Montreal is a city that sleeps. Unlike certain metropolises, the streets of this quaint urban centre fall quiet beyond a certain hour on most nights. Yet for the few night owls prowling the streets in the wee hours of the morning, there are a smattering of late-night and 24-hour restaurants to call home, staffed by a group of unsung nighttime heroes, keeping the city fed around the clock.
One of these late night saviours is Yohan Quintal, a former line cook and current manager at La Banquise, open 24 hours a day, and arguably the city’s premier poutine destination (helped along by its popularity amongst visitors). According to Quintal, much of the magic at La Banquise happens after midnight. The restaurant’s busiest hours are between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., when the staff turn up the music and the Plateau diner’s bright yellow walls buzz with energy.
“I would say it’s like electric, you know,” Quintal says of the night shift at La Banquise. “People are really happy...and the rush keeps us really awake.”
The late-night clientele at La Banquise is quite diverse, consisting of an amalgamation of regulars, tourists, and staff from other restaurants coming home from their own evening shifts. And despite the surprising fact that drunk and disorderly customers are few and far between at La Banquise, Quintal admits that handling energetic patrons during the night shift requires adaptability and enthusiasm.
“You work with a different kind of customer [at night],” Quintal says. “You have to be really dynamic. If not, they won’t listen to you, [and] the service is...not as good. You’re not really entertaining them.”
The same is true at 24-hour café Milton B, according to senior night staff member Lakou Bil, who works from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. The chalet-like building in the Milton-Parc neighborhood directly east of McGill University (sometimes called the “McGill Ghetto”) has been a longstanding day and night caffeine source, initially as a Second Cup before it closed and reopened as an independent café in 2017.
The location means Milton B’s clientele consists predominantly of students, some of whom stop by in the early hours of the morning to get a post-party snack. And while Bil has only ever seen the police called on disorderly night patrons twice in his eight years working at the location, he says working nights can involve walking a sensitive line.
“If someone comes in that is loud, the [other] clients sometimes kick them out,” Bil says. “Most of the time you have to have a charisma...for example, somebody who is drunk, they want to use the bathroom, they could disturb the service. How are you going to deal with that? You have to be very diplomatic because they’re going to cry, they’re going to make noise, and [other customers] are going to leave.”
For the most part, however, Bil’s customers are students and professors seeking a place to focus while cranking out essays or cramming for exams. On quieter nights, the calm atmosphere in the café gives Bil freedom to step out from behind the counter and socialize with clients.
“I never feel lonely [on the night shift],” Bil says. “If it’s not busy, I leave my work, and I come and I sit down and I have a little bit of small talk with students. [If] they have some difficulty reading or writing their essay, [I help].”
There is similar room to socialize for night staff at St-Henri French-American restaurant Foiegwa, where the kitchen stays open until 2 a.m. According to server Rahma Eldeeb and manager Alex Roussel, many of Foiegwa’s late-night customers are staff from other restaurants stopping by after closing time. As the only upscale kitchen open that late in the area, Foiegwa serves as a final stop for many members of the service industry.
As with La Banquise and Milton B, Foiegwa seldom sees night patrons who are overly rowdy or inebriated. But staff at all three locations noted similar burdens of working nights for their personal lives. Eldeeb admits that operating on a schedule that is opposite from the rest of the world has taken a toll on her social life over the years.
“At some point your friends and family know we can’t have dinner on a Friday night, I’m not gonna come to your party on Saturday night because I’m working,” Eldeeb says.
Quintal noted experiencing similar hardships in his time working nights at La Banquise, but has found the biggest toll to be the impact of a nocturnal schedule on the body.
“The three first weeks are super hard. It’s tough on the system because you’re like starting off as normal,” Quintal says. “You switch out your entire life.”
Even so, Quintal feels that these challenges bring La Banquise’s staff together. As part of what sometimes feel like the only group of people in the city with nocturnal schedules, he’s come to call the night shift home.
“There’s a really strong bond in the team,” Quintal says. “It’s really special because you come in the team and it’s like your family here, since you’re really part of something. And when the rush arrives, you’re just like a team of seven or eight in front of a thousand orders.”