Meet the Montrealers who are opening restaurants despite the second wave lockdown
These restaurateurs are undaunted as they enter the industry with new offerings
It's no secret that the pandemic has been hard on restaurants.
Beloved eateries like Grumman '78, L'Escalier, Ganadara, La Pizzaiolle and Bar-B-Barn have shut down for good, unable to survive as restrictions on dining rooms have slumped their business.
But while we say goodbye to some classic Montreal haunts, new restaurateurs are waiting in the wings keep the city's culinary scene bustling.
One such owner is Dino Angelo Luciano, a New Yorker and winner of MasterChef Season 8.
Earlier this month, Luciano opened restaurant Le Mariachi in Little Italy, which serves up Southern California-style Mexican food.
He told CBC that when he first moved to Montreal in 2017, he was missing those flavours.
"I would get these cravings," he said. "I could never get anything that really matched that flavour."
So, undaunted by the pandemic, he decided to open up his own place.
"A lot of people told me it would probably not be the best time to open up a restaurant," said Luciano.
But he designed Le Mariachi as a takeout counter, and felt that in a difficult time he could provide some comfort food to people who need it.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, I was going through a hard time. It was very cold. Winters usually get me depressed," he said. "I remember getting really sad and the one thing that kept me really happy was Uber Eats."
"It basically saved me. I thought, if I could do that for other people, it would be worth it."
While Luciano doesn't bill his restaurant as vegan, his menu is 100 per cent plant based.
He said he wanted to recreate the comfort food he was missing in a way where people wouldn't be able to tell the difference.
For example, his calamari tacos, made out of king trumpet mushrooms, have flown mostly under the radar.
"Quite a few people have gotten fooled," he said.
Mostly, he says he doesn't want to be labelled a vegan restaurant because of the negative association that comes with it.
"It doesn't have to taste terrible," he said. "When you try the food, it's exactly as it would be anywhere else."
Plans on hold
Another new arrival this month comes from co-owners William Cody and William Saulnier, formerly of Maïs in Mile End.
The two, along with Peter Popovic of pizzeria Magpie and Sparrow bar, opened a new restaurant in Maïs's old location on Dec. 1.
"It's a scary business to get into in the first place, and it's scarier right now," said Cody, the chef.
He told CBC that after years of whipping up tacos for Maïs, the team planned to close, renovate and reopen with a new concept.
The plan was to reopen March 27. But then the pandemic happened. "We spent a couple months waiting it out like everybody else," said Cody.
As the months dragged on, the team decided to pivot.
"We ended up doing a lobster shack takeout in the back," said Cody.
The successful summer pop-up, called Parasol, helped cover costs while they prepared to open their new restaurant — a cool neighbourhood wine bar called Beau Temps — in October.
The dream of Beau Temps, Cody said, is "a dining room where everyone is really close together and the music is a little loud — everything you can't do now."
One might say that Cody and his team are unlucky, first in March, then October, when restaurants in red zones once again had to close their dining rooms.
But Cody doesn't see it as a matter of luck. "We're by no means the only people in this predicament," he said.
Finally, after months of waiting, the Beau Temps team made the leap and opened anyway, offering a menu of sandwiches.
Cody is hoping they can drum up enough sales to outlast the end of the lockdown.
"I don't think we'll turn a profit for a while, but it will buy us some time until we can actually open," he said. "The silver lining is that we'll have the best summer that anyone has ever had if we make it."
Jumping in feet first
While Beau Temps's plans have been on hold for months, newcomer Dat Aliis has popped up with the intention of operating mainly for takeout and delivery.
Run by Quang Truong, his mother Nguyen Hong Hoa and longtime friend Elie Brisebois, the Vietnamese restaurant was the product of a spontaneous opportunity.
"When I woke up that morning, I didn't know that I would be a restaurant owner by the end of the night," said Brisebois.
Hong Hoa, who is a realtor, stumbled upon a great commercial location in Little Italy.
"It was such a nice opportunity," said Brisebois, who has travelled extensively with Truong in his native Vietnam.
They signed a lease and started preparing in September, before they even had a name or a menu.
But they were united by "a common passion for food" and opened officially in November.
She said they weren't scared of their efforts being dampened by COVID-19, since their business model didn't include table service.
Their menu — which features classics like spring rolls and banh mi — was developed by Truong and given the all-important stamp of approval by his mother.