Walking into Wilensky’s Light Lunch can feel like indulging in a bit of time travel.
It has a decidedly vintage vibe. The old-style soda fountain. The ring-up cash register. The pressed tin ceiling. The old wooden storage cabinets. It’s no surprise that the unique visual charms of the Montreal landmark have been used for everything from album covers to TV commercials.
But ever since the lunch counter made an appearance in the 1974 film The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (based on Mordecai Richler’s classic novel, in which Wilensky’s also turns up), then-owner Moe Wilensky declared, “no more movies.” “My father found it so disruptive” even though the crew left everything in better shape than it was before, recounts his daughter Sharon Wilensky, BA’82, DipEd’87.
Sharon is now the co-owner of Wilensky’s, which is marking its 90th anniversary this year.
It began in 1932 as a barber shop/variety store with a hot dog counter and soda fountain, on the northwest corner of Fairmount and Saint-Urbain. In 1952, it moved to its current location just down the street.
When the family bought the building in the 1980s, they could have renovated (some of the décor dates back to that first location), but as Moe’s wife Ruth used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Many of Wilensky’s regulars have been eating there for decades.
It’s known for the “Wilensky Special,” a grilled sandwich of all-beef bologna and salami. Patrons can add cheese, but it always comes with mustard, and it’s never cut in half. Those are the rules. “We used to charge more for no mustard,” says Sharon. Aside from smoked meat, it might be the city’s most famous sandwich.
Sharon, who runs the business with her brother Asher, figures “The Special” evolved from Moe making himself a sandwich to eat. Customers noticed, asked for one for themselves, and on repeat visits, would say, “Can you make that special thing you made me last time?” Sharon laughs, “I don’t think we sat down and had a meeting to decide on the name.”
In 1982, Sharon’s sister pushed hard for the family to celebrate the business’s 50th anniversary. Sharon gestures to the mounted photo of that party. “My father was 70, my mother would have been 62, a little bit younger than me. My father died two years later. I’m glad we had that.”
After a Canal D documentary about Wilensky’s in 2015, “It was so busy here I [felt like I] met the whole province of Quebec,” Sharon says.
She is genuinely touched by how fond people are of her family’s business. Sharon warned her two kids when they went to CEGEP that people might recognize their name and ask questions. One extraordinary perk was when a producer with Cirque de Soleil, a regular customer, invited her and her daughter down to Miami to see the premiere of a show.
“For my parents, though, it was really about work. They had five kids.” All the children once played and later worked there at some point. Asher has worked there for over 40 years, his daughter Alisa for 10. An older brother helps behind the scenes, while Sharon’s sister designs the merch. “Anything that doesn’t look like chicken scratch around here, she did,” Sharon says. “There’s always a Wilensky in the building.”
Staff stick around too. Scott Druzin has been there for 30 years, and grillman Paul Scheffer started on his 60th birthday, after a career in shoes. He turned 80 this past spring. The hours are good, he says, and he likes the place. “My wife doesn’t want me at home,” he jokes, “Sunday and Monday I just sit in the den.”
Sharon has been working at Wilensky’s full time since 2003, having spent the previous 30 years raising her kids and teaching courses on English as a second language at McGill’s School of Continuing Studies. She still loves languages and recently started learning sign language to better communicate with one of her customers. (He recommended she start with words like, “cheese” and “pay.”)
The interactions with customers are generally a high point of the job – but Sharon remembers one occasion where things got heated between her dad and a boxer who was a Wilensky’s regular. “He got really mad at my father and grabbed the mustard and actually squirted him with it! He used it as a weapon!”
Wilensky’s gets its share of celebrities. René Angélil used to eat there in the 70s when he played with his band Les Baronets. Sharon saw him again in the 2000s when he had become considerably more famous as a manager (most notably for his wife Celine Dion). “Very quiet, just sat.” Renowned New York City chef David Chang came in a few times. “Very unassuming. Ate his lunch. Left. Not like, I’m so-and-so. And I find that’s it about real celebrities. They don’t announce who they are. They just want to eat lunch.”
Anthony Bourdain sampled the Wilensky’s Special (he once declared Wilensky’s a “national treasure” on television). “A lot of comedians come here,” says Wilensky. “We have pictures of Seth Rogen and Owen Wilson.” Aziz Ansari dropped by with Chang for an episode of the PBS series The Mind of a Chef and playfully told Sharon that he was going to open up his own Wilensky’s-type place in LA. When he asked her where they got their buns from, she shot back, “I’ll tell you, but then I’ll have to kill you.”
The photos that are pinned up are not so much a wall of celebrities, but a wall of customers, Sharon says. “Some are well known, and some aren’t. But they’re all our customers. I think I’m a bit of a socialist like my dad and my grandfather. I mean, that’s our philosophy, right? Everyone is treated the same.”
For Moe and Ruth (who worked there until her mid-nineties), the restaurant was their life. For Sharon, it’s more like a second home. She is proud of Wilensky’s iconic status in Montreal, but it’s also a business like any other with day-to-day responsibilities that need to be tended to. “And then there’s the family aspect, which can be bittersweet sometimes.” She misses her mother, who seemed to know everyone in the neighbourhood. “I’d get these stories from her,” says Sharon. “My mother was a link to [all] these people.”
Like most restaurants, Wilensky’s has had its struggles during the pandemic. Safety measures required difficult adjustments. Sharon says the place felt more like a cheerless factory at times (order here, stand over there to pay) than the cozy little eatery that people treasure. But she is grateful that loyal Wilensky’s customers helped them through those tough times.
“Even though it’s been difficult the last couple of years, I’m really thankful to get to this milestone. And I’m thankful for how supportive our customers have been. Our staff and everybody came back. There is a lot to be thankful for.”