Massimo Lecas, owner of Montreal's Buonanotte supperclub, has agreed to—among other things—keep a list of criminals breaking court-ordered conditions just by being in his restaurant. If any people on the list show up, a panel of administrative judges ruled that he has to cooperate with police and see them out.
Lecas agreed to this condition, as well as a 40-day liquor license suspension, because of a wide range of issues brought to the attention of the province's liquor board by Montreal police. Those issues included overcrowding during F1 weekend, bottles of booze with improper stickers, and the occasional bar fight.
Buonanotte has a reputation as a mob hangout, so much so that plain-clothes police officers from Montreal's "Éclipse" organized crime unit would regularly show up during service and demand that certain patrons be expelled. But now, with the law on his side, Lecas says he is no longer at the mercy of the police's "arbitrary" demands to kick people out of his restaurant.
Buonanotte is also an institution on Montreal's ever-changing St-Laurent boulevard. Over 20 years ago, Lecas' restaurant ushered in the era of the supper club in Montreal, a phenomenon that most people now associate with bros, bottle service, miniskirts, and valet-parked Ferraris. But the supperclub—and its now-defunct sister club Globe—are also where pioneering Montreal chefs like Martin Picard (Au Pied de Cochon), Dave McMillan and Fred Morin (Joe Beef), and Bobby Flay-destroyer Chuck Hughes (Le Bremner/Garde Manger) got their start.
Then there was the "Pastagate" scandal of 2013, wherein Quebec's Office de la Langue Francaise (OQLF), commonly referred to as "the language police", demanded that Buonanotte remove the words "pasta", "calamari" and "antipasti" from their menu and replacing with their appropriate French equivalents. Instead of conforming, Lecas made waves by going to the media. That move eventually led to the resignation of Louise Marchand, the head of the "overzealous" OQLF, and made language rights a campaign issue during provincial elections.
Clearly, Lecas is no stranger to controversy, or meddling bureaucracy, so we caught up with the Buonanotte owner to find out why this new agreement with the authorities is so groundbreaking.
MUNCHIES: What was your interaction like with the police before this agreement? Massimo Lecas: They [Éclipse] would come into our restaurant and say, "Don't you know who that is?" and we would say, "No!" Then they would say, "That guy got out of jail last week, and I would like you to ask him to leave." First of all, how do I know who he is? Who's telling me who he is? And if he's out, he must be a free man; and if he's not doing anything unlawful, I have no reason to kick him out.
Why was Éclipse asking you to kick people out? They were telling us, "You have to ensure the safety of your clientele, so if you have four ne'er-do-wells in your place that are endangering your clientele, it's your responsibility to kick them out." So we were like, "Isn't that your job?" I'm not here to put myself or my staff in danger. That's what they were asking us to do and that's what we refused to do. So we did not collaborate with the police at that point.
Have other restaurants been asked to enforce "gangster" lists like this? Another restaurant got a 100-day suspension and they were given a list of 15 or 20 people that were associated or alleged criminals that police did not want to see in their place any longer. But we refused that, too. If you had Al Capone on the list, and Al Capone didn't have any current infractions or anything pending and he's out as a free man, who am I to go and see Al Capone and say, "You can't come to my restaurant"? I can't do that.
So, how is this deal different? This is the groundbreaking part of our decision. We said, "We found cases where you have already given conditions, like 'you cannot be in a bar after 11 PM or in this street after 11 PM.'" It's up to police and prosecutors to [deal with] court-ordered conditions. That's what the judicial system is there for. Let them fight it out in court, and if the judge rules that he doesn't want to see so-and-so inside Buonanotte, that's fine! At least we will have the law behind us. It's not something arbitrary, or a gray zone that they are using for us to do their dirty work.
So what exactly is this "list" that you have agreed to? It's a list of people who have court-ordered conditions to not come to my place. It's way better than them telling us, "Get these guys out of here!" We will collaborate with them for this. But they're doing me a humongous favour because the minute that guy walks into my place and he's breaking one of his conditions, the cops come, there isn't even a trial, he goes right back to prison. So I don't care how good my pizza is, or how good my vodka sodas are, but are you really coming to Buonanotte and putting yourself in that position? I don't think so.
Do the police use plain-clothes officers in a lot of restaurants? Éclipse is around town at New City Gas, they're at Beachclub. Basically, wherever you have models and bottles, they are there. They go into bars and want to find out why there's a guy buying a $1,000 bottle of Champagne. Then they say, "Don't you know that this guy is in the Irish Mafia?" I don't know! And even if I did, if the guy is drinking a bottle of Champagne and dancing to a Kanye West song, does that mean that he's doing something unlawful?
Why do you think that your restaurant has been a target for the liquor board, the language police, and the normal police? Louise Marchand, who used to be the head of the OQLF, is now at the Régie. That's factual. She got fired for "Pastagate", she is now at the Régie des alcools [provincial liquor board]. Is it factual that it's her who's after us? I can't say. Is it factual that one of her colleagues is so pissed for her that he's after us? I don't know. Is it the police? Are we too successful for Quebec? We're going to be celebrating our 24th year in business now.
It's pretty rare for a restaurant to stay open for that long in Montreal, or anywhere, really. How many restaurants are closed after two years? A lot of these five-star restaurants close after five years.
During Mural Festival, you were serving really simple sausage and pepper sandwiches at a super reasonable price. It seems like you're willing to adapt to St-Laurent, which is always changing. We can come and we can go but St-Laurent is still St-Laurent. I've been here 24 years. Mural Festival and new spots like École Privée and Station 16 art gallery are really helping out. But Buonanotte is the guy who survived through the whole process and managed to always be busy. And now there's a rebirth of St-Laurent going on and we're part of that too, obviously. So hopefully this rebirth will bring us back completely.
So, basically, Buonanotte cannot be killed. Who knows? A 40-day liquor-license suspension is severe penalty and a lot of people are asking me, "Why the fuck are they closing you down for 40 days?", but it's what I do for a business. I have to deal with these guys. The vice squad—not you guys—but the actual vice or morality squad. I have to deal with them. Every time we try to open a place, the vice squad intervenes.
Because it's in your interest to cooperate? They decided who gets alcohol permits, so I gotta throw in a candy in order for me to continue being a restaurant operator. I can win some battles but I have to show that I'm cool with them because I need them. I have three other projects going on and I need them to be green-lighted. I have no choice.
Thanks for speaking with me.