Friday, September 19, 2008

Front Row Seats

With a head cold and no time to cook, I relied on a Friday night staple in my humble neighbourhood of Notre Dame de Grace in Montreal. Chalet BBQ first opened in 1944, catering to a local clientele of skilled workers, lodge members, and wives of soldiers fighting in Europe. NDG was a simpler place then, home to a few thousand residents one generation removed from rougher parts of the city like Verdun and Point St. Charles. Sixty-four years later the anachronistic plastic booths and wooden panels still glisten cleanly under the odd light fixtures, as muscular waitresses move elegantly in first postion - carrying three or four plates and soup without spilling a drop or losing their cigarettes. This ballet is elegantly coordinated, cooked chickens chopped to a rhythm accompanying young girls stuffing bags for take out orders, and well-fed drivers dodging customers to deliver in rusted cars to those too faint of heart to opt for the floor show of the takeout section. Bemused customers scratch fat bellies and suck on toothpicks before walking happily stuffed to the parking lot, beaming at the thought of a meal served without pretention or a complicated menu to negotiate. They wax nostalgically with their partners about youthful rebellion and children who should call them more often. There is only one meat on the menu, and an audience of slow cooking chickens and dense fries watch the most elegant production in the neighbourhood since the Empress Theatre was a burlesque house. At one time, fifty bodies whirl and lunge with no physical contact or unnecessary liquid spilled. Waitresses pause to smile at customers gawking like tourists at the orderliness of the display. Not a movement is wasted, nor does a shout miss its intended recipient. The take out cashier conducts with quips and rolled eyes, pausing for a moment to show a wedding photo of one of her daughters. The restaurant is so enshrined, old timers who remember the Empress dancers standing outside to grab a smoke between sets refer to a takeout order as "getting a Chalet". Many institutions in NDG are gone - the Empress Theatre became the Cinema V and then a hollowed shell looking for adoption. The Monkland Theare is now a magazine store and a bakery, and the Monkland Tavern is the more elegant "Le Taverne", free of turned over tables and sixty cent beers served in glasses of questionable cleanliness. Still, Chalet trundles on, aging gracefully like its clientele, a little out of date but solid, pausing only for the occasional kitchen fire and holiday. The food is consistent, much like what it's like to go home for the weekend. You know how the potatoes will taste, what the colour the plates will be, and whether or not you will have room for pie.

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