Bar Vivar: A Montreal take on a Spanish way of eating

How a Montreal chef and sommelier's pintxos in the Plateau derive influences from Galicia, the Basque region, and Asturias—plus some flourishes from Andalusia or Valencia.

J.P. Karwacki

J.P. Karwacki

June 14, 2024- Read time: 8 min
Bar Vivar: A Montreal take on a Spanish way of eatingPhotograph: Rachel Holly Cheng / @rachelhollycheng

Bar Vivar, two Montrealers’ take on a Spanish restaurant that opened in the winter of 2024, is in many ways a place that sets a record straight.

Servers here will say a menu is ‘tapas-style’ to describe how it's shareable, something to encourage ordering a few plates and a few bites at most for everyone at the table. But spots true to a combination of Spain’s cuisine, portions and way of eating—closely knit dining rooms surrounding a bar and terrasse, drinking with truly smaller plates slowly eaten during conversation—are none too common in Montreal.

Sommelier Patrick Oakes and chef Georges Greiche. | Photograph: Rachel Holly Cheng / @rachelhollycheng

Bar Vivar breaks that trend: A 40-seat spot from chef Georges Greiche and sommelier Patrick Oakes designed with personal touches—decorated with flea market trips and 1970’s artwork—has a left-hand side of intimate banquettes and tables, while the right has the standing bar setup often found in casual spots of urban and rural Spain. A TV might be on in background, as well.

“I knew this was the spot the day I walked in,” Georges says. “I had a vision in my mind of what I wanted to the place to be, and I didn’t want to compromise on that: An open kitchen because of the nature of how small it is, its placement of the bar, and how that radiates outwards.”

The menu’s structured so there’s something for all times of the day. A bit of seafood, some meat like a steak—around 15 or 20 items at a time. It’s quick and can be picked up quick, and can also be a drawn-out affair.

The exclusively Spanish wine—including affordable bottles from Ribera del Dueros, Tempranillo, and some bolder options from Rioja—flows alongside vermouth on ice and small cañas of beer, all accompanying dishes of croquettes, slices of jamón ibérico, or a dressed up slice of Spanish tortilla.

Deriving influences from Galicia, the Basque region, and Asturias—plus some flourishes from areas like Andalusia or Valencia—the pintxos here tell a story about following passions, transatlantic memories and travels, and balancing a contemporary place with time-honored source material.

Photograph: Rachel Holly Cheng / @rachelhollycheng

Spain by way of Montreal

“Spain’s a modern country, but there’s a lot of it where people live in an old fashioned way; think butchering the pig and the whole town comes together to cook it… it’s the kind of love for cuisine you don’t find in North America that often,” Georges explains.

Photograph: Rachel Holly Cheng / @rachelhollycheng

“Spanish cuisine is very direct. It’s ingredient-driven; if you go to a market or carrera (a monthly or bimonthly fair) where they sell food, you’ll see simple dishes like a plate of grilled clams with olive oil and citrus zest, or a nice steak with potatoes on the side. That’s it. It’s super stripped down, simple, and direct.”

Photograph: Rachel Holly Cheng / @rachelhollycheng

So how does that translate to Montreal? The city, of course, influences the chef and the food: Georges isn’t Spanish, but has experienced the cuisine from a young age, and studied it extensively.

“Winter for example can get tricky, so you have to seek things out if someone’s got a farm or greenhouse where things are done organically and the quality is good,” he says. “I like my food to be tight and concise, and focus on a quick turnover of ingredients to keep things fresh. We’re not overextending ourselves too much, and if I’m bored with something, I can change it.”

España, mi amor

“I love Spanish food. It has place in my heart. I used to go often when I was younger, visiting a family that I knew my whole life—some of my earliest meals shared at a table with family and friends, it was always Spanish. There’s a strong emotional connection there, and I knew that was the food I wanted to explore,” Georges says.

“I just want to focus on Spain and provide an experience—in terms of the menu, the wines—that’s similar to it.”

But as foundational Georges’ experiences were, he’s not trying to completely copy what’s found in Spain, only put his spin on it. “You have to cook with your heart. I’m a lifelong Montrealer, so I have to do my own little twists on things,” he adds.

The pintxos (a word derived from the verb ‘to stab’, and thought of as a more well-rounded version of tapas) that Georges makes can be thought of as not light Basque snacks, but more of a composed dish in miniature.

“I like to be bold but simple. Like they’ll do calamari sandwiches in Madrid, but here I take a Saint-Viateur bagel and I put wild garlic and mayonnaise with a little bit of fermented Espelette hot sauce on top.”

“It connects with the Montreal crowd a bit more. If I gave someone one thing on a plate (like they do in Spain), they might look at it a bit quizzically. It’s also more interesting as a chef, and allows for more creativity on my part.”

Photograph: Rachel Holly Cheng / @rachelhollycheng

“Putting a plate forward, there’s a story being told”

Named after a town in the northern region of Castilla y León—close to where some the great pintxo bars are—Bar Vivar derives its name from Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, a Castilian knight of medieval Spain. Known in folklore as El Çid (which translates to ‘the lord’ or ‘the master’), he fought for the Arabs and the Christians—a dynamic which Georges finds kinship in, having a Lebanese, Egypt-born father and a blonde blue-eyed mother.

“It was just a fascinating period in Spain, and I loved the idea of having a mascot or personality I could draw some influence from,” Georges says.

It’s somewhat telling for the chef, finding inspiration in a knight whose epic tells the story of how important it is to live the life you have with not only accountability, but also a responsibility to enhance and develop that life.

That’s because Georges wasn’t always a chef.

Photograph: Rachel Holly Cheng / @rachelhollycheng

“I always loved food, and while it might sound cliché, I read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential in my last year of college and loved the idea of being a chef one day. But I put it on the backburner—I was doing my LSATs and writing my entrance essays for law school, but was drawing a blank on life.

“Cooking’s been something I always told myself I wanted to do, but never really understood why. I fell into kitchens, and it only took a couple days to click. I loved working with my hands—desk jobs felt like watching paint dry—and I loved the storytelling aspect of it, having studied history in college.

“Every dish has an origin story that evolves over time. People put their spin on it, so every time you’re putting a plate forward, there’s a story being told.”

Photograph: Rachel Holly Cheng / @rachelhollycheng

And while it was arguably a more grueling path to take, Georges nonetheless finds purpose in his choice.

“I had a chef at cooking school who told me that if anyone every complains about being in a kitchen, just remember, you’re wearing pajamas and you’re playing with knives and fire. It’ a fun gig; it’s a grind sometimes, sure, it can be demoralizing, but ultimately, it’s an amazing thing to do with your life. It’s dynamic, and every day is different,” he recalls.

“You have to do what you love. That might sound trite and overused, but it really is true. All these old expressions take on new meanings when you experience them for yourself.”

Photograph: Rachel Holly Cheng / @rachelhollycheng

The places you’ll go

Passion for cooking took Georges abroad—The Culinary Institute of America in New York, Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, Pilgrimme in British Columbia, working as a private chef—and was with Joe Beef for approximately three years over two separate stints.

“I owe them quite a bit,” he says.

“When I did a cross-country road trip, I was reading Eric Ripert’s autobiography. He had talked about working under Joel Robuchon to really get his ass kicked, and that’s when it clicked: I always idolized Joe Beef in my mind, and while the idea of working there never seemed feasible—it felt weird to work somewhere that I loved to eat—it clicked, I had to be there.

“It’s the best institution in the city for its service, creativity, the quality of the food. Eventually I found my groove and became a big part of the team. That’s where I learned how to grind and hit that extra gear; we were doing close to 250 people every night.”

Photograph: Rachel Holly Cheng / @rachelhollycheng

That was when Georges crossed paths with Patrick, and they ended up living only blocks from one another in Saint-Henri. The two became kindred spirits: Patrick provides not only sommelier expertise, Georges says, but also a level-headed perspective that helps to problem-solve and steady the ship with front-of-house service.

“That, and we’re two bald guys with beards,” Georges laughs. “The more we get to know each other, the more I find we have in common.”

But the rest isn’t history.

It’s now found on Duluth in the Plateau.

Photograph: Rachel Holly Cheng / @rachelhollycheng

Bar Vivar is located at 533 Avenue Duluth Est.

¡ Ole !

Subscribe to our newsletter for a weekly dose of news and events.