Skip to main content

Moishes steakhouse seen on The Main in Montreal, on Sept. 4, 2020.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

On the night of Leonard Cohen’s memorial service in Montreal, his family piled into Moishes steakhouse to say goodbye.

The restaurant was an apt setting for the poet’s sendoff: Mr. Cohen was a regular at the 82-year-old haunt, one of the few places as synonymous with the city as he was.

In its long life on Saint-Laurent Blvd., the carpeted floors and tinkling chandeliers at Moishes played host to luminaries from across the city’s linguistic divide. Separatist premier René Lévesque and literary foe of nationalists Mordecai Richler were both “good customers,” recalled Lenny Lighter, the long-time owner.

Through ice storms and a World War, this old-school temple to charbroiled beef has remained open more or less continuously since 1938, when the original Moishe, Lenny’s father, won it in a poker game.

But in the COVID-19 pandemic, the steakhouse has finally met a crisis that can’t be placated with filet mignon and old French wine. Its doors have been closed since March, and a planned move downtown is indefinitely on hold, Mr. Lighter explained.

Although Moishes will likely pull through, the emblem of Montreal’s food culture and nightlife has become emblematic of something more troubling: the fact that restaurants are in serious trouble.

A recent estimate by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University pegged losses in the Canadian hospitality industry at around $20-billion in the coming year. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, using data from Statistics Canada, predicted that 60 per cent of the country’s restaurants are at risk of shutting down in the next three months.

As patios close, government support begins to ebb and fears loom of a second wave of infections, economists and trade groups are increasingly worried that the industry will be gutted this winter.

That would sap the life out of formerly bustling commercial strips such as Saint-Laurent Blvd. Michel Leblanc, president of Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce, said restaurants such as Moishes are part of the city’s “DNA,” and its “creative, bohemian spirit.” (He first went to the steakhouse when he was 16.)

The industry’s struggles have had a steep material cost as well. In February, 1.2 million Canadians were employed in accommodation and food services. By August, the sector had shed more than 250,000 of those jobs.

Employment has rebounded since the spring but the industry has also taken a long-term hit. A survey done in late March by lobby group Restaurants Canada found that nearly 10 per cent of the industry’s 97,500 establishments – which includes bars and catering businesses – did not plan to reopen after the pandemic.

With the prospect of more stringent lockdown measures this winter, the layoffs and closings are likely just beginning, said Pedro Antunes, chief economist for the Conference Board of Canada.

“I really do think the worst is not over for a lot of businesses.”

Government aid helped prop up restaurants this summer even more than the country’s abbreviated patio season, but with some federal programs phasing out in the fall, the industry is asking for more targeted support. Vouchers for restaurant meals like those offered through the British government’s “Eat Out to Help Out” program are “interesting,” said David Lefebvre, a vice-president at Restaurants Canada. His group is also asking provinces to permanently legalize the sale of alcohol with takeout orders, which some jurisdictions have done temporarily during the pandemic.

Governments should urge people to dine out again through public awareness campaigns, Mr. Lefebvre argued. “What we’re looking for, from both provincial and federal governments, is just to tell people it’s okay to go back to restaurants. They’re not dangerous places. They’re not worse places than grocery stores or malls.”

Numerous outbreaks in Canada have been connected to food-service establishments, broadly defined, this summer. Some of the largest have been at places that seem particularly prone to spreading the virus, such as the Calgary shisha lounge linked to at least a dozen cases in July, or the Quebec City bar linked to at least 50 cases after a karaoke night in August. But as cold weather drives diners indoors, where the virus spreads more easily, the tally at ordinary restaurants is expected to climb.

Still, the pain of mass restaurant closings would be so grave that political leaders should encourage Canadians to go out for dinner again, agreed Sylvain Charlebois, director of Dalhousie’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab. While dining out may once have been a luxury reserved for special occasions, it is now routine enough to have become a key part of the economy, with sales that have more than doubled since the late 1990s. If Canadians broke the habit – instilled, in part, by growing prosperity and the entrance of more women into the workplace – it would be costly.

“You gotta entice them in some way, otherwise they’re just going to stay home and wait it out,” he said.

The virus has left particular kinds of establishments especially vulnerable. Those that rent their space rather than owning it, independents rather than chains, and restaurants in newly quiet downtowns have all suffered. Industry surveys have even found that Asian restaurants were harder hit than others, perhaps because of racist stigma attached to COVID’s origins in China, Mr. Lefebvre said.

Amy Nguyen, a waitress at Hanoi 3 Seasons, a Vietnamese restaurant in Toronto’s East Chinatown, said she’s worried about her health, but also about the fate of the business, where sales are down 50 per cent or more. One day at the height of the lockdown, they earned a grand total of $11 in sales, from a single customer.

“When the restaurant’s failing, we lose our jobs,” Ms. Nguyen said.

The same formula looms over restaurants across the country – including Moishes. Lenny Lighter greeted a recent guest to his empty dining room wearing gym clothes, not his usual tailored suit; wine glasses hanging over the bar were caked in months of dust. “The whole experience is very, very weird,” he acknowledged through a mask.

Manager Lenny Lighter poses inside Moishes steakhouse, which has not been able to reopen following COVID-19 closure, in Montreal, on Sept. 4, 2020.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

But Mr. Lighter remains surprisingly upbeat, despite the hard times. That’s in part because he sold Moishes to the Quebec dining conglomerate Sportscene in 2018, though he has stayed on to manage operations and retains “an emotional stake,” he said, begging forgiveness for the pun.

His optimism can also be explained by a belief that the venerable old steakhouse will reopen one day – even if the details remain hidden in the fog of the pandemic.

“We’re definitely planning on coming back,” he said. “We just don’t know where and we don’t know when.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.