On Saint-Viateur Street, two restaurateurs have just upped the ante on what was initially just an amicable Euro 2020 wager. On Saturday, June 10, the day before the European soccer competition officially kicked off, the owners of landmark Italian cafe Olimpico and Burgundy Lion Group’s Mile End British pub Bishop & Bagg pledged to don the other’s merch should their team be eliminated first. Now, one month later, and with each of their respective teams coming head-to-head in a much-anticipated final this Sunday, July 11, suddenly, some innocuous merch-swapping no longer seems to suffice for Paul Desbaillets, co-owner of the Burgundy Lion Group.
“I think we need to take it up a notch — it isn’t spicy enough. Wearing their t-shirt? That was cute in the beginning, but now it’s all the marbles. I need to talk to John,” Desbaillets told Eater, shortly after England defeated Denmark (2—1) in the Euro semi-final on Wednesday, July 7.
John Vannelli is the owner of Café Olimpico, and the pair have since settled on a bet that they believe is more in step with the stakes: Whoever’s team loses will have to hang the opposing team’s flag in their establishment for a day, while the entire staff sports its jerseys. (In a follow-up call, Desbaillets tells Eater that John’s world would “just fall apart if he has to see his staff wearing those England jerseys behind the bar.”)
But that’s all in Mile End. Further south, in Little Burgundy, where the restaurant group got its start with its namesake pub in 2008, things are poised to heat up even further. With social distancing restrictions that still mandate tables be spaced two meters apart, Burgundy Lion has decided to double down on its already capacious setup.
At 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, the bar will be erecting a tented biergarten equipped with two 80-inch screens and seating for 60 in the parking lot behind the establishment. That is in addition to its current street-side terrasse, inner courtyard, and two-level interior. “It’s already been crazy with the earlier games, so we just wanted try and keep up,” Desbaillets says.
After a second coronavirus lockdown forced it to close — with the exception of takeout and delivery — from October 1, 2020, to May 28, 2021, the pub’s front-of-house staff is almost brand-new, and it can sometimes feel like the business is, bracingly, going from “zero to a thousand,” Desbaillets says. “This is the biggest sporting event that Burgundy Lion has ever, and may ever, have to deal with.”
The last time England’s national team won a major soccer trophy was in 1966, so this Sunday represents decades of pent-up suspense for fans, including Desbaillets. But for the pub owner, it’s about much more than that: For years, he’s tried — some may say fanatically so — to anchor himself in the communities that form around soccer and food, but most importantly that subsection where they intersect in Montreal’s restaurant scene.
The year after soccer-screening Burgundy Lion opened, Desbaillets started the GOAL Tournament, a yearly competition featuring, for the most part, an assemblage of Montreal’s hospitality workers on the field to raise money for charities. In 2019, he concretized what he saw during those soccer tournaments — and always knew about the sport — and founded the GOAL Initiatives Foundation, with the aim of promoting mental health for adults and youth through play.
Restaurants like pizzeria Fiorellino, burger mini-chain Notre-Boeuf-de-Grâce, and, yes, even his so-called rivals at Cafe Olimpico have rallied behind the cause. Recent contributions have gone to the pandemic-delayed launch of Kicking It Out, a weekly program that marries group counselling and team sports to tackle addiction and mental health issues. (Stopgap video sessions that, for logistical reasons, lean more counselling than sport, have been held in their staid throughout the pandemic.)
In the spring, Desbaillets saw, however, that it was the restaurant community itself, the same group that had helped prop up GOAL for years, that was now facing a surfeit of challenges. So, Desbaillets launched a video series called Squawk & Gobble, where in addition to having some of the city’s chefs cook on camera (Here’s one of Emma Cardarelli making Elena’s now-famous hoagies — you’re welcome), brings visibility to their struggles, pandemic or otherwise.
Soccer inevitably seeps into a number of episodes, including the most recent one, uploaded on YouTube on Thursday, July 8, where fellow sports fan chef Paul Toussaint of Quartier des Spectacles pan-Caribbean restaurant Kamúy cooks a vegetable curry in front of an onlooking, Haiti-soccer-jersey-wearing Desbaillets. In the previous episode featuring Jérémie Falissard of Barroco Group, he wears a Paris Saint-Germain jersey with the logo xed out. In the future, Desbaillets says the “football nuts” of Satay Brothers, who routinely sprint over to Burgundy Lion from their stand at the Atwater Market to catch the games, will come on the show.
“It’s the only sport that connects everybody around the world ... That to me is one of the most magical things on Earth. So when you ask me, how I see mental health, food, the restaurant industry, and soccer all intertwined? My answer is: How could it not be?”
On Sunday, if England wins, Desbaillets says he could likely be found dancing around on Notre-Dame. If Italy takes the game, he’ll have a few bets to settle, including heading to his Mile End pub to append a certain European flag in its quarters. Either way, some of the fervor will peter out, giving him time to attend to the planning of this year’s GOAL Tournament, to be held in the fall, and like the staunch soccer fan that he is, the English Premier League, come August.