During the late seventies and early eighties the Montreal Canadiens were still winning Stanley Cups, the Expos had some great teams, the preferred style was preppy, featuring button down shirts or polos with khakis, and the night air, and bar restrooms, was thick with the pungent aroma of Ralph Lauren’s Polo. One of the most popular posts on this blog is a piece I wrote a few years ago about Montreal’s long history of Anglo-Irish pubs. I thought I would give it another shot by writing about some of the bars that I frequented as a young man during the late seventies and eighties. Of course this is by no measure an exhaustive listing of Montreal’s many watering holes, but rather a bit of a trip down memory lane that might bring back some recollections, if not brain cells, of readers’ youth.
As I did in my first listing of Montreal pubs, I will start from West and work my way east. Therefore the first stop on our journey is Alexis Nihon Plaza, now Place Alexis Nihon, which was home to an establishment where many a young lad got his start. I am of course referring to Les Carabiniers, or as it was more commonly called, the Carb. One of the last bastions of male-only taverns, the Carb served cold beer and offered tavern fare at very reasonable prices. Students, retirees and everyone in between were welcome, just no ladies. Given the Carb’s proximity to the Forum, where the Montreal Canadiens played in those days before moving to the Molson/BELL Centre, it was not uncommon for players to drop in after practice.
Also located in Alexis Nihon was the Maidenhead Inn, an English pub and the Bali-Hi which, as the name suggests was a tropical-themed bar. The Bali-Hi’s claim to fame, aside from waitresses in grass skirts and fruity drinks with umbrellas, was an aquarium full of tropical fish that ran the full length of the bar.
Leaving Alexis Nihon and heading east along St. Catherine Street, past the Forum, on the north side was Station 10. This bar was named for the infamous police station situated just a few blocks away. One of the owners was a former Canadian Football League player by the name of Barclay Allen. As high school students my friends and I spent many an hour in this place as they were not too picky about asking for ID!
I recall the price of a bottle of beer being 80 cents. With a twenty cent tip added, both client and customer were happy with a dollar bill. Then the price went up to 85 cents and, as you might guess, tips went down to 15 cents! After a few weeks the price jumped to a buck, and a quarter tip was the norm.
A few doors further along on the corner of Du Fort and St. Catherine was the Pique Assiette, an Indian restaurant with a very small bar at the back that was frequented by many British expats, many of whom were teachers, some of whom were my teachers! As a young boy I remember passing this corner when the place was called Danny’s Villa. It was a topless bar and the window was festoon with photos of girls wearing little more than pasties. Over the years it transformed from tasselled to tandoori tits.
Strolling along we pass the Cock ‘N’ Bull on the south side of St. Catherine arriving next at a place best described as interesting: Café Diana. This was a long established hangout for some seedy if entertaining characters. No dim lighting in Diana’s, bright lights and tough staff made it a little safer. Not a regular haunt of mine, but one that was well worth the occasional visit. I recall meeting a man in there once who could do wonderful card tricks and micro-magic at people’s table for a beer or a buck or two.
Prior to the construction of Le Faubourg legendary Montreal Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake owned a tavern on St. Catherine just west of Guy Street. Toe’s hosted an older crowd who were often not too welcoming to younger louder imbibers. Fair enough, there was no shortage of places for us to go.
One block after crossing Guy Street was MacKay Street, home to Cheers! Actually named Bill Edwards’ Cheers! This bar was a very popular meeting place in the eighties for those in their twenties. The name was obviously ‘borrowed’ from the popular television series.
Many buildings in downtown Montreal have, over the years, been bought by Sir George Williams now Concordia University. These satellites house many faculties and administrative offices. They were, and are still in many cases, called annexes. So it is not surprising that on the east side of Bishop Street just below deMaisonneuve there was for many years a bar called The Annex. Popular among students, the Annex was made up of several sections, one of which was much like a cave. The Annex was also known for often looking the other way when it came to underage drinkers as well as serving beer in the quart bottles that were more regularly a mainstay of taverns.
Still on Bishop Street but south of St. Catherine was The Longest Yard, yet another example of borrowing a name, this time from a popular movie. It was owned by another former CFL player, Dickie Harris and Bill Edwards. During the summer of 1982 the Yard, as it was often shortened to, had a softball team. On a few occasions they played an opponent that wanted to play fastball instead of slow pitch. For these games I would pitch for the team. Following his parting of ways with the Montreal Expos, Bill Lee satisfied his baseball need by playing second base for the Yard.
Woody’s was a huge place on Bishop that incorporated several adjacent establishments over the years. Lots of wood and brass, it was popular with Happy Hour – free snacks – suits as well as a later night younger crowd. It is now the home of the Irish Embassy Pub and Grill.
Down the street was Déjà Vu, another bar that grew as it became ever more popular. Unlike Woody’s this place expanded upward, and had a staircase that looked down on the stage. Never a good thing to try to navigate after a few too many!
The last building on the east side of Bishop Street was Darwin’s Gazebo. Before every bar and restaurant had a terrasse, some two, Darwin’s had a gazebo. It was essentially a backyard, but gazebo sounded so much better. It was a popular hangout for artists, journalists and writers, and many who fancied themselves artists, journalists and writers. The building was lost to fire.
One block east brought you to Crescent Street, the Grand-daddy of Montreal’s bar scene. While popping in to and out of numerous bars on the street, primarily between St. Catherine and deMaisonneuve there were a couple that became second homes. The Seahorse was located downstairs from Les Halles; a fancy, snooty restaurant that suffered the constant annoyance from the younger clientele downstairs. The Seahorse was a long narrow place that was packed most weekends with university aged kids.
By the time the Seahorse had run its course a new addition had appeared right across the street with the opening of DJ’s Pub. The original owners of the building thought that Crescent Street might be just the place to open a cinema. So they built a multi-storied venue. Le Flick, that was supposed to draw revellers either before or after a night of drinking. Unfortunately the idea did not pan out and the building was soon empty. I must admit I did my part by seeing Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones there in about 1975!
DJ’s Pub was named for Derek Johnson, a former race car driver and well-known figure on the local bar scene. Lines of people in their twenties formed four nights a week at the door. The inside was packed with fairly well-heeled kids – did I mention Preppy? – and the drinks flowed. I recall a friend of mine who was a bartender explaining that while he enjoyed having people sit at his bar, he made his money serving the constantly changing line of drinkers who reached over the heads of those seated at the bar to get their drinks and pay.
The drinks were primarily bottled beer, no on-tap draft, and shots. Shots tended to be bought in rounds after “flipping” to see who would pay. Those interested were given a quarter and all flipped the coin, the process of elimination whittled down the player until someone lost. The ideal situation was when the bartender lost and the round was free. Popular shots included B-52’s, melon balls, and Southern Comfort. For a little while it was in vogue to have your shot upside down, which entailed turning your back to the bar, leaning back and having the bartender mix the drink directly in your mouth!
On Stanley Street just above St. Catherine was the Rainbow Bar and Grill. It was a long narrow place with a room with a bar and another adjacent room that was just tables and chairs. From time to time they would show movies in the back room and there was always a game of backgammon going. There were seven steps up to the front door from the sidewalk which explains why the bar had previously been known as The Seven Steps.
Again please keep in mind that this is but a few of the bars and in no way represents all the drinking establishments of the time.