Saturday, December 16, 2006

Comings and goings.

The fall semester is heading into the home stretch. On Monday, I have an exam for my Aristotle class and a paper to turn in on Plato's Republic. After that, I'll be tying up loose ends until Thursday, when I go home to spend Christmas with my family. With temperatures in the fifties, it doesn't feel much like Christmas in New York. All the same, I'm looking forward to wrapping things up here and enjoying the holiday at home.

On a sad note, I learned today that Ben's Delicatessen will be closing permanently after 98 years in business in downtown Montreal. A venerable Montreal institution with an eclectic clientele that included celebrities, tourists and locals, Ben's has been closed since July on account of a labor dispute. For nearly five months, the restaurant's unionized employees have been on strike to demand a forty-cent wage increase and an improvement in working conditions. Now, Ben's owner Jean Kravitz, 83, has decided to close the restaurant for good, claiming that a single-outlet restaurant like hers cannot afford the costs of doing business with a unionized workforce. As Alan Hustak and Mike King write in the Montreal Gazette, the storied history of Ben's belies the restaurant's long decline:
Ben's has been a Montreal landmark since Ben Kravitz opened his first delicatessen on St. Laurent Blvd. in 1908.

It has been at its present location, at Metcalfe St. and de Maisonneuve Blvd., since 1950. After Jean's husband, Irving Kravitz, died in 1992, the staff declined from 75 to 25. Though the restaurant remained a popular tourist attraction, many former customers say it was coasting on its reputation.

Ben's is in one of the last three-storey buildings on de Maisonneuve amid an ever encroaching canyon of skyscrapers. Construction of a 28-storey, $150-million office tower that would wrap around the building that houses Ben's was announced in October. Since then, there has been speculation the project would be redesigned to include the space now occupied by Ben's.

. . .

In its heyday, Ben's was part of Montreal's entertainment district, an after-hours night spot behind the Mount Royal Hotel that attracted actors, athletes, celebrities, movie stars, politicians and weirdos. Its walls were plastered with photographs of legitimate film stars, like Richard Chamberlain, and others who had their 15 minutes of fame and were forgotten, like Wayland Flowers.

For years, a faded newspaper story displayed in the front window told the story of how a 9-year-old Montrealer, Michael L'Abbe Aylwin, knocked out boxing legend Jack Dempsey.

The Kravitz family said yesterday it donated the photos and much of the deli's memorabilia to a Montreal museum, the name of which was not made public.

"Through our doors have passed the entire 20th-century history of Montreal," a prepared statement said. "In appreciation, we have an agreement in principle with a well-known institution to preserve Ben's unique memorabilia.

Details on the memorabilia are expected to be announced early in the new year.
So ends the life of one of my favorite restaurants. Before I entered the Society, I used to enjoy going to Ben's on periodic visits to Montreal. Aside from their trademark smoked meat sandwich, the cuisine at Ben's was nothing to write home about. Ben's had a dingy, 'past its prime' air about it, but for me that was part of the charm of the place. Another part of the charm of Ben's was a sign at the entrance that read, "Through these doors pass the finest people in the world - our customers." Matching the spirit of this sign with friendly service, Ben's had a crew of chatty, bow-tied waiters who had worked at the restaurant for decades and who would happily linger at a customer's table to share stories of their many years at Ben's. Never very busy, Ben's was also a place where I could sit with a book or a newspaper and spend a relaxing hour or two eating, reading and watching the world go by without having to give up my table for another customer. In all of these ways (and others), Ben's differed from its longtime competitor Schwartz's, which arguably served better food but was also a crowded, noisy place where the staff treated the customers like cattle.

For all of the foregoing reasons, I will miss Ben's Delicatessen. Montreal is a city I love returning to again and again, but going there without going to Ben's will take some getting used to. With a melancholy heart, I say farewell to Ben's - and thanks for the memories. AMDG.


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