New McCord Museum exhibit gives a taste of legendary Bens Deli in Montreal

MONTREAL - A slice of one of Montreal's best-known smoked-meat joints is on display in a new exhibit at the McCord Museum.

At one time, thousands of customers passed through the doors of Bens Delicatessen every day.

Pierre Trudeau would pop by for lunch, pop idol Michael Jackson lobbied to get his picture on the Wall of Fame and the place was once busted up in a pre-Second World War brawl between German sailors, staff and customers when the Nazis insulted founder Ben Kravitz's Jewish heritage and spit in his face.

It even reflected Quebec's spirited politics — the absence of an apostrophe in Ben's name on the sign was the result of Quebec language laws in the 1980s when the punctuation was also dropped from other English-language trademarks such as Eaton's.

"Bens is certainly part of the history of Montreal," said Suzanne Sauvage, the museum's president. "We felt it was natural to help preserve elements of this iconic eating establishment."

"Bens: The Legendary Deli," which runs from Thursday to Nov. 23, contains more than 100 objects, including posters, photos, dishes, utensils, testimonials and menus. There are also a couple of counters with stools and chairs and tables.

Bens opened in 1908 and operated until 2006, when workers went on strike and the family decided to close. At the time it was Montreal's oldest deli.

"It's quite a powerful moment," said Elliott Kravitz, Ben's grandson, as he looked at the artifacts during a preview.

"I grew up in the restaurant," said Kravitz, who worked in the restaurant as a youngster but is now a doctor.

"It was our home and felt very comfortable — in fact, so comfortable that when I went to university and went out to different places to eat, I'd forget to pay," he recalled with a laugh.

Kravitz had a wealth of stories from the eatery, like the time a group of celebrating young men showed up at 2 a.m. after the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1993.

One man ordered a glass of Bens special coke but insisted he get it in his own cup. When Kravitz's Uncle Al, who was on duty, said he'd have to take it in a regular restaurant glass, the group raced out of the eatery.

"They went outside and they brought the Stanley Cup in," Elliott Kravitz said. "My uncle said 'OK' and we filled it up."

Plenty of celebrities visited the deli along with regular folks over the years, with many of them getting their pictures on the wall. Kravitz said the famous weren't solicited for their photos — they had to ask and pass muster by a committee.

"Some went to great lengths," Kravitz said. "Michael Jackson came back three times before Dad said OK. He was so upset. Dad saw he was so upset so he put up two pictures."

Actress Catherine Deneuve, wrestler Maurice (Mad Dog) Vachon, poets Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton, musicians Iron Maiden, Bette Midler, and premiers Maurice Duplessis, Jean Charest, Rene Levesque and Jacques Parizeau were also patrons.

There were even a few people who worked behind the counter who would later become famous. Kravitz said he found an employee card for Simon Reisman, who went on to be Canada's chief negotiator for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

As a young man, Reisman had worked as a dishwasher at the deli under Kravitz's father Irving.

"I looked at the back of the card to see what my dad's comments were and it said, "An OK worker. I don't know if he'll amount to much in life," Kravitz said with a chuckle.

One of the artifacts on display is a glass bowl, which Kravitz said survived a brawl sparked when a group of German sailors hassled Ben Kravitz while they were in Montreal for a tour promoting the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

One of the Nazis apparently barked "Jew, get me a sandwich" at Kravitz, who politely replied sandwiches were not being served. After more insults, the sailor spit in Kravitz's face.

"He loved people but also recognized that there is evil in the world and people are prejudiced," Elliott Kravitz recalled of his grandfather. "He picked up a steel rod that you use to sharpen and he whacked the guy over the head. All hell broke loose."

Staff and customers jumped in and the restaurant was trashed. The dish was saved because Fanny Kravitz had used it to bring some matzo balls home.

Celine Widmer, the museum's curator of history and archives, said Elliott Kravitz contacted the McCord shortly after the deli closed and a team was assembled to collect artifacts with an eye to a future exhibit.

"Bens was open 22 hours during the day and there was all this different clientele, from the business people during the day to the students and all the artists and the nightlife," Widmer said. "In the '50s and '60s, Bens was so busy there were like 8,000 customers a day and people were staying an average of 12 minutes. It was an experience to be at Bens.

"People from Montreal adopted this place over the years," she added. "There's a bit of everyone in Bens."

Kravitz says he celebrates the years that Bens operated but doesn't mourn its loss. He says the famous smoked meat is still being produced and sold and he hopes to offer a line to the public through retail stores in the future.

There's no question of opening the restaurant again, however. He doesn't see doing it himself at this point in his life because he's already consumed by his medical practice.

"I learned something about restaurants in my life," he said. "They have to be a work of love."