I was really excited to tick this restaurant off my list. Wilsensky’s is right up there due in part to my heritage and stories my dad and his friends regaled to me about this Montreal must. Then there is my love of Mordecai Richler who wrote about Wilensky’s, so much that when I saw the nine bar stools (and only seating) in this small shop with pressed tin ceiling, ring-up cash register and soda fountain with its myriad of flavours, I could also picture Duddy, Barney, Jake, and Joshua lined up quietly enjoying their Wilensky’s specials.
Sharon and her brother Asher Wilensky are co-owners. Sharon is the second generation running the restaurant (third if you count Harry Wilensky, barber/ variety store operator as the original entrepreneur), but it was her father, Moe who decided to add consumables by adding hotdogs and sodas to sell. Asher’s daughter, Alisa, is of the next generation of the Wilensky dynasty who started working there a year ago to learn the secrets of the Special. It is not often I get served by the owner of not only a restaurant, but an iconic Montreal institution and I was privileged enough to have a nice discussion with Sharon Wilensky about what makes Wilensky’s Light Lunch still tick.
Wilensky describes the eatery as an old fashion deli restaurant with its origins in Eastern European cuisine. You can say Jewish food, but clearly not Kosher food as the sandwiches and hot dogs combine dairy with meat. The famous Wilensky’s special is an all-beef salami, all-beef bologna meat and your choice of cheddar or Swiss cheese grilled on a roll for $4.34 ($3.90 without cheese). That’s slightly up from the 17 cents my dad paid in the 1960s! Wilensky’s also serves egg sandwiches and hot dogs on an onion roll with a side of sour or half sour pickles and karnatzel can be purchased to nosh on while you wait for your sandwich to be assembled.
They have never felt the need to add or modernize the menu, and if anything, Wilensky states that they actually removed some items. Back when Sharon started working at the deli in the 1970s, they even made sandwiches “a la carte” if you will (your choice of meat, tomatoes, lettuce etc.) The restaurant garnered popularity with Richler’s indirect marketing once his books began being adapted into movies. Scenes were shot directly on location, and instigated literary wayfarers to discover the restaurant for themselves. Then there was the urban renewal of Mile End, and Wilensky’s decided to shorten the menu and keep the favourites.
Honing my amateur journalistic investigation skills I was finally able to debunk the mustard myth, and no, it is not a myth, but the idea that there is an obnoxious sign in bold stating “ALL SANDWITCHES COME WITH MUSTARD, DON’T ASK US TO HOLD THE MUSTARD” or any such thing, is a horrible lie. The sandwiches come with mustard. You used to be able to ask for it without mustard, but Moe Wilensky had to charge you extra because that slowed the assembly line process! Sharon was asked by her parents to make a sign that still hangs on the walls of the restaurant.
Sharon cleverly came up with a lilting poem that is as iconic as the store, the soda fountain and the sandwich itself:
When ordering a special, you should know a thing or two,
They are always served with mustard, they are never cut in two
Don’t ask why, just understand, that this is nothing new
This is the way that it’s been done since 1932.
Wilensky and her family has never needed nor felt any pressure to modernize. Wilensky’s really is a stand-alone in the genre of old-world deli restaurants so there isn’t much competition. They have a steady customer flow (which I experienced firsthand — I couldn’t linger while I ate and had to catch up with Sharon later to discuss history) and their clientele varies. They have weekly customers who order the same thing on the same day of the week; they have their return “regulars” who may make quarterly visits every year, or every few months. Then there are of course, the pilgrims, who such as myself, can now brag that we have eaten at the illustrious Wilensky’s. But a pilgrimage like this should not be done once in a lifetime, but more regularly. You get a satisfying lunch but an opportunity to go back in time. I like food, but I also love time travel.
Wilensky’s Light Lunch is located at 34 Fairmount Ave West. Hours are Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Montreal’s swankiest restaurant’s gear up for the third edition of MTL à Table 2014. An initiative of Montreal Tourism and Vins de Frances and in conjunction with the SAQ, over 135 restaurants will be offering an opportunity to sample their stellar menus at affordable prices ranging between $19-$39. This will take place for 11 days only between Thursday October 30 and Sunday November 9. Geography is vast with restaurants participating from the airport, downtown, east of the island, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Little Italy, Mount Royal, Outremont and Westmount, north of the island, Old Montreal and the Old Port, Parc Jean Drapeau, Plateau Mont-Royal and Mile End, Poles des Rapides and Griffintown and the Village. Cuisines in the spotlight include North America, Latin America, Asia, France, Great Britain, India, Italy, Mediterranean, New Cuisine and ben oui, Québec. If you have a bucket list as long as your arm but a budget as short as your pinky, this is an opportunity not to be missed. Reservations online or by phone.
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