"I think it’s getting close to being an institution," says Bagel Etc co-owner Howard Leitner. Close is an understatement. Leitner and co-owner Simon Rosson are the latest generation to helm a diner that has served the city since the 1940s, when it opened as Cookie’s Main Lunch.
These days, "the Bagel" is as beloved for its neon-and-vinyl kitsch (with, perhaps, an uncomfortable number of mirrors for hungover brunch-goers), as much as its huevos rancheros and bagel-focused breakfasts and lunches. That it can count Leonard Cohen, who has a home across the way in Parc du Portugal, as one of its former regulars, doesn’t hurt either.
But more than breakfast, what the Bagel and its previous incarnations have given the city is the function of every great institution: a comfortable space to be, to eat, to talk. As Leitner reiterates over and over, it’s always been about the people, the kids they’ve watched grow up, the daily and weekly regulars, and anyone who’s willing to join in and shoot the shit. Eater recently sat down with Howard, an institution himself, to talk about the Bagel’s history, hot sauce collection, and the people who eat breakfast there.
When did your story here begin?
I’ve been coming here since ‘82. The neighbourhood is very familiar to me. I did grow up as a child on Villeneuve, and then we moved out. But coming back here, you’ve got Schreter’s, which is an institution besides us, we used to come shop at Schreter’s. I used to come in, I knew the two owners, and I would come in for breakfast, see what’s going on, and things just started to develop. Once I got here, Simon was here already, we got to know the customer base, and now everyone knows Howard. (A customer interjects to say that everyone does indeed know Howard.)
"We’re like a big family here."
They’re not customers, they’re all friends. We get to know each other, get to know our personal lives, things that are going on. That’s really the bottom line of the success of the Bagel. We’re like a big family here. We have regulars every day who sit at the bar, we have parents who started here, bring the kids, or the kids who go to university and bring in the parents. That’s what we like to maintain here. It’s not pretentious, we can yell, we can joke. If you sit at the bar when I’m there, you take your life in your own hands. We get to know you, we make jokes with each other.
"On weekends here, it’s wild, it’s crazy, it’s packed."
What has contributed to that over the years?
Each ownership, each generation did their own thing. For us, Simon and I just really want to make it enjoyable. We want to make sure the quality of the food is fresh, good portions, fair price. We want to make sure you feel comfortable when you walk in, that if there’s a problem we resolve it. The music we play here, there really is a vibe going on. You have to like it. On weekends here, it’s wild, it’s crazy, it’s packed. You’ve got to have some patience to sit down. We have groups that like to come here for years. We have a runner’s club that’s been coming here every Saturday morning at 11 o’clock for the last 20 to 25 years, every Saturday without fail. We have great servers, who are friendly and welcoming. It comes down from us. Weekends I’m at the cash, I’m on the floor. We all do everything at the Bagel.
Can you tell me about some of the regulars?
We have everyone from judges to students to grandparents to families to businesspeople.
And Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen was and always will be a great friend of the Bagel, but unfortunately Leonard doesn’t hang out in Montreal anymore. When he was here, you’d always find Leonard sitting at the bar having his allongé. The nicest, sweetest guy, and again, part of the family. He never wanted to talk about himself. He would want to talk about you: ‘How are you my friend?’ Adam [Cohen, Leonard’s son] also comes in when he’s in town, with his band. He hangs out, is very quiet, but if you ask him for a little favour, an autograph, he’s always happy to oblige as Leonard is.
"Leonard Cohen was and always will be a great friend of the Bagel."
What does Leonard Cohen get for breakfast?
Leonard is a very simple man. A couple of eggs, some bacon, a bagel, an allongé. But usually just his coffee, a couple of coffees he likes. Very sweet man, very cool. We don’t make a big, deal, he doesn’t make a big deal. Again, it’s a variety of people who come in here.
Any other favourites?
We used to have a lady who would come in and order about six or seven orders of sausages and that’s it. We haven’t seen her in a long time. You know, everybody brings their own personality. And when they come in here and they feel comfortable, that personality comes out even better, when they’re happy, they’re joking with me, have a good sense of humour. Everybody has their own bit of personality they bring into the Bagel. We have three guys who come in every Saturday — we call them the Three Musketeers — the same guys who come every Saturday morning, at 9 a.m. sharp, they have their own table. Now their wives are coming in.
How does breakfast fit into the scene?
In terms of business, it’s economical, not too expensive, you can come in as a family and not break the bank. It’s a good start to the day, or end of the day, if you’re out late the night before and come in late, or first thing in the morning. Breakfast, and the quality we serve, is important. A fresh glass of juice, a cup of coffee, a bagel toasted, our famous huevos rancheros, great omelettes, fresh hollandaise sauce.
"We have one bagel, the sesame seed bagel."
Has the menu changed much over the years?
As a breakfast type place as we are today, not really. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We have our specials for lunch, Monday through Friday. We have one bagel, the sesame seed bagel.
Always Fairmount. And over last few years, everyone’s on a healthy kick, so we said, okay, let’s try a multigrain on the weekend, so we sell a few multigrain. People don’t ask, they know it’s a sesame seed bagel whether it’s huevos or hollandaise. And we also have our challah and black Russian bread that comes in fresh every day.
How did the hot sauce collection develop?
It was sort of here. With breakfast and eggs, people like their hot sauce. We’re always looking for different ones and crazier names, and the crazier the name, the more likely we’ll try it. Our newest one is the Colon Cleanser, and it works. We have some private stock hidden away, it’s called the Bomb, which is serious. We go from the typical and then we look for the different kinds that are out there. And people like the idea of going up and choosing, and we always suggest one, and they’re happy about that. And then we’ll take suggestions from our customer base.
Is the decorative kitsch a work in progress?
We want to keep it clean, we’ve added new chairs, but we really try to keep an old school diner, that’s who we are, we are a diner. We add some pictures, we take away, but we really don’t change the vibe of the Bagel. It works.
"What’s sad is watching businesses go by. We lost a lot of our friends."
What has it been like to see the evolution of Saint-Laurent over the years?
There’s good and bad to all changes. What’s sad is watching businesses go by. We lost a lot of our friends. Especially around here, we’re tight-knit, we all know each other. We never want to see anybody go, that’s the problem. We want to maintain what we have. It’s a great area, a lot of charm on Saint-Laurent, you don’t want to lose anything, but unfortunately it does happen. But hopefully you come back with something else, new businesses, new ideas. We’re hanging in, we’re plugging away, we have our little niche.
What do you eat for breakfast?
I love everything we have here, but I watch myself. I’m on a little bit of a health kick, so usually a vegetarian egg white omelette, a little bit of spinach, pepper and tomatoes. I always have to have a bagel, always have to have a coffee.