Good service is all about what you don't notice.
Like Miles Davis, who stressed "the notes you don't play," the expert knows when it's appropriate to be heard and seen and when it's better to pull back and occupy the space in between.
This is the very same space occupied by Claude Masson behind the bar at L'Express, a Montreal landmark and one of the last outposts of old-school bistro service in the city. It's a restaurant where clanging plates, natural wines, and well-executed classics coexist in a perfectly casual environment.
The restaurant and its legendary barman harken back to a time before excessive politeness—before servers sang "Happy Birthday" with sparklers and interrupted conversation to ask if everything was OK. It's a way of doing things that isn't lost on some of Montreal's most respected restaurateurs, and it wasn't exactly hard to find participants willing to corroborate Masson's eminence.
For regulars like Ryan Gray, co-owner and barman of Nora Gray, Masson's expertise comes in part from an era when service wasn't about schtick. "There is a level of professionalism that he has that was lost a generation ago," Gray says. "There's this stoicism about him—he definitely has an aura about him. Monsieur Masson is mysterious and he's incredibly efficient, and L'Express was an integral part of my learning."
The same goes for Joe Beef chef and co-owner Dave McMillan. "He's just a devoted, perfect professional who understands the classicism of the job," McMillan says. "He understands service. To serve properly. It's not about him. He understands the fine art of being invisible in service—to be there and not be there. That's the art of a waiter."
For Masson, service truly is an art. And it's an art rooted in the bistros of Paris, where service steers clear of trying to impress customers and focuses instead on what they don't see. The wine glass stays full, conversation is never interrupted, and the waiter is a chameleon who blends into the background.
Claude Masson's life as a bartender dates back to 1976 when he worked in an Old Montreal hotel. "At that point, quite frankly, I didn't know what I was going to do with my life," Masson says. "I didn't want to be on welfare. I had been a part-time teacher but couldn't find any work. So one day, the hotel asked me if I wanted to bartend, and I said, 'Sure,' but I couldn't even tell the difference between gin, vodka, or Scotch bottles. When I started as a barman, I was in my thirties and I needed something that gave some meaning to my life. I might have done something else. I was a decent student, but not exceptional."
After a taking a few wine courses at ITHQ, some more hotel gigs, and a chance encounter with a friend on a bus, Masson ended up at L'Express in 1981—not as a bartender, but as a commis in the kitchen. "I remember, even when I was a commis, I thought, I'm going to be the very best in Montreal! [laughs] For Masson, it gave his life meaning. "It's not the most important job, but if you do it well, it's meaningful in itself."
This is the approach that Claude Masson would take with him when he eventually made his way to behind the bar at L'Express. There, he would become Monsieur Masson to legions of regulars like Dave McMillan. "Calling him Claude is absolutely not appropriate," McMillan explains. "He's Monsieur Masson. I call very few people 'Monsieur.' But he is a person who has devoted his life to bartending properly. He has made Montreal better. He is Sir."
McMillan, like many other Montrealers, spent late nights eating and taking advantage of one of the most diverse and well-priced wine lists in the city. "You can get wines there for $19 a bottle and a $4 salad. Not only is it the greatest restaurant in Montreal, but it can be the cheapest. It's completely fucking affordable."
The wine cellar at L'Express boasts an impressive 11,000 bottles, all of which are privately imported and geared towards making diners' meals better. "Our philosophy is having a wine list that is varied, abundant, and reasonably priced," according to M. Masson. "Employees of other restaurants who eat here are always surprised at our prices. When L'Express was founded, the price point was a crucial element, as was staying open late."
Late hours and affordable wines have made L'Express an ideal hangout for restaurant workers looking for a place to blow off some steam and to be served by a bartender who isn't putting on a show. "Obviously, my colleagues and I understand what a long shift feels like. So just understanding that basic fact helps us. It's a very specific clientele and you have to adapt to them and their needs."
But it's not just a hangout for chefs.
"One time, a couple came to the bar but insisted on moving to a table," M. Masson recounts. "And let me tell you something—we really made an effort to keep them at the bar. They ended up staying and after their meal, they made a point of telling us what a great time they had at the bar. Honestly, it's way better than a big tip. So earlier, when I was talking about meaning… that's what I meant. [M. Masson's eyes well up.] It makes me emotional. Le sens de la vie, c'est ça. That's the whole point of life."
And for Masson, the point of life means having the artistic sensibility required to maintain the delicate balance between being relaxed and focused on details.
"It's an art. And it's an art that I constantly have to work at. I have to cultivate it. I am always telling myself that. I take nothing for granted. They say that when you are giving a speech, it's good for there to be constant tension in order to get people's attention. Service is a bit like that. There is always tension and apprehension for me, and that's why I think I'm good at my job. It's about excellence. It doesn't matter what your job is."
Part of Masson's art is making sure clients never go thirsty, and his stealth is legendary. "We obviously don't force people to drink," M. Masson asserts. "But we also don't leave them wanting. At L'Express, the policy is never to leave the customers with empty glasses. Our clients are grown-ups, and they know when they've had enough."
By extension, those who can't handle their alcohol are not tolerated. "We've had rowdy clients sometimes, but usually, they calm down. Those who don't are no longer part of our clientele. But even in these cases, they have to be dealt with politely, it's paramount."
When discussing retirement, Masson remains characteristically graceful and, of course, committed to efficiency. "A lot of people think retirement is great. I am not one of those people. Sure, it's important to take vacations, but I will do this as long as I am healthy enough to do it, as long as I remain efficient, and as long as people will have me. I could have ended up doing a different profession. But if you're going to do something you really have to go for it."