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Mordecai Richler's Montreal


Ten years after Mordecai Richler's death, Sian Griffiths goes on a literary crawl of the novelist's old neighbourhood as well as some of his downtown drinking haunts



Sian Griffiths

guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 11 January 2011 11.27 GMT

Article history


Schwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen ... Richler was a big fan of their famous smoked meat sandwich. Photograph: Sian Griffiths

Nearly 10 years after his death, there is again great interest in the award-winning author Mordecai Richler and his vision of Montreal. A new Golden Globe-nominated film based on his book Barney's Version, starring Paul Giamatti and Minnie Driver, is being released in the UK at the end of this month. In Montreal, there is a movement to commemorate Richler by naming a street or place after him - which is meeting with strong resistance from Quebec nationalists who still resent how he poked fun at their cause and what he saw as their draconian language laws, especially in his book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country.



Mordecai Richler. Photograph: Steve Russell/AP

But Richler will always be remembered for using his biting wit and vivid imagery to evoke the experience of the "minority within a minority" - Montreal's Jewish immigrants - in classics such as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.


Richler grew up on Rue St Urbain in the historic Mile End district, a 15-minute ride on the 55 bus from downtown Montreal. In its heyday, during the early 1950s, this district was home to a 25,000-strong Jewish working-class community. Yiddish was the language of the street and small home-grown businesses, bakeries and factories flourished. The new arrivals settled mostly around Boulevard St-Laurent. "The Main", as it came to be known, was the unofficial demarcation line between the city's anglophones and francophones. The Jewish neighbourhood effectively became the buffer zone between Montreal's English-speaking and French-speaking communities.


Today the area has lost much of its Jewish character as the earlier immigrants became more affluent and moved to more well-heeled anglophone neighbourhoods, such as Westmount. Spanish, Portuguese and Italian immigrants have since moved in, and the area is now more hip, arty and gentrified, with the factories having been converted into trendy lofts. But there are still charming reminders that celebrate an important chapter in Montreal's history.


St Viateur Bagel Shop



Open 24 hours a day, St Viateur - now run by an Italian - is one of Montreal's institutions and a mainstay of Mile End. Richler's fictional students stop for bagels in the opening scenes of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Enjoy the aroma and the show as the cheeky, cheerful staff prepare fresh bagels (35p and up) in a wood-fired oven. Assorted spreads are available separately (£1.90 and up + tax).


• 263, Rue Saint-Viateur Ouest, stviateurbagel.com, +1 514 276 8044.


Rue St Urbain



Richler grew up at the northern end of Rue St Urbain between Avenue du Parc and Boulevard St Laurent. The street, which was immortalised in Richler's St Urbain's Horseman, was to influence the author's work for a lifetime: "One street would have seemed as squalid as the next. On each corner a cigar store, a grocery, and a fruit man. Outside staircases everywhere," he wrote in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. That vision is largely gone, along with the old Jewish immigrant community. Richler's own home at number 5257 is opposite a yoga centre, evidence of the area's gentrification. He attended Baron Byng High School at number 4251. Now a community centre, its students were largely working-class Jewish kids - many of whom, like Richler, became very successful: William "Captain Kirk" Shatner and Nobel Chemistry Prize winner Rudolph Marcus are among the alumni. Duddy fans will recognise Baron Byng as "Fletcher's Field" High School.


Wilensky's Light Lunch



Ruth Wilensky and daughter

A few moments from the Richler home is Wilensky's, which was a favourite hangout for young Mordecai and his mates - and remains virtually unchanged since it was founded by Moe Wilensky in 1932. Newspaper clippings on the wall proudly attest their Duddy Kravitz connection. The signature dish is a grilled roll of beef salami, bologna, Swiss cheese with a liberal dash of mustard (£3), served up by family members, including Moe's spritely 90-year-old widow Ruth Wilensky.


• 34 Fairmount Street West and Clark , +1 514 271 0247.


Schwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen


Richler indulged his fondness for smoked meats at this world-famous deli. The boulevard is bursting with energy, trendy bars, restaurants and vintage shops. He paid tribute to Schwartz's in Barney's Version, describing their smoked meat as a "maddening aphrodisiac". In his children's book, Jacob Two Two and the Dinosaur, Richler subjected one of his characters to the "Smoked Meat Torture". The deli has the air of a 50s diner. Their most popular dishes are, of course, the smoked meat sandwich (£3.70 + tax) and "the Schwartz combo platter" (steak with smoked meat on the side, salad and chips, £10.60). Celebrity fans include Angelina Jolie, the Rolling Stones, Halle Berry and Celine Dion.


• 3895 Boul St Laurent, schwartzsdeli.com, + 1 514 842 4813.


Mount Royal



The 233m-high "mountain", home to Mount Royal Park, is an important physical divide between Westmount, (traditionally the affluent English-speaking neighbourhood) and Outremont or "other side of the mountain" (the traditionally French-speaking area), which now has a significant Hassidic Jewish community. The park, one of Montreal's greatest green spaces, was designed by New York Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmstead. It's a stunning year-round outdoor playground for hikers, joggers and cyclists and offers a wide range of winter activities including skating on the Lac aux Castors. All winter equipment can be rented from the pavilion (inner-tube £3 per day; skates £5 for two hours; cross country skis from £7.50 for three hours). There are also guided showshoeing tours (£9.50). On a clear day, the Kondiaronk Belvedere offers spectacular views across Montreal. Smith House serves tasty homemade food (soup £1.50, sandwiches from £4.00). All within walking distance of the number 11 bus route .


• Smith House, 1260 Remembrance Road, lemontroyal.qc.ca, +1 514 843 8240.


Mount Royal Cemetery



Mordecai Richler's grave

Richler's final resting place is in the vast, beautiful, 19th-century graveyard on the northern slope of Mount Royal. You can access the cemetery via the rear entrance across from Mount Royal Park on the Voie Camillien Houde (also on the 11 bus route) - although the main entrance and office are on the north side on Chemin de la Foret. It is Montreal's answer to London's Highgate cemetery, with many notable people buried here. Richler's grave overlooks his beloved St Urbain neighbourhood. Other "permanent residents" include beer baron John Molson Sr, the 18th-century explorer David Thompson, railway tycoon and Titanic victim Charles Melville Hays and, curiously, Anna Leonowens of The King and I fame. From spring to autumn there are with walking tours (free) and it occasionally stages Shakespeare in the Park. It was used for a key scene in the film Barney's Version.


• Open all year around (check winter road conditions before travel). Main entrance: 1297 Chemin de la Foret. Organised Walks and Shakespeare in the Park: check website for details, mountroyalcem.com.


Ritz Carlton Hotel



Montreal's historic Golden Square Mile - home to high-end stores, boutiques, restaurants, the Musee des Beaux Arts and McGill University - sits on the southern slope of Mount Royal. Bounded by Chemin de la Côte des Neiges to the west, Boulevard René-Lévesque to the south and Rue University to the east, this prestigious district got its name from the well-heeled Anglo-Scottish Victorian movers and shakers who lived here around the turn of the century. The neo-classical Ritz Carlton is a vestige of this era and one of the chicest addresses in Montreal, although it's currently under renovation. Designed by Warren & Wetmore, the architects behind New York's Ritz Hotel and Grand Central Station, it's about as far from Richler's St Urbain as you can get. Its Maritime Bar was one of the author's favourites before it shut down. The wedding scenes for Barney's Version were filmed at the hotel.


• 1228 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, ritzmontreal.com, +1 514 842 4212.





The drinking holes Richler liked to frequent, like Grumpy's, are also situated in the Golden Square Mile, just south of Rue Sherbrooke. The bar appears as Dink's in the Barney's Version film. There is a framed photograph of the writer opposite the chair he used to occupy at the end of the wooden bar. Grumpy's is known for its sociable atmosphere - although since Richler's day, it has become more popular with students, particularly McGill University's "jazz rats" drawn by the live music. Every night there is a theme, including the popular Bluegrass night on Thursday.


• 1242 Rue Bishop, grumpysbar.ca, +1 514 866 9010.


Winnie's Bar



One street over you'll find upmarket Winnie's bar-restaurant, another favourite Richler haunt, which gets a nod in Barney's Version. Occupying the mid-section of the large Sir Winston Churchill Pub complex, it offers a warm ambiance with its marble, wood and leather decor. Many employees and regulars alike have been loyal to Winnie's for 30 years. It specialises in alcoholic coffees (Irish, Brazilian: £5.30) while the restaurant offers three-course lunch specials from £6.20.


• 1455-1459 Rue Crescent, winniesbar.com, +1 514 288 3814.





Across the street from Winnie's and down the stairs is Ziggy's, a cosy sports pub favoured by Richler, hockey fans and players. Richler liked to smoke his trademark cigars outside on the terrace. This end of Rue Crescent was closed for a street party when Richler passed away, so that regulars of Winnie's and Ziggy's could join together to celebrate the author. The emphasis at Ziggy's - where the crowd tends to be a little older - is on drinking and socialising. There is no food which is perhaps why Richler sent a taxi to pick up smoked meat sandwiches from Schwartz's.


• 1470 Rue Crescent, ziggyspub.ca, +1 514 285 8855.


Photographs by Sian Griffiths



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