I like it when my boss calls us to Montreal for a meeting. I like it even more when he calls the meeting when the weather is nicer than it is in mid-December, such as the two previous times I went up there. The night before we were to all meet in Montreal a few weeks ago, my colleague, Ian, e-mailed that he was going to have a smoked beef sandwich at Schwartz's Deli in the heart of Montreal for lunch the next day. I was familiar with Schwartz's and immediately replied that I was in for it, as well. After getting through customs, and along with my colleagues Matt and Chris, we met up with Ian at Montreal Trudeau International Airport for a trip to Schwartz's Deli.
Schwartz's was opened in 1928 by Romanian Jewish immigrant Reuben Schwartz. The original name of the place was "Montreal Hebrew Deli" before becoming simply known as "Schwartz's Deli". Even though he owned the deli for over 40 years, it is said Rueben Schwartz was a very disagreeable man who was not good at running a business. He was also said to be a gambler, a womanizer, and a man who liked to drink. Even his immediate family hated him - so much so that he eventually had to move in with Maurice Zbringer, a classically-trained musician who played violin, and Zbringer's wife. As a sign of appreciation for taking him in, Schwartz made Zbringer a partner in Schwartz's Deli. And at the age of 75, Zbringer eventually bought the place from Schwartz in 1971.
During Zbringer's ownership, Schwartz's Deli became profitable and renown for their smoked meat sandwiches - basically they take beef brisket that is cured in water with salt, peppercorns, coriander and sugar. The meat is cured for 10 days before it is deep smoked for about six hours, then steamed to moisten the meat. Schwartz's Deli was not the first place to serve Montreal smoked meat. Local legend has it that Ben's De Luxe Delicatessen was the first to serve the smoked meat sandwiches. Ian told us that he used to go to Ben's before it closed down a few years ago after being in business for 98 years. He thought it was the best of the smoked meat sandwiches in Montreal. But Schwartz's - now by default - is the oldest and most well-known of deli's that serve Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches.
It's also said that the Montreal Steak Seasoning - a popular spice and herb seasoning that some people (including myself) use to put on steaks - had its beginning at Schwartz's. Legend has it that back in the 1940's a broiler cook by the name of Morris "The Shadow" Sherman began to season steaks with the pickling seasoning Schwartz's used to season their briskets. The basic spices and herbs were garlic, coriander, dill weed, black pepper, cayenne pepper and salt. Customers liked it so much that other deli and steak places in Montreal began to use it. The Montreal Steak Seasoning is available in most grocery stores in the spice area, or you can order it directly from Schwartz's web site. (Click on the Montreal Steak Seasoning link at the top of the paragraph.)
Maurice Zbringer was in poor health for the later years of his life, but he took a lot of the profits out of the business to fund free music concerts around the Montreal area. After his wife passed away, he had a professional caretaker - Armande Toupin Chartrande - that looked after him and his affairs. As a token of his appreciation for her service to him in his later years, Zbringer willed the delicatessen to Chartrande. She ran it from Zbringer's death in 1981 to 1999.
In 1999, Chartrande sold the business to its accountant, Hy Diamond. Up to that point, Diamond was the only owner of Schwartz's that had any type of formal business training. To help alleviate the long lines of people looking to get a quick sandwich to go, Diamond opened a take-out only location next door to the original Schwartz Deli in 2008.
Diamond owned the business until 2012 when he sold it to a group that included Paul Nakis, owner of the Baton Rouge restaurant chain that started in the Montreal area; Eric and Martin Sara, whose father, Paul Sara, owned the Nickels Deli restaurant chain in Ontario and Quebec; and their aunt and uncle - superstar singer Celine Dion and her husband/manager Rene Angelil. (Dion and Angelil were also owners in Nickels restaurants from their inception in 1990 until they divested themselves from the company in 1997.)
Immediately after the nearly $10 million dollar purchase of Schwartz's Deli, rumors abounded that the group was looking to sell franchises. But Nakis and Angelil have repeatedly said that they are not interested in franchising the Schwartz's Deli concept. However, earlier this year, the group began to sell pre-cooked vacuum-packed Schwartz's Deli smoked meat in grocery stores in the greater Montreal area.
Schwartz's Deli is located on Boulevard Ste. Laurent in the heart of Montreal. (see map) Boulevard Ste. Laurent is known as the Main Street of Montreal, or simply "The Main" to the locals. The street features a number of small restaurants, shops and boutiques, and a somewhat Bohemian population. Because it was a Sunday and there were a lot of people in the area, we were forced to find parking on a side street a couple blocks away from Schwartz's. (Unfortunately, we unknowingly parked in a No Parking zone. When we got back we encountered a Montreal parking attendant writing us a ticket. We soon found out that not being able to read the French "No Parking" signs was not a credible excuse to get out of the ticket.)
We had driven by Schwartz's and noticed the long lines outside the place - something that happens most every day. Even after 2 p.m., the line was about 25 people deep when we walked up to get in the queue. It took us about 25 minutes waiting for people to leave and tables to open up.
(A quick, but important note - Schwartz's is a cash only establishment. They have an ATM in the back of the restaurant if you don't have any Canadian money on you.)
Getting up closer to the front door, we saw a pile of cured smoked meat sitting in a refrigerated case in the window. Chris was wondering what kind of meat it was. I tried to explain that it started out as beef brisket, but it was neither categorized as corned beef or pastrami. Chris decided that it was some sort of "mystery" smoked meat. He was a little leery of trying it, I believe.
We finally got inside and got a table right as you come in the door across from the deli counter. The small place was packed with people sitting at tables and at the counter. A waiter weaved his way through the crowd and came to our table with menus. He took our drink order - no beer at Schwartz's - and the guys got cans of Coca-Cola and I got a water.
In addition to the smoked meat sandwiches - which seemed like what everyone was ordering in the place - they have turkey, chicken or salami sandwiches available. Originally, Schwartz's was a steakhouse when Reuben Schwartz opened 85 years ago and they still have steak dinners on the menu. They have ribeye steaks on the menu and you can also get smoked meat plates if you don't want a sandwich. I almost got the large smoked meat plate because I'd been hankering for a good corned beef-style sandwich or dinner for quite sometime.
The traditional order at Schwartz's is a smoked beef sandwich ($6.40 Canadian Dollars), an order of fries, a kosher dill pickle, cole slaw and a Cherry Coke. That sounded like a lot of food. When the waiter came back to take our order, I was the first to order. I ordered a smoked beef sandwich, fries and a pickle. The waiter asked me how I wanted the sandwich. I looked at him quizzically and he explained, "You can get it lean, medium, medium-fat or fat." I figured fat would be brisket with a lot of the fat still on the meat, so I went with medium. I understand medium-fat is one of the more popular choices among the regulars who go to Schwartz's.
Everyone else at the table followed my lead and went with the exact same thing. And it didn't take long for our sandwiches appear at the table. The meat was piled high on the rye bread with sandwich halves teetering precariously on top. Yellow mustard comes on the sandwich.
I took a bite of the meat without the bread and it was moist and tender, but it was missing that corned beef or pastrami "pizazz". There wasn't much of a smoky taste to the meat, nor did I get much of a salt or peppercorn taste to the meat. It wasn't that it was dull in taste, it was different that what I expect in a cooked beef brisket. Maybe the steaming takes some of the taste out of it. The Montreal-style smoked meat sandwich I had in Omaha was more like a corned beef sandwich. While the sandwich at Schwartz's was similar in look and texture, it was missing that little bite in taste that I like in a good cured brisket sandwich.
I will say the French fries were pretty damned good, however. Whatever they cooked them in gave them an excellent taste. They were a bit soggy, but were loaded with great flavor. My sandwich was OK, but the fries were great. I purposely didn't eat any breakfast that morning so I devoured my sandwich, my fries and the large kosher dill pickle with ease.
Schwartz's Deli is one of those places you have to experience at least once if you're seeking historic places to eat. My sandwich was fine, but not the earth-shaking taste sensation that I had hoped it would be. The reactions of my two colleagues who had never had a Montreal-style smoked meat sandwich before were "Yeah, it was good," to "Aaah, yeah, I guess it was all right." But we decided it probably wasn't anything that we'd stand in line for again. Overrated? Possibly. But it was still cool to give Schwartz's Deli a try.