Our patron saints of diners: Montreal’s next generation of casse-croûte owners

Greenspot. AA. Chez Ma Tante. Chez Nick. Beautys. Café Joe. Wilensky's. Nouveau Système. Paul Patates. Bagel Etc. Saying their names is like casting a spell—that is, if it was a spell that’d conjure two steamés all-dressed combo with fries and a fountain liqueur on the side.

J.P. Karwacki

J.P. Karwacki

September 11, 2023- Read time: 13 min
Our patron saints of diners: Montreal’s next generation of casse-croûte ownersDavid Minicucci stands outside Cosmos in the west-end borough of NDG. (Photo: Philip Tabah)

I don’t need to tell you how Montreal’s got a legendary reputation for casse-croûtes and cantines, local diners and snack bars that have historically fed the city from when it was Sin City in the 1920s to feeding today’s clubgoers riding high on bumps of ketamine. The Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Brownstein and an article by Jessica Wei in Saveur can tell you all about that instead, minus the ketamine.

What I can tell you is that diners embody a specific style of dining out in this city that, some say, is at risk of dying out alongside other famed institutions that make up our patrimonial cuisine. Restaurants are a hard enough business as it is, and when it comes to the day-in-day-out grind of selling cheap eats, their owners’ kids aren’t always willing to carry the torch.

And yet, while our modern day Parthenons of poutine might some day fall, diners remain an enduring memory. So enduring, in fact, that they inspire new ones that may too someday last a generation or two or more. Diners won’t die, but they very well may change as we know them with a new generation of restaurateurs out there molding the world of bubbling fryers and two-egg platters in their image. Many have opened within the last five years, some of which in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When you look at who’s opening anew or reviving these time-honoured (or time-honoured to be, if you will) restaurants, everything about them—the close quarters of patrons and short-order cooks over a Formica counter, menus of comfort food and easy eating atop stools, listening/butting in on conversations about hockey, politics, and everything in between, dining on a first-name basis—remains an inspiration.

In the past, many casse-croûte owners in Montreal carried a similar story. Many were immigrants that turned to restaurants for employment and working their way up to ownership.

It’s not so much the case with today’s next-gen diner owners, instead having cut their teeth at more ‘serious’ spots.

Nicholas Gaudette of Millman’s, a diner in Verdun, only arrived at where he wanted to be after stints at places that ranged from the uber fine dining of the now-shuttered H4C par Dany Bolduc to downtown’s French brasserie Le Pois Penché and the chic brunches of Old Montreal’s Dandy.

The lessons he learned, however, weren’t restricted to cooking.

“Personally, I wanted to open a diner to foster a work-life balance. I wanted to not be the stereotypical restaurateur that never sees his kids, and I wanted something that could last,” Nicholas says. “I was burnt out on doing 12 dishes, each with their own elements, and I was sick of that stuff. It wasn’t for me, and I wanted to go back to the basics: A great diner done well.”

There’s no noble carrying on of tradition here—not overtly or intentionally, anyway. He sees that the food at older spots is good, great even, but he saw room in the Great Book of Diners to write a new chapter.

“Let’s bring it to 2023: Let’s play some dope music, serve some good coffee, and some great products sourced from local businesses.”

Central elements of his past and that of diners haven’t been lost, however: Nicholas takes care in sourcing choice bacon and bread for the menu, but he can also tell you what day his regular Michel will come in and at what time, where he’ll take a spot on the counter, and what he’s going to order. He’s put down the tweezers and taken down the barriers between kitchen and dining room to get closer to customers than he’s ever been.

“What is cooking? It’s about connecting with people, knowing your community through food, and for me it’s much easier to do that with pancakes. You have time to chat. You’re shedding the pretenses of the industry, saying ‘I am good enough’ and that I can cook for my neighbour.”

Before she opened NDG Luncheonette in a northwestern pocket of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Sophia Khalil-Griffin banked experience at spots like Arthurs Nosh Bar, Loïc, and Bucky Rooster’s. After leaving Montreal to travel, she came back to the city knowing she wanted to do something related to restaurants, and opted to return back to the stomping grounds of the neighbourhood she grew up in with her business partner Dillon Griffin.

Existing within that fine line between the city and the inner-city burbs, she wanted to create a place that could combine her love of service with something family-friendly and walkable, she feels, her part of town needed.

“There’s a lack of that homey feeling of diners in Montreal. Breakfast is a strong suit here, for sure, but I always wondered where I could go that didn’t have to feel like I had to get dressed up, a place that’s family-oriented and comfortable, a place that feels like home,” she says.

“You definitely have a chance to do that with breakfast, more so than dinner.”

It’s an American-style place with black and white-checkered floors, vinyl booths, and swiveling stools overlooking a long kitchen of stainless steel cooking pancakes, bagels with lox, burgers and the like from chef Matty Coyle. Everything seems to gravitate around a huge retro clock haloed with neon, a relic from the space’s previous tenants that’s still keeping time on the wall.

True to form, she’s accrued regulars who know exactly what they want, right down which mug they’ll want to drink from.

In many ways, leaning on her experience with and love of service is key to Sophia’s approach, but things take on a level of intimacy not all of the city’s restaurants most known for their service have.

“Hospitality and being personable is necessary at a diner because you can be the first person someone talks to when they leave their house. I didn’t experience that as much in other restaurant jobs I had,” she says. “[Ours] is a small restaurant where the service is there for you. You can talk to the person behind the counter and have a connection to the place.”

I can hear the click of the turning signal of Simon Jodoin-Bouchard’s car while he takes my call. He’s on the job, but takes it anyway.

“For two or three years now, there’s been a lot of businesses that were hyped 20, 30 years ago that people are trying to do now. It’s not just cantines (like mine), it’s about going back to old food movements,” he says, immediately launching into it.

“People want that, but they want quality too. Those old places have huge menus—whatever you want, they got it,” he says, hinting at diners that can make anything from pizza and spaghetti to Greek dolma, slices of pie, and gyros.

Not to bash places that do in fact cook that amount of variety, “but what people are trying to do now is concentrate on a specialty and offer the best that they can,” says Simon.

He and his partner Alexandre Clément opened Chez Simon cantine urbaine, a 24-seat ode to roadside cantines you can find in Quebec and progenitor of Montreal’s smash burger scene, in Tétreaultville in 2021.

A long wooden counter runs the length of the place, plus a few side tables, and it takes a page from the playbook you’d find at places like Wilensky's, where things are kept smaller and simpler: Burgers, sandwiches, loaded fries and poutines, and hot dogs. That’s it, if you don’t count the beer. There are a lot of variations on those five dishes now, but his barn ain’t taking many more animals than that.

“For three years, before I opened, I was on the quest of finding the best burger, but I realized I loved what I made the most,” Simon says. “We are reinventing the old ways, putting our hearts into our recipes.”

Opening at time when the city was craving comfort food to get their mind off of a deadly disease that threw the world into disarray, he’s leaned into those offerings and the size of the place, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love this place in the winter. People come in, have beers, talk loud. When it’s full, the ambiance is amazing. I could expand, but I don’t want a chain where it’s all production. It’s not as good that way,” he says.

I could expand, but... It’s not as good that way. – Simon Jodoin-Bouchard

As with any of the owners of new diners, Simon admits to having off days, but the connection to customers remains the electric current under his flat top.

“I do have bad days where I don’t want to talk to anyone, but having people at the bar is what I love about it. It’s magical, it’s great, it’s my real passion. Seeing people smile and say ‘now that is a burger’ is what I want to hear. That’s real.”

A hole in the wall occupying the restaurant space next to the café and record shop 180g in Rosemont, Ma Mère en Feu takes on all the trappings of your average diner—the menu, the minimal decorations, the particles of grease floating on sunbeams coming in through the window—but it represents more than that for its chefs Max Corsillo and Beaver Sheppard.

Sporting burns from working in some of the city’s most lauded spots that range anywhere from Dépanneur Le Pick Up and Dinette Triple Crown to Joe Beef, Au Pied de Cochon, and Garde Manger, Sheppard says his diner is an ode to both the past and a new future at the same time.

“I’ve seen places I’ve started to do super well over time, and it always takes a little while. This place? It’s a gem,” he says. “I’m making deep connections with a whole other part of the city. In high-end restaurants, you never meet the customers, but here, it’s a first-name basis and you know what they want.”

A removal from cooking for people with fatter wallets, the diner is in many ways a way of saying goodbye to another life.

“I love how diners feed the people. I love the way they look, especially the untouched ones. When Moe’s closed, I fucking cried,” he remembers. “I feel honoured this place fell in my lap. It seems like a good fit for me right now.”

When Moe’s closed, I fucking cried. – Beaver Sheppard, Ma Mère en Feu

At Ma Mère en Feu, it’s as though Sheppard is able to channel those aforementioned burns into something that’s softer and more intimate than its battle-worn forebearers. Drop in for either a diner standard of poutine or a burger, or maybe one of the creations he and Max come up with that might not seem like greasy spoon eats—a portobello-provolone omelette here, a curry club sandwich there, or Egyptian koshary—and you can’t help but either dive into a conversation or listen in to one.

Photo credit: Daniel Bromberg

As standard or as strange as the dishes can get, Sheppard says that the recipe for a good diner that resonates with people isn’t that complicated, but hard to do.

“It’s an intimacy with the people that work there, you’re so close to them. And there’s this bitterness to people who work at diners, and people relate to that drudgery,” he says. “You see the cook, you’re there with them and older staff with no bullshit, and you get value.”

As much there are restaurateurs and cooks and chefs and servers who are making diners their own, there are those who are keeping the old gods alive and kicking.

“I just saw Cosmos (for sale) in the Gazette and wanted to jump in because I was so attached to the place, it was nostalgic for me,” says its current owner David Minicucci. It’s been three years now for him, having taken on the place in the late summer of 2020.

Having known the place since he was in high school, and having a relationship with its original founder Tony Koulakis, he felt compelled to be a part of the place because of what diners mean to him, and what diners mean to others.

“I see a lot of things when I see Cosmos. I see old school Montreal, I see a different era, something frozen in time. I see Tony who reminds me of my grandparents—also immigrants from Europe—and all of that wraps up into something I feel a connection towards.”

Since coming aboard its greasy ship as captain, David may be new blood but he’s kept everything the same. After purchasing the spot, Tony’s daughter Niki Koulakis walked him through everything, and he’s since made a point of continuing to cook things as they always were. The longstanding clientele know how to request their potatoes extra crispy, or to ask for extra mayo in their Creation sandwich.

“Everybody that walks in genuinely wants a good experience. There’s pressure taking on a place like this, and everyone’s checking to see if it’s the same, but I didn’t want to be the guy who’d mess that up for everybody,” he says.

One would think that a new diner could have enough trouble getting off the ground, let alone keeping one alive that sports a roster of regulars who’d be skeptical of a new face coming in and muddying the bloodline. But David had no one to impress. He’s more like a patron of the arts, letting the spirit of Tony live on.

People have asked David to bring in a TV, maybe some beers, maybe open the place all night. He believes, however, he only had to ensure that its authenticity was kept intact. Anything that he does or thinks of doing—like building a Cosmos in the metaverse—will never interfere with the restaurant on the physical plane.

I see a lot of things when I see Cosmos. I see old school Montreal, I see a different era, something frozen in time. – David Minicucci, Cosmos

“I see a lot of places popping up which are super cool with great food and amazing chefs, but that authentic feeling? When you feel it’s real?” he asks. “This is one of those places where people go out of habit, and the crowd is what makes it authentic.”

“You go in, people are very willing to speak to one another that you don’t find in a lot of places. It’s the design of the place, the counter; it just lends itself to conversation. You talk to the waitress, the cook, someone sitting at the end; it’s very hard to have a private conversation at Cosmos, and I think people like to see something real.”

Seeing something real and authentic. Having a deep connection to customers. Food that you very well could make for yourself at home, but tastes exponentially better because someone else made it for you. You find all of that in a diner—in these diners—but that’s not unique to them, is it?

So what is?

The reasons why any one of these Montreal diner owners and operators have opted to go for a style of restaurant that’s often no-frills and without airs to put on may be many, but they all boil down to these essential elements. The only difference is that they want to bring more quality to what they do. It may cost a few more bucks than we’re all historically used to, but it’s less about raking in cash and more about keeping something alive—themselves.

At one point in the conversation with Nicholas Gaudette, he made a point of telling me that his place was a way of shedding his ego.

“I don’t care if I just have a diner and we’re open for 20, 30 years, I’m cool with that. I’m not trying to be a fucking billionaire.”

“It’s about supporting local, it’s about keeping your eye on your own paper, doing the best job you can,” he continued. “Serve good food, play good music, serve good drinks, interact with your customers, and life’s good. The recipe is always the same.”

As eggs and bacon and burgers only go so far, the margins are often small and slim. Some will say the work’s not harder than any other restaurant job, others will tell you there’s nothing worse than trying to juggle a dozen different styles of sunny side-up, over-easy, and scrambled. But it’s a labour of love.

“These days, with social media and marketing, the game has completely changed, but at the base of it all? If you do something well and for the right reasons, people respond to that,” he says.

“No matter what you do, if you do it well, people respond well to it.”

Sitting in a booth of Millman’s with Nicholas, asking he why he does what he does, and I realize I’ve just been baiting him into revealing something profound about the enduring nature of diners and why anyone would want to run a new one in this day and age.

I can’t help but ask something after all of the feel-good questions. Instead, I ask him what’s difficult about what he’s doing.

“It’s the repetitiveness of the prep work. If you don’t love cutting 50 pounds of potatoes or bacon every week, get out of business, you’re not going to survive,” he says.

“You have to love the minutiae of it, and that’s the hardest part. You have to love what you do.”