Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling the continent to chronicle what's happening in North America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in North America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Few restaurants in North America embolden gluttony like Joe Beef. It's the blackboards in every room, scrawled with the names of carnal pleasures in lilting French: foie de veau au girolles, tournedos de cheval aux escargot, saucisse de lapin en salami, steak de gigot d'agneau. It's the slinky knots of spaghetti, ensnaring lobster and bacon in their coils, being devoured at every other table. It's the way an arc of flowing Chablis refracts the dim lighting. It's the chat-up-your-neighbor coziness. And really, it's having seized on a reservation at all.
Like many American dining sensations that emerged over the last decade, Canada's most famous restaurant began in 2005 with humble aims. Owners David McMillan, Frédéric Morin, and Allison Cunningham had worked in fine dining and longed to be their own bosses. They found investors willing to help them purchase a divey cafe in Montreal's then-scruffy Little Burgundy neighborhood. A friend built the bar from hardwoods torn out of an old farmhouse. They christened the place in honor of Charles "Joe Beef" McKiernan, a storied 19th-century saloonkeeper who was very much a man of the people. Morin and McMillian would be in the kitchen, preparing food, slightly personalized, that hewed to Quebec's bistro traditions. Dishes like foie gras au torchon, Dover sole meuniere, côte de boeuf, and profiteroles.
Locals immediately embraced the populist feel: old-timey wainscoting, posters of Bowie and Dylan, a massive bison head that an early customer brought in. As the cooking became more bombastic, while still retaining its Gallic finesse, its reputation grew internationally. Chefs and food writers proselytized. The owners swore they'd keep the place small, but by 2011 they doubled the space (taking over a luncheonette next door they'd launched after Joe Beef's success), cultivated an abundant garden and terrace out back, and wrote an exceptional cookbook.