Montreal smoked meat has long been defined by a rivalry. Schwartz’s deli may have been better known, but for many Montrealers the best smoked meat sandwich was prepared across the street, at the Main Deli.
Earlier this week, the Main, which opened in 1974, abruptly closed its doors.
“It really came very, very suddenly,” said David Lieber, a long-time regular who worked as a waiter at the restaurant in 1988.
Lieber, 71, said that in the 1970s he would go to the Main – then open 24 hours a day – for a late night smoked meat “and possibly some cheesecake” after drinking in the bars of Old Montreal.
“They made their own smoked meat and they made it their way and it was extremely good,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
The restaurant catered to the famous and the working class. In the morning, Lieber said, the Main would be full of “cleaning ladies” having breakfast; at times, the late Montreal musical legend Leonard Cohen would stop by for a sandwich.
“Yes, Leonard Cohen went there occasionally, but it wasn’t the big deal it’s sometimes made to be,” Lieber said. “The Canadian sculptor Stanley Lewis practically lived in the Main delicatessen.”
Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted his sadness over the news: “Ouch. Surprised at how much this hurts. An end to decades of The. Best. Smoked. Meat. In. Montreal.”
It’s not the first time the prime minister, who graduated from nearby McGill University, has spoken of his fondness for the restaurant – he recommended it to attendees at a 2014 Liberal convention and took his campaign to the restaurant ahead of a September 2021 federal leaders debate.
The restaurant took its name from what Montrealers used to call “the Main” – a stretch of St. Laurent Boulevard upon which the deli was located, once the heart of the city’s Jewish community. The Main Deli was one of the last “Jewish-looking” businesses in the area, said Zev Moses, executive director of the Museum of Jewish Montreal.
The nearby Moshes Steakhouse closed in 2020, while headstone maker L. Berson & Fils moved in 2015.
But heritage isn’t just about looks, Moses said.
“Jewish people have a connection to that street and I think will continue to for a long time to come,” he said.
Opened by Peter Varvaro, the son of Italian immigrants, the Main was originally located on the East side of St-Laurent Boulevard, next to Schwartz’s, before moving across the street.
“In every respect, it was a downtown Jewish delicatessen,” said Lieber, who praised Varvaro’s latkes – a traditional Jewish potato pancake.
In 2013, Varvaro died and the restaurant was sold the following year. The two owners who bought it died in 2018 and 2021, and the restaurant is now owned by their estates, according Quebec’s corporate register. Efforts to reach representatives of the company were unsuccessful.
Jeanne Pope, who made a documentary film about the restaurant in 2006, said she cried when she heard it was closed. Like many new arrivals to Montreal, Pope, originally from England, spent much of her time in the 2000s near St-Laurent Boulevard and quickly started going to the Main.
“It was the place where you could meet like-minded people. You could meet old Jewish families that had been there for generations,” she said in an interview from her home in England.
She said the restaurant had a sense of tradition: “Everything was done by hand.”
Varvaro “spent a long, long time preparing the herbs and spices and experimenting, experimenting, experimenting to get it right,” Pope said.
Frederic Serre was a long-time regular at the Main, which he said was more comfortable than Schwartz’s. Main staff knew his regular order: steak, with an appetizer of sausage and liver, and a glass of red wine.
“I had the luxury being able to sit inside the Main, have my nice meal while I looked across the street, and there’s all these people lined up in the rain, waiting to get into Schwartz’s,” he said.
Serre, who said he lives a six-minute walk from the restaurant, said a former manager told him the rising costs of food and labour led to the closure.