It may not have built a brand as big as Schwartz’s, but Bens Delicatessen looms large in the history of Jewish Montreal — and in the city’s cultural lore. Once a working-class hangout, Bens grew to serve smoked meat and soups to celebs from Michael Jackson to Leonard Cohen to Catherine Deneuve in its ‘60s-‘70s heyday.
Now, Montreal’s McCord Museum is paying tribute to the delicatessen – which closed in 2006 – with Bens, the Legendary Deli, a compact but fascinating exhibition about the eatery, founder Ben Kravitz, and a bright, shining moment in Montreal history.
“Bens itself was a great portrait of Montreal,” Celine Widmer, the exhibition’s curator, told the Forward. “An institution that endured the time of a human life span, Bens was always much more than just a restaurant. It died out after 98 years of existence, but remains an integral part of our collective memory. It became iconic. It was one of those very special places that a city experiences quite rarely.”
The exhibition showcases more than 100 objects, including posters, architectural plans, photos, counter stools, dishes, utensils, menus, and original recipes donated by Kravitz descendants, who had contacted the museum in 2007 about staging a show. A fascinating video tribute to Bens comes in the form of a two-minute spiel by superfan (and Montreal native) Leonard Cohen pulled from 1965 docu Ladies and Gentlemen: Mr. Leonard Cohen.
Like any great deli, the attraction of Bens wasn’t just food, which even regulars would admit was so-so. Because the restaurant was the rare non-drinking establishments open late in Montreal, its cachet as a slightly louche, latenight hangout snowballed – think a smaller Katz’s. By 1960, Bens’ staff of 80 was serving 8,000 customers a day.
“When nightlife was centered downtown, back in Montreal’s Sin City days, American entertainers would stop in there to sober up or start their day,” said Bill Brownstein, the Montreal Gazette columnist whose 2006 book on Schwartz’s became an acclaimed stage musical. Ben’s ascent also mirrored Montreal’s, Brownstein said. “The period when Bens at its prime was an era when we were the financial and cultural hub of the country,” before political unrest shifted the center of gravity to Toronto, Brownstein explained.
The story of Bens also encapsulates the arc of Jewish Montreal in a microcosm. Lithuanian refugee Benjamin Kravitz and his wife Fanny opened a candy store on Montreal’s famed St Lawrence Boulevard in 1908. Customers demanded more substantial fare than sweets, so Kravitz started selling smoked meat sandwiches using his mother’s recipe.
In 1929, the fast-growing Bens moved southwest, to the heart of the city’s downtown; twenty years later, it migrated to a Charles Davis Goodman-designed modernist building it occupied for nearly 60 years, where an iconic red “Bens” sign in curlicue script dominated the structure.
Ben’s sons, Irving, Sollie, and Al, took over the restaurant after their father died in 1956; though Bens’ luster had faded by the ‘90s, a third generation kept it going until a labor dispute killed it in 2006.
Today, with more of Montreal falling prey to international chains, the kind of experience Bens offered has become increasingly rare, Widmer said.
“Bens was a very immersive place, where people from different origins, languages, religions, different social classes, different styles, could sit down one beside each other and enjoy a meal and some time,” she said. “From an unemployed worker to world-famous celebrities, anyone could afford to live and taste this experience.”
And while the reputation of Ben’s kitchen took a hit in later years, Widmer insisted that Bens’ influence on Montreal’s food – and deli culture - can’t be underestimated.
“The Montreal-style delicatessen is well-established now, but [local favorites] Schwartz’s, Ben Ash, Lester’s, SnowdonDeli, and the Main are all restaurants inspired by the model of Bens.”
Ben’s the Legendary Deli runs through November 23 at the McCord Museum, 690 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montréal, mccord-museum.qc.ca