Welcome to Schwartz’s

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I was having coffee with a French immigrant recently and the conversation swung towards Schwartz’s. He recalled seeing a group of kids, on a class trip from somewhere else in Canada, lining up to eat there. “When I went on school trips in France it was always about going to castles or battlefields, ‘Napoleon did this and that here,'” he said to me. “Here it’s different. There aren’t any castles; the culture here is a popular culture. People go to Schwartz’s because of that. It’s where you feel the history of Montreal and its immigrants.”

With that in mind, it was about time that Schwartz’s got its own movie. Last night, Garry Beitel’s documentary, Chez Schwartz, premiered at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma.

Chez Schwartz‘s premise is more ambitious than it sounds. Beitel set out to document a year in the life of Montreal’s most iconic eatery, a classic and unpretentious place where generations of Montrealers and tourists alike have eaten some of the city’s best smoked meat. This might sound straightforward enough, but any good portrait of Schwartz’s must work its way through a heaping plateful of issues: the restaurant’s daily routine, the staff, immigration and cultural diversity, the homeless guys who take shifts panhandling out front and, of course, Schwartz’s worldwide fame. Beitel devours each and every one of these with skill and steady rhythm. It all fits together so well, like a good meal at Schwartz’s.

That meal, of course, would consists of four thing: a smoked meat sandwich (with lots of mustard), fries, a pickle and a cherry coke. Smoked meat is a type of cured beef, similar to pastrami: it is first seasoned with a secret mix of spices, then smoked for eight hours and finally steamed for three hours before serving. It was brought to Montreal by the Jewish immigrants who fled the Eastern European shtetl in the early twentieth century and settled in great numbers along St. Lawrence Boulevard, commonly known as the Main (and now officially known by its French name, St. Laurent). Schwartz’s was one of the pioneers of smoked meat when it opened in 1928, but by the 1940s, it was one of many Jewish delicatessens around Montreal. Today, less than a dozen remain and none have retained their original conviviality — except for Schwartz’s.

Wisely, Chez Schwartz doesn’t try to impose itself on its subject — it steps back and lets Schwartz’s fascinate and entertain us as it so naturally does. Beitel’s film falls into the great tradition of movies and books that document the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that give Montreal its cultural richness. More often than not, they somehow relate to food. Recently, Ezra Soiferman’s Man of Grease profiled the odd Greek owner of Cosmos, an NDG greasy spoon. Michel Tremblay regaled us with tales of steamie-eating transsexuals on the Main. Don Bell’s delightful 1971 book Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory spent a night with the bagel-markers on St. Viateur Street (like smoked meat, Montreal-style bagels are another specialty more delicious than their New York counterpart). Even before that, Mordecai Richler wrote about Wilensky’s and its infamous, if-you-don’t-want-mustard-get-the-hell-out Special.

Food, however, is only incidental to these works, and the same is true of Chez Schwartz. The real focus is on the people who make and consume it. Early on in the film, Beitel introduces us to characters with names like Frank, Johnny and Alex, names that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the 1940s but which belie the diverse origins of their owners: Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Indian, Pakistani, Bengali, Afro-Caribbean, Latino and French-Canadian. “Sometimes we speak Spanish, sometimes we speak English, sometimes we speak French — more or less,” notes one Colombian kitchen worker before addressing some Latin American customers in Spanish. The staff’s diversity is reflected by the people who eat at Schwartz’s. In one particularly inspired moment, the film observes diners enjoying their food and each other’s company. They are speaking English, French, Cantonese, Spanish; their faces speak of origins scattered all over the world. It is a serene moment and in many ways the peak of the film.

There are other memorable moments: a pair of women losing their smoked meat virginity; the pride with which a waiter displays the $20 tip given to him by Halle Berry, which she autographed and he refuses to spend. Part of the film deals with, in its passive, detached way, the homeless men who take turns panhandling in front of Schwartz’s. One of them is Ryan Larkin, an Oscar-winning animator whose career was sunk by drug and alcohol addiction. (Recently, his fame was revived when another animator made a film about him, Ryan, which also won an Oscar.) Ryan, like the film, hardly strays more than fifty feet from the deli. In some weird way, he is a symbol of Schwartz’s role as the centre of the Montreal universe.

Towards the end of Chez Schwartz, Beitel asks Ryan why he thinks people flock from around the world to eat at such a humble restaurant. “Big mystery. I don’t know,” he replies. “But I got my suspicions. I suspect that it’s a Romanian-Jewish plot to take over the world, right here at Schwartz’s. And they succeeded.”

Chez Schwartz, 2006, Directed by Garry Beitel. General release is expected this January.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday October 24 2006at 02:10 am , filed under Film, Food, Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

12 Responses to “Welcome to Schwartz’s”

  • Mike says:

    The argument that there isn’t any “culture” in Canada is something you hear a lot in Europe (this is sometimes even more ridiculously phrased as a lack of history). This irritates me. There is a tremendously long history of occupation and life in North America. If 18,000 years of inhabitation don’t do it for you, not much will please. The fact that Europeans, and sadly most North Americans too, are only looking at culture/history in terms of castles and opera houses speaks much more to what they consider worthwhile forms of culture and history than to whether we actually have history and culture here. We do – but it’s different. My reply to this type of comment next time I’m in Europe will be that I find their continent tragically lacking in culture due to the complete absence of totem poles. An absence which apparently makes you love techno music (it’s what you have to content yourself with when you have no real culture).

  • A.J. Kandy says:

    Now who’s dealing in stereotypes?

    Frankly we don’t do ourselves any favours by continuing to promote Canada to tourists overseas as some sort of pine-tree Wild West with wolves everywhere (as I saw on an ad in the Tube once).

    However, the argument that Canada has no culture is true from their point of view. To a great degree we don’t have a unified culture as of yet, in the same way that, say, Germans can look back on thousands of years of recorded history, literature, art, music, and architecture, then back to folktales and myths. Heck, I mean Vancouver’s barely 200 years old, you know what I mean? And First Peoples culture and ours are not contiguous, we imposed ours on theirs and effectively wiped it out.

    In that sense, a German really KNOWS what being German is but we are still struggling with basic ideas of national identity, in a postmodern definition where ethnicity and language may or may not enter into the equation. I don’t feel we have the same background pantheon of culture that a Japanese person enjoys.

    That said, if 1867 can be seen as a kind of Year Zero, we’re doing remarkably well at creating a new kind of country, culture or no.

    Our geography to some extent precludes the creation of tightly knit nationalities, but it’s telling that more than any other region, Ontarians seem to see themselves as synonymous with ‘Canadian,’ and of course Quebecers are split on the issue, or prefer the ambiguity of multiple layers of nationality (a montrealer in toronto, a quebecer in france, a canadian elsewhere).

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Mike, I’m not sure I understand where you’re coming from. My friend said that the culture here is a popular culture — so I’m not sure where you get the impression that he said Canada “has no culture,” especially not because we “don’t have museums” or something like that. He was saying that, to Montreal, Schwartz’s is as important a part of our culture (more important, probably) than the Museum of Fine Arts. I would be inclined to agree.

  • Mike says:

    A.J.,

    Well put. I definitely don’t subscribe to the idea that Canada is some wildnerness idyll. But, I don’t buy the idea that Canada is a paraticularly “young” country either. Canada is as old, if not older, than many countries (perhaps I should say states) in Europe. Canada is certainly older than Germany, as we now know it. We also do ourselves a disservice to think that our identity and history is significantly less cohesive than that of a European country. Most European countries are rife with cultural, linguistic, and geographic divides. As a result, I don’t know that a German does have a better sense of what it means to be German than a Canadian has of what it means to be Canadian. This will vary tremendously individual to individual and depend on where a person grew up in the country and how long their family has been rooted in a particular place. And, if Germans do have a better sense of their “German’ness”, I don’t think it’s just a function of the age of the country and the historical cohesiveness of German “culture”. In any case, you raised a really interesting point about 1867 being year zero for Canada. I actually do see the history of the current country integrating with the history of the pre-Confederation colonies and the period of aboriginal dominance. Just as you can’t think of Germany as starting in 1918, 1945 (or perhaps 1989), you can’t think of Canada as starting neatly at 1867. Perhaps it’s my rural upbringing coming through, but I think we can/must claim the whole history of the continent as our own. Finally, while I love popular culture (and Schwartz’s) I just don’t think we necessarily have to love them as a consolation for not having a rich cultural heritage in the European sense. That’s just my take, though.

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    Coming from Quebec City, I can’t say I understand what everyone is on about. Most people around me seem to have a very strong and secure Quebecois (or French-Canadian) identity, and a capacity to list relatives who lived in this city in the 1600s and 1700s. This identity crisis is a peculiarly English-Canadian problem: the 51st state syndrome. I’m not saying a strong sense of identity is necessarily good–“strong” sometimes borders dangerously on “rigid”.

    As for Schwartz’s, I never really understood the hype and tended to groan when walking by the lineups outside. It always felt like a tourist trap, or a haven for suburbanites who drive into town on the weekends to live their Montreal cliché. Ben’s is a whole lot better for atmosphere + kitsch value. Main (right across the street from Schwartz’s) has better smoked meat, a wider range of Eastern European food, and stays open 24 hours a day–I miss my 4AM matzo-ball soup or latkas. Slovenia, a bit lower on Saint-Laurent, does terrifically unique salami sandwiches. Schwartz…. pfff…

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    There’s absolutely no way that the Main has better smoked meat! It does have a more rounded menu, and of course it serves alcohol, but the smoked meat is a few steps below Schwartz’s. (I did have one “this is better than Schwartz’s!” moment at the Main, but every subsequent moment has disappointed.)

    As for Ben’s, I actually think that it matches your tourists-and-suburbanites image more than Schwartz’s. The food is some of the worst in Montreal, the prices are completely unreasonable and the restaurant is filthy. They can’t even brew a decent cup of coffee. It’s a very sad experience; the scent of greatness lost is too much to bear.

  • A.J. Kandy says:

    Political constructions, merged feudal kingdoms and shifting borders aside, your average German of German ancestry lives within a history, literature and mythology that literally dates back to at least Roman times and beyond.

    Whatever history, mythology, oral tradition or other culture First Nations people had in the pre-Columbian period, and continue to have today, is not broadly shared by the Western colonists and their descendents. Canadian “culture” is a deracinated version of the Western European traditions; because it’s not really tied to those physical places, that direct ancestry, those nation-states, most scholars call our kinds of polyglot democratic countries post-modern.

    Patrick makes the good point that ‘everyone seems to have a stronger self identity’ in Quebec City, a majority francophone city where people can trace their roots more directly back to France. In Montreal, this isn’t so obviously true, even among francophones.

    I do worry that this is the cause of a lot of the conflict between the provincial govt and the city of Montreal — because there’s an echo chamber effect – if everyone you see looks and sounds just like you, reads the same papers, went to the same schools, reads all the same books, listens to all the same songs and watches all the same tv, how can you be objective about your politics and culture? I often feel that there’s a disparagement of Montrealers, that they’re somehow not seen as ‘true’ quebecers.

    what *is* quebec culture, anyway? and who gets to decide?

  • A.J. Kandy says:

    oh yeah. i agree with chris. i’ve tried all three; schwartz’s rocks, the main is good, ben’s was probably good when Diefenbaker was prime minister. Dunn’s — not so much, but decent.

    And now that the Ben’s staff are on a long strike, I wonder if the restaurant will even survive. They really need someone to take it over and refurbish it. Last time I ate there was the 90s and it seemed like a time warp, like some sort of twilight zone episode with zombie waiters.

  • Patrick says:

    You’ve just pinpointed the great thing about Ben’s: that feeling of walking into the middle of a disturbing David Lynch movie. They have a “Borscht with boiled potato” plate straight out of Soviet Russia. That authentic timewarp 1950s atmosphere is what it’s all about. Aside from that, I agree with Chris that the prices are outrageous and the food is sub-par.

    Oh… and the moist Fairmount bagels are so much better than those bready Saint-Viateur ones.

  • A.J. Kandy says:

    That’s exactly it! Ben’s is the Black Lodge…

    I concur on Fairmount bagels. Properly crisp and chewy…it’s a subtle difference, but it matters!

  • Hugo says:

    Since we’re talking food suddenly, my cousin tells me Le Roi Du Smoked Meat on a street I forget now (forgive me I can imagine how many neirhborhood joints carry that name) has a better smoked meat than Scharwtz. If anyone is familiar with that name point me to where they believe it is located.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Le Roi du Smoked Meat is on St. Hubert right around St. Zotique. It’s 24 hours, but I haven’t been. Alice and Yanka reviewed it in the Mirror.

    By 5 o’clock, the place is full, un reflux gastrique de happy off-work workers, horny moms, vicious kids, retirees and lonesome men reading and drinking wine. The conversations unfold in a crazy language that stirs the ears and echoes of “fait pas ta smatte” float in the greasy air while the waitresses on break, chins in hand, have that faraway look that screams two weeks in Florida. Bon voyage mesdames, it’s been real.