Travel

​Where No One Knows Your Name: Returning to the Bar I Learned to Drink In

At Montreal's Bifteck St-Laurent, time is a drunk circle.

by Patrick Lejtenyi
Jul 28 2016, 1:15pm

The first time I was ever offered coke was at Bifteck St-Laurent. I was maybe 16, sitting at a small round table near the front of the bar, already intimidated by the mob of people swirling over and around me. It's all hazy now, but when I close my eyes I can see a moving wall of leather jackets patched with logos belonging to bands like SNFU, DRI, and Dayglo Abortions. Dead Kennedys probably, and the Dead Milkmen. The air is blue with cigarette smoke. There is a guy in a wheelchair with a dog on a leash, and others with dreads and those thickly knit Peruvian hoodies.

And the coke guy. He's older—maybe mid-20s?—with sallow skin and yellowing teeth. He oozes a general air of scumbaggery. He also has crazy eyes, and an aggressive, faux-friendly demeanor, leaning in with a hand on my shoulder. A furtive look around, as if anyone might hear us or care if they did.

"You want some coke?" A quick shake of the head, and he's gone. Who was that guy? He freaked me the fuck out, and maybe that's why I retain a certain fondness for it, even two-and-a-half decades into my drinking career.

The Bifteck in all its current glory. Photo by Farah Khan.

The Bifteck was, and is, an unassuming bar, nothing special to look at inside or out. It's long and narrow and dark, with a seating area at the front, looking onto St-Laurent Boulevard's west side just south of Pine Avenue. There are pool tables and a foosball table in the back. There used to be a DJ booth but that's gone now, and at some point the upstairs was opened for more seating.

At its arguable zenith as a drinking hole, the Bifteck was a locus for Montreal's then-underground culture scenesters, an incubator for musicians, artists and writers, who'd network while ruining their guts on cheap pitchers of Boréale. (I stopped drinking Boréale rousse after a night drinking there while I was an undergrad at McGill. I was nursing a bad hangover in a comparative religion class when I let out such a disgusting fart I nearly sickened myself. I could only imagine what it was like for people sitting near me.)

There was a lot to not endear Bifteck to the non-regulars, besides the gassy beer. The bathrooms were usually crowded with people doing blow on the back of the toilet seat. There was free popcorn at the bar, but it was often stale. The foosball table was uneven. The chairs were rickety. It was smoky and loud and everybody was weird. But for teenagers looking for something other than the downtown club scene, with its terrible music and legions of douchebags, it was our living room. Those who didn't get it weren't welcome.

My Bifteck phase, which occupied a good chunk of the early to mid-1990s, ran parallel to an era of economic decline and stagnation in Montreal, and maybe that's why I associate it with a time of empty storefronts and dark streets. I'm not naïve enough to suggest that those were the glory days. Things, frankly, kind of sucked in Montreal. As a student, the only thing I remember going on was live music, and Bifteck was within walking distance of many of the city's most vibrant (well, cheapest) venues.

So we made do, through the darkness and the winters and the hangovers. On any given night my friends and I would go through half a dozen pitchers and leave good and drunk. It was a comfortable constant.

All vintage Bifteck photos courtesy Susan Moss

Gradually, though, the bar, like the city around it, changed. Punks and junkies were being replaced by McGill bros, dreads by backwards baseball caps, those stupid Peruvian hoodies by Abercrombie & Fitch. Not, I think, coincidentally, the vacant storefronts around Bifteck also began to slowly house tenants again—a cafe here, a burger joint there, a store selling gaudy kicks down the street, an oxygen bar (seriously) a block or two north. Life was creeping back up the Main, and with it came a bunch of dicks.

By the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, St-Laurent had become the poster child of classic gentrification, for good and ill. And as much as some local die-hards tried to deny or fight it, there was no turning back. Not for a while anyway.

I stayed away for much of the intervening 15 years, dropping in now and then with friends to see if it had changed. There was usually a kind of uncomfortable feeling when I did, especially when I was with people from way back when, the kind of people who'd go there before an Asexuals or a Me Mom & Morgentaler show and knew what the Bifteck was and what it meant. Those visits wasn't melancholic—we weren't that sentimental—but rather functional. We'd sit, drink beer and go about our business. If the danger and the mystique were long gone, the convenience remained.

On my last visit—I don't know how long it had been since I'd sat inside for a proper drinking session—I remarked to my friend, an American who'd moved here half a dozen or so years ago and had only recently discovered it, that the bar hadn't changed at all, other than the addition of some flat-screen TVs. We were drinking in the early evening of a late June Saturday, lazily watching the foot traffic up and down the Main.

It didn't take me long to find my thoughts drifting back to the early 90s, but it wasn't out of nostalgia or any sense of wistfulness. I was looking at empty storefronts again. I was looking at musicians and artists and other weirdos and hipsters walking or biking by. And for a moment it felt eerily familiar: the telltale signs of tough economic times, a simmering vibrancy underneath the rust and dust, the seemingly natural gravitational pull this stretch of the Main exerted on locals.

I have no idea what kind of space Bifteck occupies in the collective mindset of young local artsy types these days. I suspect it won't ever be as vital to the city's alternative culture as it once was (or at least appeared to me to be. I may be totally wrong and delusional.) But judging from the crowd of younger drinkers filing in as evening slipped into night and my friend and I near-staggered out, I felt that the bar really hadn't changed its essence all that much since my time.

When you got down to its essentials, Bifteck remains a bar that welcomes day drunks and night crawlers. The biggest surprise was the uncomfortable realization that I'd changed from the latter into the former.

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