Mile End’s St-Viateur Street has a new claim to fame: It is becoming one of Montreal’s most popular destinations for fast-casual establishments serving quick eats. The number of restaurants on the street has nearly doubled in recent years, with most of them specializing in takeout — and not just because of pandemic restrictions. But is there such a thing as too much?
That’s the question being asked by locals as restaurants replace bakeries, butchers, and bookstores, raising concerns about the future of a commercial strip known for its diverse retail mix. The situation has become critical enough that the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough is now on the verge of freezing the number of restaurants allowed to operate on St-Viateur. “We don’t want too big of a concentration of restaurants,” city councillor Richard Ryan, who represents Mile End, tells Eater.
The trend began several years ago as more and more tech companies, notably multinational video game giant Ubisoft, expanded their presence in the old industrial district at the east end of the street, which had been home to a thriving garment industry before emptying out in the 1980s and ’90s. The subsequent boom in restaurants turned St-Viateur into “a food court for the office workers,” says Justin Bur, a board member of local history group Mile End Memories.
But the number of restaurants has continued growing even as office workers stay home due to pandemic restrictions. New businesses that have opened on St-Viateur since the start of the pandemic include upscale taco restaurant La Catrina, and pizzerias Slice + Soda and Pizza Toni. Rotisserie chicken spot Laurier BBQ and fried chicken joint Jack le Coq are set to open in the coming months, as well as a new Greek restaurant, a shop serving sushi and poke bowls, and a second branch for Jean-Talon Market’s El Rey Del Taco. “[It’s become] a bit of a destination for visitors looking for local colour and famous Montreal bagels,” Bur says.
The trend has been encouraged by real estate investors like Shiller Lavy, which began acquiring properties in the mid-2010s and now owns about 25 percent of the street. When bookseller Stephen Welch was hit by a 150 percent rent increase by the firm in February, he says the company’s leasing director told him his retail space would be ideal for a fast-casual or takeout restaurant. “But how many food places can there be on St-Viateur?” he wonders.
He’s not the only one asking that question. The space formerly occupied by Pâtisserie Chez de Gaulle — forced to close after a 55 percent rent increase in 2019 — will soon become the latest incarnation of Laurier BBQ, which will be takeout-only, even after pandemic dining restrictions are eased. In response, neighbourhood activist group Mile End Ensemble plastered its facade with posters in English and French. “Mile End shouldn’t become a cafeteria for Ubisoft, or a parking lot for idling cars,” they wrote to Eater in a direct message over Twitter.
Many other neighbourhood residents seem to be wondering what happened to their street. Last summer, Facebook groups like Babillard du Mile End were filled with complaints about noise, cooking fumes, and litter as garbage cans overflowed with coffee cups and takeout containers — a problem not unique to St-Viateur, given the closure of indoor dining last October and the restaurant industry’s forced pivot toward takeout. The Church of St. Michael and St. Anthony, whose front steps are a popular snacking spot, recently installed signs asking people not to eat or drink on church property.
St-Viateur has been the commercial heart of Mile End since it was developed more than a century ago, reflecting all the waves of immigration that have washed over the area. Some of the earliest businesses were opened by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, including the St-Viateur Bagel shop and now-closed shops like Levine’s Grocery and Mehadrin Kosher Meat. Then came Greek restaurants like Arahova and Zorba’s, Italian coffee shops like Café Olimpico and Club Social, and an eclectic mix of barbershops, tailors, delis, and markets run by people of Portuguese, Polish, and other backgrounds. “There were lots of food shops, cleaners, shoe repair, stationery, some restaurants. All local small businesses,” says Bur.
That remained the situation as Mile End became a haven for artists, musicians, academics, and others who enjoyed the affordable rents and tight-knit community. Every year until 2003, the Mile End Citizens’ Committee organized activities like a particularly lively street fair for Quebec’s Fête Nationale, with the street’s cafes setting up outdoor grills and dépanneurs selling bottles of beer. “It really felt like the gathering place for everyone,” says Bur.
Ubisoft’s decision to expand its offices in 2009 changed the dynamic. At the time, there were 12 restaurants (excluding cafes) along St-Viateur, nestled among friperies, delis, bakeries, and dépanneurs. Today, there are 22, roughly half of which have opened in the past four years. What likely drew most of them was a combination of the street’s unique atmosphere — laid-back and eclectic — and the constant foot traffic generated by tech workers, tourists, and local residents. When it came to considering where to open Falafel Yoni in 2018, owner Yoni Amir says, “It was really St-Viateur or nothing. It’s a good melting pot of people.”
But even Amir thinks the surge in the number of restaurants may have tipped the scale too far in one direction. “There were definitely already some independent fast-casual food establishments on St-Viateur long before we came,” he says. “But there have been a number of new businesses that are less mom-and-pop.”
Many of the new arrivals are chains, including Slice + Soda, Portuguese rotisserie Cantine Emilia, burrito slingers Tejano, and upscale burger joint QDC Burger. Even if Amir is part of the fast-casual trend himself — and his success on St-Viateur has allowed him to plot expansions to Verdun and the Atwater Market this summer — he isn’t sure about the direction the street has taken. “I’m a bit worried,” he says. “The median rent is pretty high. I don’t know how many independents are willing to gamble when there’s more at risk.”
St-Viateur’s old-timers seem to have mixed feelings about the changes on the street, too. Jadwiga Czerkawska, co-owner of 26-year-old Polish restaurant and grocery store Euro-Deli Batory, next door to St. Michael and St. Anthony, says the volume of people double-parking to order takeout or sitting on the church steps can be overwhelming. “Sometimes it’s too much, all the people with their boxes of pizza,” she says. But she doesn’t begrudge any restaurant owner trying to make a living. “It’s hard for everyone these days.”
She says she has plans to stick around for as long as she can, serving up comfort food like pierogies, bigos, and tripe soup. But that depends on whether the street remains affordable. Czerkawska counts herself lucky; her building is owned by an independent landlord and she was able to negotiate only a small increase in rent this year. Others haven’t fared as well. But the uproar over recent high-profile rent hikes has led to pushback. Amir says he is buoyed by the uproar that has followed recent rent increases. “I’m recharged with a bit of optimism since the Mile End Ensemble group got together,” he says. “That’s a move in a positive direction.”
The activism has already had an impact. As part of its revamp of regulations surrounding restaurants, bars and terrasses, the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough plans to introduce a quota for restaurants on the street. And while the borough initially planned to impose a cap of 27 restaurants, Ryan, the city councillor, says that’s being lowered. Though he says taking away existing restaurant licences isn’t possible, the goal is to stem the tide of new establishments as much as possible to maintain the character of the neighbourhood.
Ryan says he hopes the quota will reduce property speculation along St-Viateur, giving the street a chance to breathe. Meanwhile, for all the criticism of how St-Viateur has changed, plenty of people seem happy to indulge in the new food offerings. “We still get really good support from the community,” Amir says. “Despite all the office folk working at home, we’ve done well because of support from people in the neighbourhood. The sun has started to peek back out.”