The fine eateries Aussies don't do well

Smoked meat sandwiches at Schwartz's Restaurant, Montreal.
Smoked meat sandwiches at Schwartz's Restaurant, Montreal. Photo: Alamy

"So, what's the Australian equivalent of this?" inquires Hugo, as an enormous wedge of sliced meat and bread makes its way towards his mouth.

"Do you have something similar?"

The antipodeans at the table pause, trying to come up with a place that might give this restaurant a run for its money. We all draw a blank.

"Um, maybe Harry's Cafe de Wheels," I say, in reference to every foreign tourist and drunk Sydneysider's favourite pie shop. "It's pretty small, and ... it has food. Sometimes people line up for it."

And that's it. That's the best we've got. It's kind of sad. What Hugo is after is somewhere small, a boutique purveyor of food that locals and visitors alike will queue for hours for, just to get a taste of its sweet, sweet produce. Harry's is the best I can do.

The topic has come up because we're in Montreal, and in Montreal they do boutique properly. Small is good. There's barely a McDonald's in this place; only a smattering of Subways; a piddling amount of Pizza Huts. If a restaurant does well in Montreal it doesn't expand - the queue out the door does.

Yesterday we tried the famous Montreal bagels. These Montreal bagels can only be bought from two shops, which are about three blocks away from each other. If someone wants a Montreal bagel they have to really want a Montreal bagel.

"Don't you think it's strange," I'd said to a local, "that this is the bagel that represents a whole city, but you can only get it from two shops?"

She'd shrugged in that Gallic way that's been inherited here. "No."

"Why haven't other people opened other stores and tried to make Montreal bagels as well?"

Another shrug. "I don't know. We don't need it."

That's it. If this was Australia and you had a successful business such as that, you'd be franchising the heck out of it within seconds. It'd be like Pie Face or Boost juice or Crust pizzas - take a good idea and run with it. But not in Montreal. If you're onto a good thing here, you leave it alone.

Which brings us to Schwartz's, or more specifically the huge line out the front of Schwartz's. Like the bagel shops, this is a Montreal institution, a small neighbourhood joint that specialises in one dish, and it's for that one dish that people will queue for hours. Schwartz's takes no bookings - you arrive, you line up, you eat and you leave. Quickly.

The specialty at Schwartz's doesn't sound like anything special. It's "smoked meat". What sort of meat? I don't know. It's meat. How exactly is it prepared and served? I don't know. It's smoked. "So, is it like pastrami?" I ask Hugo, a local guy. "Or maybe prosciutto?"

He smiles and shakes his head. "No, no. It's smoked meat. Just smoked meat."

And there it is in the window of the shop, not neatly sliced and arranged in an appetising manner, but left in large blocks and slung in a huge pile - like a grand pyramid of produce - on some greasy-looking butcher's paper. Every now and then a hand reaches in and grabs a slab, taking it store-side to slice up and serve on a sandwich.

You better hope you want your smoked meat in a sandwich, because here there's only one way your smoked meat comes: in a sandwich. There are other dishes on the Schwartz's menu - steak and livers and chicken - but they're as superfluous as the salad menu at McDonald's. No one comes here for steak and livers and chicken.

Schwartz's has been open for 80 years and doesn't look like it's had a new coat of paint since. It's a diner-style place, with a stainless-steel bench overlooking the kitchen and rows of laminate-topped tables behind it.

When our turn to eat finally comes, we take a seat at one of those tables, ordering a round of smoked-meat sandwiches with sides of fries, pickles and cherry colas. That's the tradition, according to Hugo, and this is not the sort of place where you mess with tradition.

The sandwiches arrive in no time. Want to know what's in a smoked-meat sandwich? Smoked meat. That's it. Just a couple of small slices of bread that rest on either side of about half a kilogram of sliced, smoked meat.

And is it worth it, you might wonder, with all this travelling and queuing and waiting and salivating all in the name of a few bits of meat between bread? Well, of course it is. It's delicious, and all these people lining up aren't stupid - they know a good thing when they're onto it.

It makes you wish we had a Schwartz's in Australia. But then, it wouldn't be the same. Someone would have turned it into a big chain by now.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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