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Are restaurants open in Montreal, and what dining out is like

Are restaurants open in Montreal right now, and what are they able to offer in Montreal's regional red alert status?

By JP Karwacki
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UPDATE, October 20 2020: Since the Quebec government's regional alert system was estbalished during September this year, we were left wondering if restaurants are open in Montreal right now. Here's what you need to know about dining out in the city, plus where to find the best delivery and takeout options in the city.

When the Quebec government Montreal was entering a red alert status on October 1—also referred to as a red zone—it didn't bode well for restaurants. Forced to close their indoor dining after a short three months following their reopening on June 22, restaurants had to once again only offer takeout and delivery in Montreal.

While that lockdown was originally slated to end on October 28, the government has yet to suggest that it will lift as it continually cites concerns about a second wave currently underway.

For now: Restaurants are open, but only for takeout and delivery.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to what's open and closed in Montreal

How did we get here?

On June 8, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food André Lamontagne and the Minister of Labor, Employment and Social Solidarity Jean Boulet announced the plan for reopening restaurants in the province of Quebec. Provided that restaurants follow public health directives—which they have since—restaurants in Quebec would be able to begin reopening on June 15, with the Greater Montreal area, the Joliette MRC and L'Épiphanie following on June 22.

This followed some growing protests from on Wednesday, May 27. Despite temperatures of 30°C and up, more than two dozen restaurateurs in Old Montreal took to the streets to bang on cookware, marching from Place Jacques-Cartier to Montreal's City Hall for a half hour. The reason? They wanted to know when restaurants would reopen in Montreal.

Following that, the Quebec government released a plan for deconfinement on May 25, but "Restaurants Phase 1" was been placed low on the list at Phase 6 of the province's original ongoing openings.

The clock was ticking for the hospitality industry across Canada. According to a past survey by Restaurants Canada on the outlook of the restaurants industry as a whole, "lower revenues and social distancing measures imposed by governments resulted in 53% of respondents closing down their entire operation temporarily." That was back in March, but the sudden and massive downfall of the country's restaurants and bars didn't bode well.

Things were heating up—literally. For Montreal, the high season of the summer means everything, and that left many restaurants and bars fearing not being able to make rent payments and closing down altogether if doors can't be opened. Make no mistake: Most restaurants wanted to open. On May 14, a survey from the Quebec Restaurant Association showed 72% of its members wanted to reopen—even if seating in restaurants got cut in half.

The Quebec government has allowed restaurants to open in the limited capacity of offering delivery and takeout in Montreal, but it's hardly a stopgap. “Everyone knows the cost of using Uber Eats, Skip the Dishes and all those guys," says Toby Lyle of the Burgundy Lion group, whose latest gastropub Wolf & Workman is in Old Montreal. "We’re all working on slim margins, and any app or service that cuts into those margins can make it so you’re losing money on every plate you put out." His business has shifted to delivery with Skip The Dishes, but takeout is being offered at 10% off—the profit margin's clearly higher without a middle man.

Even if restaurants in Old Montreal and other boroughs across the island were able to open, "it’s almost impossible to plan for it," Lyle says. At Wolf & Workman, he explains, "we (didn't) know if it’s going to be 25% or 50% capacity…. I foresee they’ll put us at 50% capacity." He was right, but that capacity cut was coupled with face masks and gloves for staff both in the front-of-house and the kitchen, plexiglass partitions where possible and more changes.

In the long-term, the city didn't look the same. “I think the whole world is going to change coming out of this… I feel we’re going to lose 25% of restaurants, if not more, in Montreal," Lyle said when asked to speculate on the landscape in the coming months following restaurants reopening in June. "We’re going to be opening in a depressed economy with a lot of people scared to go out. A lot of people are accruing debt to get through this, (and restaurants') razor-thin profit margins are going to be dedicated to paying off the debts they accrued while they were closed.”

If that report from Restaurants Canada was any indication, closures will become more and more commonplace without relief. Lyle predicts that “there will be a first wave of closures when people just don’t reopen after this," and while they did, the city was "going to see another wave a few months down the road."

They have been closing, especially  businesses that can't make up the losses they've incurred, "and then another big wave in January and February, which is our slowest season,” Lyle said.

Over at the natural wine bar and restaurant Le Diplomate on the border of Little Italy, chef and owner Aaron Langille was quick to restructure with a takeout menu and discounted wines at the beginning of the outbreak.

Even with that early adaptation, it's a matter of making it through the storm. "Given our circumstances, assuming there isn’t a dip or lull in sales, we’re fine. I’m not doing great, but at the same time, I can’t be expecting to make money," Langille explains. "This is a period of time where I should hope to survive. I shouldn’t be thinking about coming out on top.”

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But do these delay for restaurants reopening in Montreal spell doom and gloom for the future? Will a new world of server-less tables, the removal of human contact and other precautionary measures completely flip the restaurant world as we know it? Langille doesn't think so. "I find that all to be very hyperbolic. You can still go to Hong Kong after they’ve had SARS and MERS, multiple pandemics go through, and you still are served by humans,” the chef explains.

"At the end of it, look to Asia. Think about all of the food courts in China, the ones that Singapore are famous for; they’re not going to close. It’s not Asia’s first rodeo with a pandemic, and then it’ll go back to business as close to usual," he adds.

Despite the push and pull between Langille's optimistic outlook and Lyle's speculated likelihood of Montreal's own restaurant-studded streets not looking the way they did post-COVID, they have something in common: Safety is a priority. These are some of the city's leaders in hospitality, and that's an industry which prides itself on its patrons feeling comfortable, safe and having fun while they're at a table for anything from long, drawn-out meals to quick 5 à 7s.  

When Montreal's remaining restaurants open after this lockdown (and subsequent lockdowns as they occur) with a likely lowered capacity in their dining rooms and protective equipment becoming a part of the interior décor, it will be in some ways business as usual in some ways for restaurants. "It’s part of our job to clean our hands all the time, to not show up sick… but with more emphasis on safety," says Langille. "Restaurants have existed since the 1600s; how many pandemics and plagues and wars have roared through since? Restaurants have still survived."

For now, if Montrealers are passionate about the survival of restaurants and bars alike? They can buy merchandise like T-shirts and gift certificates directly from their favourite places; they can buy takeout directly to give more profits to restaurants; and finally, they can urge other Montrealers to support an indelible part of their city.

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