Some Things Never Change
Painting by Anna Rumin
Montreal is freezing. A brisk minus 10 Celsius, and I don’t even want to consider the wind chill factor.
A leisurely Sunday stretches out in front—a day that entices me to lounge on the couch in comfy sweats and my old gray socks with a cup of coffee and a good book. But I find myself craving Schwartz’s smoked meat. Crazy if you know me. I suggest Schwartz’s for lunch, and my husband Jonathan readily agrees.
“We’ll walk there,” he says. Good idea. It’s forty minutes each way, and a bracing walk in freezing temperatures is required to counter the caloric intake.
We arrive at noon, and blessedly, there is no lineup outside the door. The last time we were here was in July when we brought the fourteen-year-old granddaughter of my girlfriend in Warsaw, who was staying with us to improve her English.
That day, the lineup snaked down the street as far as the eye could see. So I quickly headed to the front of the line to ask the people there how long they had waited. “Forty minutes,” the man replied. “We’re from New York City, and it’s supposed to be worth it.”
I retreated to the end of the line, where I had left Jonathan with the teenager. The family behind us was from Pittsburgh—with two cute little boys who looked about six and eight. The family of five in front was visiting from Pakistan.
“Forty minutes,” I said to everyone around me. The father from Pittsburgh decided he had enough time to take his boys to the chicken place next door while his wife remained holding their place in line.
Today, on this cold winter day, it’s quiet outside but packed inside. We are given the only seats available, and the only table for two, at the back of the restaurant next to the kitchen.
In Montreal, Schwartz’s on Boulevard Saint-Laurent has arguably the best smoked meat sandwich in the world and leaves any wannabe sandwich available struggling to get another bite. There is no debate.
The sign above the door reads Charcuterie Hébraïque de Montréal Inc, in conformity with Montreal’s language laws, but nobody ever calls it that. We all just call it Schwartz’s — don’t call it Schwartz. It’s been on Saint-Laurent since 1928.
Saint-Laurent divides Montreal from east to west; it’s our version of the Mason-Dixon Line. Historically, the French lived east, and the English lived west. The Jewish immigrants lived in the middle around Saint-Laurent. And that’s where Schwartz’s was — and still is— smack in the middle of one of the most vibrant cities in the world.
I first entered this venerable establishment with my Jewish boyfriend (now husband) over thirty-five years ago, and I did not do well. We had waited twenty minutes in a line that extended down the block to get in. The place was packed and noisy, and the decor — although calling it that is a huge stretch — had a 1950s time-stood-still feel. The walls were covered with photos of famous actors, athletes, comedians, journalists, politicians and prime ministers who had eaten there.
We were seated at one of the long Formica tables lining the wall down one side, opposite a lunch counter with chrome-framed stools. I was next to a burly guy wearing a plaid lumberjacket. The menu was printed on the placemat, and I could feel the slight film of grunge on everything. It did not feel like my kind of place.
I ordered a smoked meat sandwich, although I probably asked for it extra lean. I know for certain I asked for plain water instead of black cherry Coke, which I realize today is an essential part of the experience. I wasn’t interested in a heaping plate of greasy French fries, although admittedly they looked delicious, or the large sour pickle.
But my real downfall was I didn’t know how to kibbitz with the waiter who had probably worked there since the 1950s. He felt sorry for my boyfriend for landing badly in life with a shiksa, who did not have much of a sense of humour.
It’s exactly the same today. But I have changed.
I am a convert. Like many converts, I have a messianic message. The smoked meat sandwiches are to die for — a heavenly treat. Thick hand-sliced hot smoked meat generously stacked high between pieces of fresh rye bread with a slight slathering of yellow mustard. You order it based on how much fat you want: lean, medium, and fat. The sandwich, beef brisket with the famous Montreal steak spices (invented at Schwartz’s by The Shadow, the broilerman, in the 1940s), melts in your mouth.
They say the beef has been cured for ten days in their brick smokehouse oven, which has almost one hundred years of accumulated schmutz to improve the taste. The exact recipe is a closely guarded secret. The city of Montreal has recently banned wood-burning stoves, so I don’t exactly know how the smoked meat is cured these days, but I don’t worry about it.
There is a God because about fifteen years ago, Schwartz’s opened a takeout option next door. During the pandemic lockdown, when all indoor dining establishments were closed, we could walk to Schwartz’s — stand in line two metres apart — so the line, as usual, went way down the block — and take out the medium-fat sandwiches (yes, I graduated), fries and cherry cokes.
I have had corned beef sandwiches at Katz’s in New York and pastrami ones at Langer’s in downtown L.A. Absolutely nothing has come close to a Schwartz’s smoked meat sandwich. It is truly a pièce de résistance. Put it on your bucket list, and trust me on the cherry coke.
Here’s the real deal: