Sunday, January 07, 2007

Homage to Bens

As many have noted over the last few weeks since it was announced that this downtown Montreal institution was closing its doors forever, Bens had seen better days. We here at " endless banquet" reported as much way back in November 2004, in AEB's infancy, in a two-part post that you can find here and here, respectively, and already if Bens hadn't been the ideal location for our unlikely tête-à-tête with David Thomson, it would have gone without saying. Heck, that Bens was in a bit of a tailspin was evident even back in the late '80s when I first started frequenting the place. By that time, Bens' bread-and-butter, its famous smoked meat sandwich, had been left in the dust by its competitors and the only thing left was its structural elements--its great late-Deco exterior and that amazing interior with that notorious Wall of Fame (more "where are they now?" than "Who's Who")--and the faded glory of its atmosphere, especially after hours. Back then there was still a sense of bustle at Bens, and if memory serves the place was still running 24 hours a day, as unlikely as that now seems. Anyway, here Bens was on the verge of its 100th anniversary and I just kept hoping against hope that someone with a little vision might take the place over and breathe a little life into it. I didn't even care if it went touristy in the way that the Carnegie Deli went touristy in the years that followed Broadway Danny Rose, with grossly overpriced sandwiches and the like, as long as they found some way to keep what was left of the magic going. As with everything else around here, the fear of losing an old friend wouldn't be nearly so bad if we didn't have to worry so much about who the new neighbor was going to be. And with downtown being the way it is--a veritable vacuum when it comes to anything resembling a true metropolitan culture--god knows we need all the help we can get. When I first heard about the strike, I had a feeling it was the end. I sympathized with the workers as they formed their picket line, but the way things had been going with Bens I felt certain that this would be the excuse management would use to finally call it quits. Before long it was clear that that was exactly the way things were playing out. Then, late last year, the announcement came. Will someone step in and find a way to resurrect the space, save this little corner of downtown from becoming yet another highrise, yet another parking lot? I'd love to think so, but it's not clear to me that there's anyone with the resources and taste in this town to pull off such a feat of derring-do.

Anyway, there was a time when Bens occupied a certain space in the center of Montreal, culturally as well as geographically. There was a time when Bens made the most wonderful and logical setting for shots such as this one, from Michel Brault's Entre la mer et l'eau douce (1965):

Genevieve at Bens

Those were the days.



michel said...

i loved the garish yellow. went a couple of years ago and had the worst service from the snappiest waiter. but it was still fun.

a photo from 2005

Le G said...

Yes, when I ate meat, it was a great place to hang. Though, after giving up the flesh, I stil found the surly service and garish decor appealing. Not to mention the cherry coke.

An image of my own: