"I told Moe to fix this stool!"
The elderly patron to my right is referring to Moe Wilensky, co-founder of Wilensky's Light Lunch. Moe passed away almost 30 years ago, but today, his daughter Sharon and son Asher preside over the family business, and they run a tight ship. Sharon Wilensky politely nods as the man goes on a short rant about the allegedly wobbly stool and how he's been eating at Wilensky's for a very long time.
I ask Sharon if a lot of old-timers come into Wilensky's with decades-old stories about her father. "Oh, yeah. A lot. There are fewer and fewer, obviously. But there are people who have been coming here since the beginning in 1932. They were neighbourhood kids and are in their late 80s now."
Immortalized in Mordecai Richler's novel , and later in this scene from the film adaptation of the book, Wilensky's Light Lunch is one of the true icons of Jewish food in Montreal, along with Schwartz's Deli, Beauty's, and Moishes Steakhouse. It's also a great example of the cross-pollination of food cultures that continues to happen in Montreal.
"Salamis and other cured and smoked meats are commonly Eastern European foods. A lot of Jews would eat these kinds of things at home," Sharon says. "They're all beef. Kosher people wouldn't eat pork, and because of Jewish dietary restrictions about meat and dairy, we didn't have cheese at first."
Eventually, those dietary restrictions began to intersect with those of other communities. "After a while, so many people—especially the francophone customers—started asking for cheese, so we began putting it on the sandwiches. At first, we would have served it discretely. But we only put it up on the menu maybe 30 years ago. It was pretty hush hush for a while."
There are no tables at Wilensky's—only eight (wobbly, according to some) stools in front of the bar, where customers can eat a hot dog on onion bread served on a napkin or select from the daily specials, have a soda made in a real soda fountain, and scram.
David Chang called Wilensky's his "favourite place in the world," and there is no shortage of tourists, old and young, taking Instagram pictures of their bologna sandwiches while sitting alongside dyed-in-the-wool regulars.
Still, any fame or recognition that Wilensky's now receives as a food destination is a far cry from its humble beginnings. "It was the Depression and my father needed more money. He wasn't a foodie. That didn't exist; it was just survival. You had to find something different that would attract people," Sharon says.
Back in 1932, when Wilensky's began serving food, survival meant making hot dogs for locals who came to play pinball, buy cigars, get a haircut, or purchase books. Variety stores of this type weren't uncommon back then, but what was uncommon about Wilensky's was the rise to prominence of the Wilensky's Special—a kaiser bun topped with fried bologna, salami, and mustard, which became an accidental icon.
"My dad would eat salami and bologna for lunch, just for himself," Sharon recalls, "But people would say, 'Hey Moe, make me a sandwich like that!' So he started playing with combinations of meat, and when he felt he had the right combination, he started to sell it. We don't know exactly how it came to be but I don't think it was even on the menu."
The meat is fried on a flat grill, loaded into a pre-mustarded kaiser bun (made especially for Wilensky's), and then toasted on a sandwich press. Both the grill and the sandwich press date back to 1932. "The grill has been here since the beginning. My father bought a grill for $68 and paid a quarter a week for it, when he could afford to. It was really ,really tough during the Depression."
Wilensky's is as famous for its rules as it is for its food—rules which, perhaps unspoken among regulars and locals, are literally spelled out for the uninitiated. The most famous, which has since been repealed, was charging customers who didn't want mustard. To this day, the crew at Wilensky's will categorically refuse any customer's demand to cut their sandwich in half.
"All of the rolls are pre-mustarded in the morning. So we used to charge five cents more for no mustard, because it was extra work. Some people think we still do that, but we don't."
This might seem arbitrary, but there is an underlying logic. "It's about efficiency and equality. The philosophy behind the rules is that everyone gets served the same way. Nobody gets special service. That also makes it easier for us because it's an assembly line. There are no exceptions. It's something my father started."
"Sometimes a guy would come in and say 'Oh, I just got dental surgery, please Moe, can you cut my sandwich?' And he would say, 'If I cut it for you, I have to cut it for everyone. So, nobody.'"
According to Sharon this has led to a few customers becoming "horrifically angry," but it's also why Wilensky's stands out so much in an industry where service tends to bend over backwards for their clients.
"They think it's insane that we won't cut the sandwiches, but what about people who want their sandwiches lickety-split? It's what most people have come to expect. And if you start changing that, you're finished. That why a lot of restaurant owners like coming here and seeing that."
Another rule: no tipping. "You don't want anyone leaving extra money, expecting better service. It probably came from my grandfather too, who was from Russia and quite the socialist." Because of "personal reasons," any change left by patrons goes to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
But for all of the talk of Moe Wilensky, it was Sharon's mother Ruth who steered the ship for three decades with even more chutzpah than her husband.
"My dad was actually more jovial and was kind of the life of the store, whereas my mother, you knew that you didn't want to make her angry. She was 65 when my father died and she just retired three years ago at 93. She really learned about how to run a business later in life. She liked supervising, let's put it that way."
In fact, Ruth Wilensky was such a fixture in the Mile End neighbourhood that a New York restaurateur named a very similar sandwich after her as an ode to the Wilensky matriarch. But talking about this tribute sandwich turns out to be a transgression of a more recent rule. "We own the trademark, so why would we even talk about that guy?" Moving on.
Sharon, who taught English at McGill and Concordia, never expected to grab the reigns at the family restaurant. But in 2000, duty called. Between her brother Bernard's death and Ruth's imminent retirement, it was up to her to step up to the plate. Though Sharon's mother ended up working for another 12 years, she has a firm handle on the business and Wilensky's unique brand of customer service.
"I remember an older man who I was talking to said that I reminded him of a 50s waitress because I talked to him like a person instead of like a computer, if you know what I mean. People don't want us to change and we don't. We just do our thing and that is all our customers expect from us."