Bens De Luxe Delicatessen & Restaurant

Bens De Luxe Delicatessen and Restaurant was a renowned Jewish delicatessen in Montreal, Canada. The restaurant was famed for its Montreal-style smoked meat sandwich. During its heyday it was a popular late-night dining fixture in the downtown core and a favourite eatery of many celebrities. It was open for nearly a century, from 1908 to 2006. At 98 years it was the oldest deli in the city.

Bens De Luxe Delicatessen & Restaurant
Bens storefront (2005)
Bens De Luxe Delicatessen & Restaurant is located in Montreal
Bens De Luxe Delicatessen & Restaurant
Location within Montreal
Restaurant information
Food typeJewish kosher style delicatessen
Dress codeCasual
Street address990 De Maisonneuve Boulevard West
Coordinates45°30′08″N 73°34′24″W / 45.502091°N 73.573363°W / 45.502091; -73.573363

Bens had a longstanding and widely believed advertising slogan that claimed the restaurant had invented smoked meat, but this has been debunked by cultural historians.[1]

Inside beside the counter. Visible on the wall is a display of photos of celebrity customers.
Inside View.
Bens art deco-style entrance.
The cashier's counter.

Former restaurant site and interior


The restaurant was located at 990 De Maisonneuve Boulevard West, on the southeast corner of the intersection with Metcalfe Street. The three-storey brown brick building was designed in 1950 by Charles Davis Goodman, who as well designed the Jewish General Hospital and the Laurentian Hotel.[2] It was Bens third and final location, where it operated from 1949 until its closure 57 years later. The building had a rounded front corner facing, green awnings, large bay windows and a large illuminated wrap-around sign. The restaurant was on the ground floor and two upper floors were rented.

The interior was seemingly unchanged through the years. Its columns and walls were painted in bright greens and yellows with chrome siding, it had a stainless steel edged counter with rows of chrome counter stools, and terrazzo floors, laminate wall covering, and a ceiling with indirect lighting coves.[2] The chairs were bright yellow, orange and green. Walls were covered in photographs of celebrities who had dined at the restaurant; one spot was dubbed "Bens Wall of Fame". Bens employed only waiters, who wore a black bow tie and white buttoned shirt with black dress pants and shoes, along with a white waist apron.



Early years and golden age


Benjamin Kravitz (a Lithuanian immigrant) and his Ukrainian-born wife Fanny (née Schwartz) opened a sweet shop on Saint Lawrence Boulevard in Montreal in 1908. They soon added smoked meat sandwiches, using his mother's recipe. Kravitz was generous towards customers and employees, as during the Great Depression he provided a breadline which he also personally served. [3]

In 1929 they moved to de Maisonneuve (formerly Burnside) and Mansfield, and to their final location in 1949.[4] The restaurant was open 23 hours daily, closed only for cleaning. The 1001 Burnside location, in the theatre district behind the Sheraton Mount Royal Hotel, was a popular late-night dining haunt for celebrities and movie stars.

Kravitz passed the business on to his sons Irving, Sollie and Al, who would often be seen working at the deli.[4] At the height of its popularity, from the 1950s to the early 1980s, the restaurant had 75 to 100 employees. Customers often formed lunchtime line-ups that stretched around the block.[5][3]

Many well known and famous people frequented the restaurant, including Canadian Prime Ministers Pierre Trudeau and Paul Martin, Quebec Premiers René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau and Jean Charest, Free Trade negotiator Simon Reisman, artists Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton, entertainers Ed Sullivan, Burl Ives, Bette Midler, Jack Benny and Liberace, and sportsmen Bob Geary, Gordie Howe and Jean Béliveau (one of the many Montreal Canadiens that ate at the deli.) [6]

Smoked meat fans debated whether Bens or Schwartz's (another local deli) had the best smoked meat sandwich. Bens thin sliced meat was piled high between rye bread, while Schwartz's offers plates of thickly cut smoked meat. Bens had a longstanding and widely believed advertising slogan that claimed the restaurant had invented smoked meat, but this has been debunked by Jewish food and cultural historians.[1]



The 1990s were difficult for Bens, with the death of owner Irving Kravitz, followed by labour disputes (the employees unionized in 1995) and declining patronage. Irving died in 1992, leaving the restaurant to his wife Jean and their son Elliot, while Al was no longer involved in day-to-day operations. Business began to decline, the staff was reduced to 25, and the quality of the food and service was lesser than in previous years. The smoked meat was formerly prepared in-house, using big steamers, and then the meat was hand-cut. However, under cost-cutting by Jean Kravitz, the smoked meat was ordered from another company pre-cooked, then cut with a machine and warmed up by restaurant staff. French fries were formerly cut by hand and fried on the spot, but since then replaced by frozen fries. Also, the restaurant's opening hours were gradually reduced from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m., and until 2 a.m. on weekends to 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. A far cry from its heydays where the restaurent was opened almost 24 hours (being closed only from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. for cleaning). [3]

Reviews criticized the quality of smoked meat and other signature dishes, as well as portion size and value for price. Though the restaurant got a poor reputation with locals who deserted it, it nonetheless survived due to its popularity with tourists who sought it out due to its history and the charm of its old-time decor.[3]



The beginning of the end started on July 20, 2006, when employees voted to strike. It was the end of an era after 98 years of continuous operation, as the restaurant closed and would not reopen. On December 15, 2006, it was sold to SIDEV Realty Corporation,[7] bringing the restaurant's long history to an end. SIDEV immediately announced a new building project.

Debate over preservation of site


SIDEV planned to build a 15-storey hotel on the property, but faced opposition. For nearly two years Bens sat empty, with its contents and memorabilia stacked inside. The building was one of the top 10 endangered places in Canada, according to the Heritage Canada Foundation. Described as a "cultural icon", an editorial in the Montreal Gazette disagreed, calling it a "cheap, miserable example of art deco," "soulless" and a "charmless collection of drab tan bricks."[8] The Art Deco Society of Montreal[9] wanted it preserved, as a tourist attraction and movie set as it had a Streamline Moderne motif.[10] They wanted the city to stop the demolition and the building be declared a heritage site by the province.

Demolition and curation


On April 4, 2008, the city of Montreal stated it planned to allow demolition of the building and held a public hearing.[11] On June 3 the Ville-Marie council unanimously voted to demolish the building, a condition being the developer must commemorate the deli in the new building. Demolition started September 25. On October 1, the iconic Bens wrap-around sign was removed and October 29 the vertical red Bens sign, that was visible for several blocks, was taken down. Demolition was complete in November. The deli memorabilia, including autographed photos from Bens Wall of Fame, menus and interior signage, were donated to the McCord Museum.[12] The large red letters from above the main entrance are now on display in the Communication Studies and Journalism (CJ) building on the Loyola campus of Concordia University[13] as part of the Montreal Signs Project. The MSP also holds much of the exterior signage, though this is not on display due to its fragility.

Notable events


The National Film Board documentary Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr Leonard Cohen interviewed Leonard Cohen at Bens Deli in 1965 (seen at 32 minutes and 49 seconds into the film).

In a notable historic event, Bens Deli hosted the official unveiling of Canada's two-dollar coin: dubbed "the toonie", on February 19, 1996. [14]

An exhibit about Bens was held at the McCord Museum in 2014. "Bens: The Legendary Deli" displayed some 100 artifacts, including menus, photos, dishes, and testimonials.

See also



  1. ^ a b Note: "Old Man Kravitz, a shameless self-promoter ... Throughout the years Ben claimed that he introduced the smoked meat sandwich to Montreal. But it is a well-known fact that the British-American Delicatessen Store had been dispensing quality smoked meat sandwiches for a period of four years prior to the establishment of Fanny's Fruit and Candy Store. Old Man Kravitz also implied that he introduced smoked meat to Montreal, but we know that is a pile of baloney". Eiran Harris, Montreal-Style Smoked Meat: An interview with Eiran Harris conducted by Lara Rabinovitch, with the cooperation of the Jewish Public Library Archives of Montreal Archived April 25, 2010, at the Wayback Machine, Cuizine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures: Volume 1, numéro 2, 2009.
  2. ^ a b Bernard Mendelman (June 25, 2014). "A Slice Of Smoked Meat Memories Served Up At McCord Museum - By Bernard Mendelman - The Suburban Newspaper". Archived from the original on July 15, 2014. Retrieved November 2, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d "A Bens Waiter Reflects on 40 Years at Montreal's Bygone Deli Icon". January 27, 2015. Archived from the original on June 1, 2023. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  4. ^ a b "McCord Museum exhibit gives a taste of legendary Bens Deli". June 22, 2014. Archived from the original on November 17, 2014. Retrieved November 2, 2014.
  5. ^ "New exhibit celebrates Montreal deli". Archived from the original on December 3, 2023. Retrieved November 2, 2014.
  6. ^ A legendary sandwich shop is toast: After 98 years as a fixture in Montreal by Ingrid Peritz in The Globe and Mail Archived July 18, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ "SIDEV Realty Corporation". Archived from the original on March 23, 2010.
  8. ^ Take out Ben's, Montreal Gazette, May 8, 2008 Archived June 9, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ "Art Deco Society of Montreal". Archived from the original on July 1, 2010.
  10. ^ Preserving slice of Montreal life, Montreal Gazette, June 15, 2007 Archived July 17, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Stille Post > Québec > Montréal > Topic: BEN's DELI final meeting before demolition MONDAY APRIL 21, 6pm Archived June 9, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Samer Elatrash, Ben's Ends, Montreal Mirror Jan 18–24, 2007: Vol. 22 No. 30 Archived June 9, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Hays, Matthew (May 20, 2010). "Signs of the times". Montreal Mirror. Archived from the original on May 24, 2010. Retrieved May 20, 2010.
  14. ^ "OTD: Mint gives birth to toonie". February 19, 2021. Archived from the original on March 21, 2023. Retrieved March 21, 2023.

Further reading


CBC News

The Montreal Gazette