In the past year, as you can all see, I’ve visited hundreds of Jewish delis. I’ve been to massive places in suburban Detroit, classic diners in Beverly Hills, family favorites in Florida, and kosher classics in New York. I’ve eaten at Katz’s, Carnegie, Stage and Langer’s, Zingerman’s, Manny’s, Canter’s, and the Rascal House. I have had amazing sandwiches and been awed by the atmosphere, but I can not and will not compare these places to Schwartz’s.
It would simply be unfair.
Schwartz’s. Chez Schwartz. Charcuterie Hebraique de Montreal. Schwartz. Call it what you will. Enter in either English or French. No matter who you are, whether a deli fan for life or a virgin to the taste of smoked meat, nothing will prepare you for the unique, almost religious experience.
It is a deli in the most classic sense. A tiny shoebox of a place, crammed with tables and chairs and strangers deposited so close that their elbows brush as they eat sandwiches and steaks. The menu is bare bones. You can get a smoked meat sandwich, a liver steak, a rib steak, or a smoked chicken. A duck or turkey can be ordered a few days in advance and geese are available at Christmas time. It is always accompanied by a starter of karnatzel, a side of dill pickle (full sour only) and a bowl of sweet vinegar coleslaw. There’s no Dr. Brown’s, just can after can of Cott’s Black Cherry to wash it all down.
To a deli afficionado, Schwartz’s is the Western Wall, the Louvre, the Imperial Palace. There have been books and films paying tribute to it. It’s a place so hallowed in tradition and meaning, that changing it in any way will provoke a riot. It has remained unmolested on St. Laurent Ave (which will always be known as The Main) for three quarters of a century, despite changing owners four times. It’s current owner, accountant Hy Diamond, sees himself as a caretaker and curator. Though the money is always waiting in daily offers to expand, franchise, and sell the name, Diamond knows that the reason Schwartz’s is so beloved…the reason for the lineups from lunch until closing time at 2 am, is respect. Respect is the name of the game.
It’s a mutual respect. Schwartz’s respects the recipee of Reuben Schwartz’s dry cured smoked meat. Briskets are rubbed with pickling spices (garlic, pepper, salt, etc…) and left to cure in barrels for 1-2 weeks. When ready, they are hung up and wheeled into a brick smoker the size of a large closet , where a gas burner heats them over several hours until the meat is dark red and the fat has dripped and burnt back into pure flavor.
Schwartz’s respects the need to steam the briskets for three hours, until they are ready to fall apart, and then only cutting them by hand, with experienced hands like Joao “Johnny” Goncalves, who slices with an intimate knowledge of the meat that has strained his arm so badly he has the deli equivalent of tennis elbow.
The sandwich is always hot, always juicy, and always served with mustard on crisp edged, buttery soft rye bread. It is the taste of smoked meat in its purest, finest, and most famous form. A touch spicy, a bit salty, always fatty, and foremost tender. It drips down your throat and dissapears in four bites, a glorious, debauched, greasy invocation of pure animal savagery. Heaven.
Schwartz’s respects customers with fries that are fresh cut daily, fried twice, and always crisp. They respect them with the products sitting right in the front window, where the world can see how fresh it is. Schwartz’s respects with rib steaks broiled to perfection, on a battered grill burning pure wood charcol, with nothing on the steak but a mix of dry spices. Schwartz’s shows its respect by grilling that steak right every time, and serving it up with a little appeteaser of grilled karnatzel and a bit of liver. No rice. No salad. Nothing but pure, bloody meat.
The respect comes from those who tend to Schwartz’s on a daily basis. Manager Frank Silva is the captain of the ship, a second generation employee with a big toothy smile and a happy go lucky attitude. His job is to keep the ship on course, which he does by working his ass off every single day. That brand of tireless dedication is a rare trait, which makes Silva a blessed figure. He could have worked at a million places by now, but he doesn’t. A tip of the cap to him.
Respect also comes from employees like Ronnie and Alexandre (aka Bond aka 007). These guys are there every day, serving sandwiches, hauling briskets, or cleaning plates. Ronnie is working his way behind the counter and will be a legendary cutter in the future. Alexandre is a poet and a great one at that. He buses tables with a wit and composure that befits a great literary figure. These men are class acts, and the respect they command is what Schwartz’s gets.
In turn, the customers respect Schwartz’s. They wait in line, sometimes for an hour, in the freezing cold of a Montreal winter, or the scorching sun of summer, or the rains of spring. They squeeze into tiny tables, order with precision (out of respect for a busy waiter), eat with a rapid passion, and pay the bill in cash as quickly as they can. Schwartz’s is not for lingering, it’s greatness is absorbed like a shotgun blast of flavor and nostalgia. Go back time and again, but it will never feel like enough. It is the classic Montreal deli and in my opinion it could be the greatest deli of all time.
*Note: below is video of Alan Dershowitz’s first bites of Schwartz’s smoked meat. While many of you know Harvard Law Professor Dershowitz as a celebrated criminal defense attourney, legal scholar, and ardent defender of Israel and the Jewish people, few of you know that he is a Brooklyn born and raised delicatessen maven, with a history of deli involvement and keen sense of tastebuds. He agreed to visit Schwartz’s with me on his latest trip to Montreal and I’m grateful for the experience and his company. He’s a true mensch in the most haymish sense of the word, and I believe now a Schwartz’s devotee for life. A bi Gezunte Prof. Dershowitz!
Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen
3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard
Montreal, Quebec Ě
(514) 842-4813 Ě Fax: (514) 842-0800