The most intriguing aspect of Titanic is the one few customers ever see. It’s not the black and white portraits of staff by the late, acclaimed photographer Tshi. It’s not the old vault that serves as dry goods storage. It’s the entrance to Rob Hack and Patrick Meausette’s charmingly disheveled back office. The old hand-lettered sign on the door reads ‘Furness, Withy, & Company Limited.’
"Do you know what they did?," asks a bespectacled Meausette. "Guess."
And then, before a visitor can muster a clever answer: "They sold tickets to the Titanic!"
It’s the kind of detail you hesitate to even question — though Hack and Meausette are pretty sure it’s true. Interesting details are the pair’s forte. The bygone and beloved Cluny, in the high-ceilinged Darling Foundry, now home to Le Serpent, was brimming with them; tables fashioned from salvaged bowling alley floors typified the space’s verging-on-perfect industrial chic aesthetic. At its height, Cluny was the coolest cafeteria in town (it wasn’t just a lunch counter, after all, it was an ArtBar) and a place locals wanted to introduce to out-of-towners.
But as remarkable as Cluny was, Titanic's durability is just as impressive. The café, lunch counter, and caterer has dependably served customers in the same, winsome brick-walled space on Saint-Pierre for 26 years. Over that time Old Montreal has transformed from a quasi boho enclave to a restaurant-thick poster child for condo boom gentrification. Throughout it all, Hack and Meausette haven’t tinkered with Titanic’s formula much. The restaurant has expanded, done away with table service along the way, and consistently draws crowds, workers in the area mostly, for weekday breakfasts and lunches.
A typical Titanic menu — think chili con carne with cornbread, cube steak with pepper sauce, grelots and grilled vegetables, maybe a quiche — evinces a number of influences. Though they first met as students at McGill, Hack and Meausette were raised in the Okanagan in British Columbia and have converging food memories.
"We laugh at how our families made things exactly the same way — Nanaimo bars, mincemeat, coleslaw, meatloaf, et cetera," says Meausette.
Titanic's cooks are encouraged to play with their own childhood influences, and if a dish ever hints German, it’s because the business partners worked in restaurants in Hamburg years ago (including a three-year stint at Brucke for Meausette). A seminal food mentor in that city was Mafalda Torres (a native of Porto, immortalized in a painting at Titanic — see the gallery below), who taught Meausette "about garlic and olive oil and sherry." Hack and Meausette recently sat down to discuss Titanic’s long run.
"Everyone who lived here was a little bit off the radar."
Can you recall what this part of Old Montreal was like in the late 1980s?
Hack: I loved it back in that time. It was so quiet. And the population that lived here—
Meausette: Very artsy and eccentric. Like old ladies who lived in these buildings for generations. A lot of artists who lived in the lofts up here. A lot of fashion people, a lot of photographer types. Everyone who lived here was sort of, a little bit off the radar.
Hack: There was no place to shop in those days.
Meausette: But you know what they say, right? The only people that complain about the lack of services in Old Montreal are the people that don’t live here. People that live here don’t say, oh why don’t we have a supermarket. I’ve never heard a local say that. Except maybe when they closed our liquor store.
"We were paying $300 a month in rent."
And after the condo developers moved in.
Hack: That’s a whole other story. Then it became a lot more uniform, more homogenized.
Meausette: Also it got more expensive. There are two artistic people still in our building. Now it’s mostly lawyers and things like that.
Hack: We were paying $300 a month in rent at the beginning.
"There were quite a few taverns here."
When did it start to change?
Meausette: Ten years ago? And going back to restaurants, there were quite a few taverns here. At least four just in the area of Titanic. Like old-fashioned taverns.
Hack: And greasy spoons on McGill.
Meausette: A couple greasy spoons on McGill. And a number of high-end restaurants like Gibbys and Chez Delmo.
Hack: Il Était Une Fois too. We used to go eat there.
Meausette: There was a Murray’s. It closed quite quickly, maybe about five years in. Then it became a Vietnamese place but that didn’t last.
Titanic outlasted them all.
Meausette: Yeah. I guess we did.