.
Hours: Sunday to Thursday 8 am – 12:30 am; Friday 8 am – 1:30 am; Saturday 8 am – 2:30 am
Contact: 514-842-4813; www.schwartzsdeli.com; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.