Bens Delicatessen was a Montreal institution, frequented by generations of Montrealers, tourists and visiting celebrities until it closed in 2006.
The famous smoked meat restaurant lives again, with an exhibit at the McCord Museum that explores its mythical past with photos, dishes, counter stools, recipes and testimonials.
“It has stayed in the collective memory. Even if Bens doesn’t exist, everybody has a story about Bens. Even people who have never been there know about the restaurant and the institution,” Céline Widmer, the exhibition’s curator, told All in a Weekend's Pierre Landry.
Born in Lithuania, Benjamin Kravitz fled his country in 1899.
After settling in Montreal, he met and married Fanny Schwartz, and the couple opened a sweet shop on St. Laurent Boulevard in 1908.
Before long, Kravitz began offering workers in the area smoked meat sandwiches, made according to his mother’s recipe.
In 1929, the shop relocated downtown to De Maisonneuve Boulevard at Mansfield Street.
In 1949, Ben and Fanny moved their restaurant to a larger space nearby.
The new building at 990 De Maisonneuve Boulevard West was designed by architect Charles Davis Goodman, who opted for the Streamline Modern style.
Kravitz’s three sons carried on the work of their father, who died in 1956.
By 1960, the restaurant was serving 8,000 customers a day and employed a staff of 80.
A Montreal institution
In addition to business people, students, artists and tourists, Widmer said it was not unusual for celebrities and politicians to drop by for a visit—including Leonard Cohen, Michael Jackson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
“It was a place in Montreal that everyone felt comfortable being at,” said Widmer.
However, when other fast food restaurants opened in the city the clientele at Bens declined.
Kravitz's sons, Irving and Sollie, died in the 1990s, and Al died in 2000.
Despite the third generation of the Kravitz family carrying on the business, a labour dispute erupted in 2006, followed by a strike.
The restaurant closed its doors in December, 2006.
To preserve the memory of their business, the Kravitz family contacted the McCord Museum in early 2007 and began planning the exhibition.
“After 98 years in existence, Bens has become a part of Montreal’s history,” said Widmer. “Montreal has adopted smoked meat as a Montreal meal.”
For those who miss the sandwiches as much as the memories, throughout the exhibition period, smoked meat prepared according to Bens’ original recipe will be offered at the Museum’s cafe.