“There will be no more big groups sitting down and getting served here,” Judy Servay, founder and director of fifteen-year-old nonprofit restaurant Robin des Bois tells Eater. “All the other restaurants in Montreal are already doing that, but not here anymore.”
Robin des Bois moved into La Fontaine Park’s large unoccupied chalet-restaurant, owned by the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, in July to run its culinary day camp, following a major operation-halting fire at its St-Laurent Boulevard location on June 28. The restaurant has now been given the green light to stay at least six more months in the space.
The change of scenery has — despite its unfortunate catalyst — compelled Servay and her team to double down on the restaurant’s socially driven mandate. “It helped us realize that we had spent so much time adapting to what customers wanted and trying to grow, but that at the end of the day, we weren’t actually always helping more people. We wanted to find ways to make our social mission even stronger.”
In the new parkside space, table service has been eliminated, replaced with a canteen model that requires diners to go pick up their tartare, waffle, salad, or sandwich themselves at a counter — all profits get channeled back to partnering organizations Sun Youth, Le Chainon, Le Refuge des Jeunes, and Santropol Roulant, as has always been the case. But in two weeks, anyone who wants to make a reservation for a large group will have to agree to one condition, Servay says: “They will be cooking for others.”
A couple nights a week the restaurant will be transformed into a mega cooking space, and each diner will be required to churn out about 10 meals, to then be distributed to organizations tackling poverty and food insecurity in the city. “You can drink, and you can party, but you will be cooking. You’ll be making one recipe, and then after that’s done, you can all eat together.”
The idea for these “private helping parties,” as Servay calls them, noting that she’s working on a snappier name, was actually inspired by a tradition from her time in the advertising and music video business. Every Christmas, Servay’s production company would move desks aside, haul in some tabletop stoves, and invite directors, actors, singers, and bands to cook hundreds of meals alongside each other to then donate to the Welcome Hall Mission.
“People would smoke, and flirt, and drink, and whatever else, but at the end of the day we’d all say, ‘This is the only party where you leave feeling better the next day,’’ she says.
Other than the parties, Servay also plans to use Robin des Bois’s new, much more spacious setting, to host events like yoga classes, bingo nights, movie screenings, and live music performances — activities the volunteer-run restaurant has dabbled in in the past, but hopes to provide with increased regularity now.
The already very luminous cafeteria-like space has been made over for added warmth, achieved by the placement of plenty of plant life and some living room-esque furniture. It’s a cozy spot for people to go work and study, Servay says, and in the winter, when Montrealers are skating in the frozen pond below, they’ll be able to take a breather and lounge in an Adirondack chair, by an outdoor heater, with mulled wine in hand and French onion soup in lap.
Still, having to unexpectedly trot operations out into the middle of one of the city’s green spaces has had its challenges. Before the fire, Robin des Bois, on the Main, had been adapting to the pandemic with the introduction of takeout, delivery (via third-party apps), and a grocery section amped up tenfold. But with cars not allowed in the park, foot traffic now more of the dog walking than afternoon shopping variety, and the nearby parking situation unpredictable, Servay says, the team has had to rethink a lot.
“But working with volunteers for 15 years, never knowing what a day will be like or who will be working with you, we are at ease with that uncertainty. When the fire happened, we knew we’d have to adapt, but that’s okay because we already do it everyday.”
Robin des Bois is currently open Friday and Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 3933 Avenue du Parc la Fontaine, with plans to host private dinner events and scheduled activities in the weeks to come.