The Main, famed Montreal smoked meat institution beloved by Trudeau and Cohen, closes down

People walk past the Main Deli, on St-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal on Tuesday. The iconic deli closed earlier this week.  (Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press - image credit)
People walk past the Main Deli, on St-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal on Tuesday. The iconic deli closed earlier this week. (Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Main Deli Steak House, a smoked meat institution frequented by prime ministers and poets, closed its doors permanently this week.

The windows of the iconic eatery, whose sign has hung over St-Laurent Boulevard — a road long referred to as the Main, the restaurant's namesake — since 1974, were papered over on Monday and a note in the window thanked its customers for their years of patronage.

"Had I known they were closing for good, I would have gone in for last meal," said Louis Rastelli, the director of Arcmtl Archive Montréal, a history archive, and a former regular at The Main.

"But I looked in at the menu and the prices and thought, 'No, it's not the same as it was. It's a lot more expensive.'"

Restaurateurs say the loss of the Main Deli is a sign of the times: labour shortages, gentrification, high food prices and pandemic closures are squeezing the restaurant industry.

Kwabena Oduro/CBC
Kwabena Oduro/CBC

But it was not entirely out of the blue, according to Rastelli and other smoked meat aficionados. Over the past decade, The Main had begun closing earlier, charging more and, controversially, not smoking its own brisket.

"I was just there like three days ago," Rastelli said. "Walking in front of it and looking inside, it was quite dead. I really got the impression they went way too high with the prices."

Rastelli recalled eating at The Main in the 1980s while working a summer job at the Warshaw Supermarket across the street. Back then, The Main Deli was open 24 hours a day, serving midnight meals to party-goers coming from bars along St-Laurent Boulevard alongside workers grabbing breakfast before a shift in one of the area's many businesses.

In those days, Leonard Cohen famously frequented The Main. Philip Varvaro, who owns Delibee's, a popular smoked meat shop in Pointe-Claire, recalls working long hours at the restaurant, when his father, Peter Varvaro, owned it.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

His father made practically everything by hand, Philip recalled in an interview on Tuesday. "He made the pickles, he made the pimentos. He made everything," he said. "There's a lot of memories."

The family sold the restaurant in 2013 after Peter Varvaro died.

Philip said he was in shock when he learned the news about the closure on Monday. He wasn't sure why The Main had closed down, but he said it had been a hard few years for restaurant owners.

CBC has reached out to the owners but has not heard back.

Over the years, just as St-Laurent Boulevard changed, so did The Main Deli.

Warshaw's, the supermarket where Rastelli worked, closed. Then Moishes, a steakhouse that sold traditional Jewish fare, did too. Berson's funeral monuments, a Jewish business that sold gravestones, also disappeared and a condo development took its place.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Meanwhile, after the Varvaro family sold The Main, Rastelli said the quality of the food began to decline — just as prices rose.

The meat wasn't smoked in-house anymore and the famous coleslaw was nowhere to be found.

"Basically what I thought was the best smoked meat, best coleslaw in the city was replaced with, you know, whatever — store-bought coleslaw," he said.

The Main remained an icon. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was his favourite spot for smoked meat in the city. He tweeted about it on Tuesday, sparking controversy.

"Ouch. Surprised at how much this hurts," Trudeau's tweet said. "And end to decades of The. Best. Smoked. Meat. In. Montreal."

WATCH | Sigh of the times as Montreal's Main Deli shuts suddenly:

Other delis say they won't close

Other Jewish institutions greeted the news that The Main was closing with sadness on Tuesday, but said they weren't in any danger of closing up shop.

"We're not going anywhere," said Bill Lester, the owner of Lester's Deli in Outremont. "Every business has problems with labour and rising food costs. But if you're established, you're going to handle it."

Hart Fishman, one of the owners of the Snowdon Deli, said his contingent of loyal regular customers and catering business means they aren't in the same situation as The Main.

Matthew Lapierre/CBC
Matthew Lapierre/CBC

"We have extremely, extremely loyal, extremely faithful clients, you know, who come sometimes three times a day," he said.

"It's not just a restaurant, this is like a community centre more."

Johnny Goncalves, the manager at Schwartz's deli, who has worked there for nearly 50 years, said it was hard to see The Main close down. The two restaurants, located right beside each other, while they could have been viewed as rivals, never really stepped on each other's toes.

Instead, it will be like losing an old neighbour who helped you out from time to time, he said.

"There's no staff," he said, "and after COVID, a lot of places closed down. … It's not easy."

Good smoked meat is hard to find

Rastelli said there are few spots remaining on the island to get authentic, in-house smoked meat.

Among those that remain are Schwartz's and Lester's, but they are few and far between, he said.

Rastelli said Delibee's, in Pointe-Claire, run by Philip Varvaro, and Smoked Meat Pete's, in L'Île Perrot, which is run by Peter Varvaro's other son, are the two spots that are keeping the original The Main recipe alive.

"We're here in the West Island," said Philip Varvaro of Delibee's. "It's the same smoked meat that my dad started out making. I still make it. My family still makes it."