Head to the Mile End neighbourhood for a Depression-era ‘light lunch,’ and don’t ask to hold the mustard
They call Paul Scheffer “the grill man” of Wilensky’s, and he begins this rainy Saturday morning by slicing open a tray of the day’s sandwich buns and slapping a layer of mustard on them. All the buns get painted with a thick stripe of yellow. Tough break for anyone who doesn’t like it.
For the sake of efficiency, this is how Scheffer starts the day. “Every day,” he says. “And the rolls came squished this time.”
Somewhat famously, the buns – yellowish, and dusted with cornmeal – will end up squished anyway. The crowds will come later, and most people will order the same thing: the Wilensky Special, a sandwich smooshed on a decades-old press until it has no more three-dimensionality or outward charm than a standard McDonald’s hamburger. As the signage explains, the Wilensky Special is a sandwich made with all-beef salami and one thick slice of all-beef bologna. It costs $4.09 plus tax (add a slice of cheddar or swiss cheese for 44 cents, and throw in a pickle – either sour or half-sour – for another 70 cents. And you really should have a pickle). To wash it down, Wilensky’s offers a range of proprietary soda syrups – cola, pineapple, vanilla and six others. You can ask the staff to combine them – for example, to make your very own pineapple cola.
Hordes of locals and tourists alike will try to score one of the tiny stools to order a flat sandwich and a pop. And if they can’t, they’ll take a bag of sandwiches to go and eat them on the street.
Paul Scheffer and another employee go through the morning routine
Today and on many other days, the captain keeping track of each customer’s orders and options – in English and French – is Sharon Wilensky. Along with mother Ruth and brother Asher, she’s a member of the clan that has run Montreal’s most adorable neighbourhood luncheonette for the best part of a century. “I like the mental exercise,” says Wilensky, who navigates the busy task like an old-time bet taker at a basement boxing match.
There are a couple of variations Sharon Wilensky doesn’t have to keep track of because they’re not allowed. As another sign explains, in the form of a poem: “It is always served with mustard / it is never cut for you / … This is the way that it’s been done since 1932!”
Mmmm. The 20th century.
The formula deserves to be left alone: While consisting of four or five simple ingredients, the Wilensky Special is a puck of salty, gooey, lunch-meaty perfection served on a paper serviette. And it’s the chewiness of the bun that really puts the special in the Special. Alternate between nibbles of pickle and bites of sandwich to wash away the fat. As for cheese, swiss and cheddar both work, in different ways. Not everyone will love this, but if your upbringing included a lot of mainstream, processed 20th century North American food – and a Special is definitely a take on that riff – get ready for your gustatory cortex to light up. Nothing tastes as good as nostalgia.
This humble sandwich has, of course, humble beginnings. Sharon’s grandfather Harry started a cigar store and barber shop serving the Mile End neighbourhood when it was predominantly Jewish, and not well off – in contrast to its status today as Montreal’s linguistically mixed, upscale hipster quarter. A few years later Harry’s son Moe – Sharon’s father – suggested buying a grill and serving food, too, for some extra income to help survive the Depression. When the landlord threatened to increase the rent in 1952, the shop moved a block east to its current location at 34 Fairmount Ave. W. (Avenue Fairmount Ouest); Wilensky’s Cigar Store became Wilensky’s Light Lunch.
Fame came later, when Wilensky’s was featured in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the famous coming-of-age novel by one of the neighbourhood’s most famous sons, the late Mordecai Richler. The 1974 film adaptation starring Richard Dreyfuss featured Wilensky’s as itself. There’s a line in the movie in which Dreyfuss-as-Duddy calls out to “Moe” for a smoked meat sandwich (the shop did serve smoked meat back then).
In the intervening decades, the restaurant has become as recognizable to Montrealers as the sandwich itself. The setting has a certain gritty-but-welcoming, mid-20th-century vibe: wood panelling painted a creamy lime green, white tin ceiling, a collage of nostalgic photos and nine stools with wooden seats that feel a bit too small for most bums. On the morning of our visit, a photography crew was shooting a jewellery ad in the space. That kind of thing happens a lot. (“I didn’t tell them this isn’t the first time [someone] has done a jewellery shoot here,” Sharon says.)
Like Richler himself, Wilensky’s has traditionally been a symbol of Montreal’s anglo side. The francophone portion of the clientele has grown since a local French-language channel, Canal D, created a documentary about Wilensky’s in late 2015, sending new visitors to discover the joys of a smooshed fried bologna sandwich.
The first customer on this rainy morning is a man in his thirties who comes in and places an order for four Specials. “It’s my first time here,” he says, in French. “I heard someone talking about in on the radio.”
Wilensky doesn’t keep a mental census of her customers. Just as her family’s shop is emblematic of 20th century Montreal – which was often bitterly divided – her perspective on the city’s perpetual language question is typical of today’s relative harmony. “I don’t count, I don’t care, and I don’t even remember sometimes whether I’ve spoken French or English to someone,” she says. Most lifelong Montrealers under 50 are fully bilingual anyway.
Will Wilensky’s be passed on to another generation? Sharon Wilensky thinks it will. On a practical level, the family bought the building in the 1980s, which protects the business against rent increases. But more importantly, the Wilenskys of the future have what it takes, Sharon says.
“I see my daughter, the way she deals with people,” she says. The outgoing nature you need to be to command the busy counter? It’s there. “It’s something that’s in us. It’s just there.”