Now that the tourists have largely departed, shuffled back to their quotidian, boring, non-Montreal lives, those of us who live here can finally peek out from beneath our shells and once again begin to enjoy the bounty of beauty and treasure that this city has to offer. It is suddenly easier to get a table at the busier restaurants, the sidewalks are less congested, activity in the public squares has shifted down into a slower mode. ‘Tis autumn.
I am in love with Montreal in autumn. I mean, romantically in love. Montreal in autumn is a foxy lady, a hot beast, a graceful and ageless face, mother, Madonna, whore, lover. Montreal in autumn is a pretty French girl who lets you into her crooked apartment sometimes to drink tea and smoke cigarettes and spin dusty records whilst sat upon a dirty Persian rug, her cat rubbing up against you and the furniture and pretending to ignore the whole scene. You can’t have her. But you can hang out together in autumn.
The best places to enjoy in Montreal at this time of year are not necessarily those that come first to mind. Notre-Dame Cathedral and Parc La Fontaine, the Old Port and the chalet on the top of the mountain are well worth a visit any time. The usual brunch spots can be identified by the lineups of well-dressed queens and kings waiting to get a table. But the real gems are the places that kings and queens will never go to, that they don’t even know about.
I am one of those people who finds things right on the cusp of blowing up. I found Nirvana’s first album on cassette when Seattle was a city and not yet a sound. I was the only kid in school wearing Dr. Martens boots and was ridiculed for them — “Is your mom in the army?” — that is, until Nirvana’s second album came out. I moved to Montreal just as Godspeed You! Black Emperor were becoming a thing, Spin Magazine running that article on how Montreal was about to emerge as the next sound that used to be a city. I worked at the Telluride Film Festival with Barry Jenkins before he won an Oscar. I graduated from Concordia before it ceased being a real university by offering a course on Kanye West.
Now I fear I’ve found another of those things — Paul Patates in Pointe-Saint-Charles. It’s not like I found it. It was there before, since 1958. I often rode by on my bicycle or walked past on a neighbourhood stroll across the canal during the pre-pandemic decade when I lived in Saint Henri. For some reason I never went inside. But ever since, this place is my holiday.
I occasionally peered in through the windows at the prototypical lunch stand and row of stools, the checkerboard décor and stainless steel countertop, the jukeboxes that denote an authentic neighbourhood joint, the sort you might see in a film noir, or recreated in Back to the Future, or fetishized in The Sopranos series finale. Paul Patates is better. We don’t need TV series or the movies. What goes on in life is far more interesting, far more important. And we get to play characters in the story. The colours we see onscreen only become really authentic in real life. Paul Patates is a real-life, authentic “joint” in the truest sense of that word — on the corner, a burger and poutine joint, a steamie joint, a community joint, full of life and local colour.
One of the unique things about this joint is their Bertrand Spruce Beer, the non-alcoholic house brew sold in 500 ml swing-top bottles. Its recipe has remained the same since 1898, and it smells a little funky, to be frank, but tastes remarkable — not too sweet, not too carbonated. There is something mythical about this beverage that conjures another Montreal, in another time, before the wicked world caught up with us and blew up the spot.
Paul Patates isn’t fancy. On any given Saturday afternoon you might see working folks, families, seniors, hipsters, speaking English and French, gathered together in relative peace over lunch at the booth. The staff are mainly kids with their own ambitions beyond the restaurant. One is an aspiring musician; another is training to work in construction. I eat my burger and French fries, listening to their stories, their desires, their memories, thinking of all the lives that have come and gone through this place. It seems we cannot see how good we have it at the time.
Canada has never been as adroit as America at mythmaking. Since we agreed in the 1930s to cooperate with the US film market, America’s iconic images have been ours, too. Children weren’t even allowed to see movies in Quebec until 1960. But more than Canada, or Quebec, Montreal is its own myth now, a city-state second to none. An abundant enough crop of homegrown talent has headlined world stages, recorded the world’s records, directed the world’s films, and influenced the world’s influencers. Leonard Cohen is a stamp now, stamped upon Canada’s love letters and utility bills winging their way side by side through the post. If that isn’t mythical, what is?
Sitting amidst the patrons and staff at Paul Patates, amongst the jukeboxes that hadn’t worked since Corey Hart sang Never Surrender, with Virgin Radio instead pumping out the jams in 2022 while French fries fried, the kind of fries that range ideally from crispy to greasy, and the kind of burgers and hot dogs that appear identical to stylized photos on a menu, and taste even better, I found myself in in the middle of a mini myth, and I, too, was a character, the observer, perched like a ghost at the lunch counter, charged with the albeit niche charge to experience Paul Patates in this season, specifically, and how recurrent pasts had accumulated and settled in this particular place.
How the kids who worked here were much like the kids in 1958, and again in 1998, and again and again every subsequent decade, fresh faced and restless, living their perfect moments at this moment, golden light falling through the window at an autumnal angle, a sedimentary accrual of history, languages and cultures taking shape, the city and a nation assuming form, a crystalized instant, etched like a frieze in the ceiling of some magnificent chapel, a Montreal chapel, a newer-world house of worship, divinely inspired, worshiping not those unattainable celestial European or American Gods, but humbler Montreal-made myths that reside closer to home, like spruce beer and all dressed steamies. How the jukebox selection insists, Never Surrender.◼︎