A year and a half ago, David Thomson came into town for a couple of rare public appearances. His new edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Film had just been released to yet another generation of rave reviews. The Montreal International Film Festival had decided to celebrate its release by presenting Mr. Thomson with an honorary award.
During his sojourn in town Librairie Paragraphe hosted one of Mr. Thomson’s engagements—a lecture/question & answer session/book signing. The MIFF was typically tight-lipped about Mr. Thomson’s presence in town. I was working the festival and the only reason I found out Mr. Thomson was around was because my friend Paul, the events guru at Paragraphe, called me to tip me off. To my knowledge, the local press completely missed him. Anyway, I promptly got on the horn with our friends at Automatic Vaudeville™ and, together with M, we made a date of it.
Mr. Thomson was brilliant. It was easily one of the best book signings I’ve ever attended, and as a veteran of a half a dozen bookstores, I’ve seen my share. His talk was loose, lucid, and witty. He covered an enormous amount of territory without notes but somehow managed to reel it in. There was a fair bit of cinephilia-is-dead melancholy to Mr. Thomson’s comments, a fair bit of nostalgia, but between our party and the aging-hippy-revival-house-cinema-owning couple who’d come up from Vermont to hear him speak, it’s safe to say he had a receptive audience for this angle. Mr. Thomson has hardly totally given up on the cinema, though (his work on the New Biographical Dictionary of Film is testament to this on some level), and any sense of loss was tempered by his clear enthusiasm for the cinematic experience, even if this cinematic experience has been greatly eroded over the decades. The fact that Mr. Thomson lives in the Bay Area and has access to the Pacific Film Archive, the Castro, et al. probably makes it a bit easier to weather the storm.
We left our encounter with Mr. Thomson charmed and energized, with our signed copies of the Biographical Dictionary, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, and Suspects in tow, and we made our way outside—but we found ourselves incapable of leaving the premises entirely. Instead we milled around outside and peeped through Paragraphe’s bay windows jealously as Paul had a one-on-one with Mr. Thomson. Then we watched Mr. Thomson grab his things and just walk out the door. Just like that. We’d been joking/talking about how great it would be to take him out for lunch, but we figured he’d get an invite from the Paragraphe brass, or that he’d get picked up by some film festival honcho, or something… But he just walked out solo. We deliberated for a minute—just long enough for Mr. Thomson to get a block and a half away—and then we ran after him like a gaggle of schoolkids. “Uh, Mr. Thomson?… Hi. Remember us? From the bookstore? We were just wondering…if you had any lunch plans?” It was already nearly 3:00pm by this time, but he accepted anyway.
Now, the problem was, where to go? Montreal is a great food town for a city of its size, but one of the tragedies of living in Montreal is that downtown Montreal (the part that stands above famed The Underground City, the only part, aside from le Vieux Montréal, that most tourists ever see, unless, of course, they’re really funky and they happen to make it to le Plateau Mont-Royal) is a wasteland when it comes to good food. (Which finally gets me to the point of this story.) With limited options at hand, we opted for an “old classic”—an “old classic” that also had the advantage of being a mere 500 ft. away: Bens™.
Bens (that’s right, no apostrophe), at 96 years old, is one of Montreal’s oldest, most venerable restaurants. It’s even older than the Montreal Pool Room (1912), for Christ’s sake [note: more on the MPR later]. The problem is, it’s venerated primarily for its architecture (late deco), its interior design (50s-era diner), and the memories it provokes in those old enough to remember its heyday (my Dad always likes to tell the story of the night he came across Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald sharing a late-night meal at Bens after a gig, sometime in the early 60s). It’s safe to say that Bens has seen better days. Its “wall of fame” is still impressive, if a bit faded, but every other aspect of Bens has gone downhill (a fact attested to by the signage currently to be seen out front). The food (including their “famous” smoked meat [note: more on real Montreal smoked meat later]) is run-of-the-mill and overpriced. The service is spotty. The ambience? Morose. But it still has that great décor, and it was close, so we went.