Montreal

Northeastern Lunch sign reveals storied past of Montreal wartime diner

Montreal's long-forgotten Northeastern Lunch diner — an establishment that inspired one of Leonard Cohen's earliest poems — is at risk of being demolished.

Leonard Cohen wrote about the men he imagined eating at the Northeastern Lunch counter

Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage Montreal says he doesn't know of any other tile-mosaic signs like the one of the Northeastern Lunch in Montreal's gay village. (Thomas Gerbet/Radio-Canada)

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  • The building's owner and the borough confirm the facade will be preserved.

Montreal's long-forgotten Northeastern Lunch diner — an establishment that inspired one of Leonard Cohen's earliest poems — is at risk of being demolished.

The building isn't much to look at these days.

The diner chain went bankrupt in 1934. (Thomas Gerbet/Radio-Canada)

Mostly hidden from view by cheap plywood and concert posters, the building that sits at 1001 Ste-Catherine Street East once housed a branch of a popular chain of eateries. Its tile-mosaic sign, long hidden by a peepshow sign and only uncovered recently, is the only indication of the business that once stood there.

First opened in 1912, Northeastern Lunch had several locations in Montreal, including ones on St-James Street (now St-Jacques Street), Queen Mary Road and on the ground floor of the Sun Life Building.

The former restaurant on Ste-Catherine Street East near St-Timothée Street will soon be torn down to make way for new condos, according to a construction worker at the site.

In February 2014, a fire at a neighbouring night club damaged the building that housed Northeastern Lunch.

Leonard Cohen, pictured here in his early 20s. (Folkways Records)

In the years between World War I and World War II, Montrealers lined up outside of Northeastern Lunch for a five-cent plate of pork and beans.

In 1954, at the age of 20, Cohen wrote a poem with a French title, Les vieux. In it, he described what he imagined the old men sitting at the lunch counter looked like.

"Northeastern Lunch

with rotting noses and tweed caps,

huddling in thick coats

and mumbling confidential songs

to ancient friends –

the public men of Montreal"

A piece of Montreal history

A Northeastern Lunch delivery truck, pictured here in about 1930. (McCord Museum/Radio-Canada)

Radio-Canada's Thomas Gerbet contacted Heritage Montreal, an organization dedicated to the defence of the city's heritage. Director Dinu Bumbaru said he wasn't aware of the recent uncovering of the Northeastern Lunch sign. 

After doing some research, Bumbaru said it holds an important cultural significance, particularly because of the uniqueness of its tile-mosaic sign.

"I don't know any other signs like it," he said.

The condo developer planning to build on the site should find a way to work the sign into the façade of the new building, he continues. 

The building's owner, Richard Rumpf — of the Rumpf family, known in Montreal for the sheer number of commercial buildings it owns — could not be reached for comment. Last year, his father found himself mired in a controversy surrounding a condo plan for a heritage building at the corner of Bishop Street and De Maisonneuve Boulevard.

According to information found by Radio-Canada, the Northeastern Lunch Company went bankrupt in 1934. How Leonard Cohen, born in 1934, even knows about this restaurant remains a mystery. ​

Cohen responds

Leonard Cohen himself reached out to Radio-Canada to share his memories of the Northeastern Lunch. He said he spent time there in his teens.

"It was a restaurant, not exactly flourishing, but definitely functional. It was a good spot. Well-lit," he wrote in an email.

Translated by Tracey Lindeman from a report by Thomas Gerbet

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