Who would have thought that the mezzanine of the venerable Birks jewellery store in downtown Montreal would have been transformed into a restaurant where ladies who lunch (a category that now includes men) can enjoy either a light gourmet luncheon or afternoon tea served in the pure English fashion (but with a French touch, since there are melt-in-your mouth macaroons and foie gras canapés alongside the scones and cucumber sandwiches)?
This lovely old building overlooking Phillips Square dates from 1894. It was the flagship store of Henry Birks, the son of English immigrants who started his career in Old Montreal but moved northward when Ste-Catherine Street became the commercial centre of the city, thanks to the opening of Morgan's department store (now the Bay) in 1891 by Henry Morgan, the son of Scottish immigrants.
It took another immigrant - this one from France - to give new life to Birks. Tastes have changed, pearls and diamonds are expensive, and Birks is not as busy as it used to be. But Birks Café, in the beautiful wood-panelled mezzanine, is all the rage.
It is the fifth brainchild of Jérôme Ferrer, a chef from Roussillon, the beautiful and sunny area just north of the Spanish border. His wonderful success story is eminently edifying, since it's testimony to the value of hard work, courage and imagination.
Mr. Ferrer arrived in Montreal a decade ago with his two partners, Ludovic Delonca and Patrice De Felice. Once here with their families, they discovered that the $40,000 they thought they had - the product of the sale of their little bistro in the village of Saint-Cyprien - didn't exist (or, rather, had been pocketed by a notary). But they stayed, and managed to raise $6,500 by delivering newspapers, working in recycling firms or factories, or volunteering as guinea pigs for pharmaceutical companies.
They found an improbable venue for the restaurant they dreamed of in a humid and decaying basement on Mountain Street, south of Ste-Catherine, where beggars used to sleep in front of the door. They restored the place with their own hands. "I grew up on a farm," Mr. Ferrer told the magazine Les Affaires. "When something broke, we would repair it ourselves."
The tiny restaurant was given a grand name: Europea. At first, the tables were uncomfortably small. But the food was superb, and the three partners were always there, welcoming guests with a smile and firmly training their young waiters. They soon began to expand the restaurant by buying out two other shops. Europea became the place to go - if one could get a reservation.
This year, Europea became part of the exclusive Relais & Châteaux chain, one of the four free-standing restaurants in Canada to have received this coveted honour. Apart from Lumière in Vancouver, they're all in Quebec (the others are Toqué! in Montreal and L'Initiale in Quebec City.
At a time when many restaurants have financial and managerial problems, Mr. Ferrer's "network" thrives. Once Europea was well-established, he opened three other, less expensive, venues: Beaver Hall, a bistro whose flagship dish is an upscale version of fish and chips; then Andiamo, a fish restaurant; and, finally, a fancy takeout boutique in Old Montreal that sells Europea's line of products (including Mr. Ferrer's three recipe books), as well as gourmet sandwiches and salads.
Jérôme Ferrer knows from experience he could once again lose everything. But he also knows there's always another chance.