I Spent An Entire Night At Montreal's Chenoy's Deli In The West Island
And this is what happened.
When it’s 5 AM and you’re looking for a place to grab a bite in the West Island, there aren’t very many options. Sure, you can find the odd 24 hour fast food joint here and there, but even when you’re in the sort of frame of mind which makes chowing down on a burger as the sun’s about to rise seem like a reasonable idea, McDonald’s probably won’t be your first choice. Luckily, as anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time in the West Island knows, there’s a much better option for food that’s available 24/7: Chenoy’s Deli.
If you’re not a West Islander, you can certainly be forgiven for never having heard of Chenoy’s. Despite being just thirty minutes from Downtown Montreal by car, much about the area remains a mystery to many folks who don’t live there, and late-night food spots don’t tend to be primary tourist destinations. Being from the Plateau, I’d never had much interaction with the West Island, and I wanted to understand more about what it’s like to live in the area. Given my past, I decided to approach learning about the West in a way which best befit my, um, research methods: by spending an entire night at Chenoy’s.
After some phone conversations with the management and staff, we decided that the optimal night for my endeavour would be a Friday when no rain or other environmental factors would get in the way of West Islanders’ desire to party and grab a bite to eat. I arrived around midnight on the chosen evening, at which point I was promptly greeted by Etif, a friendly, twenty-something waiter who offered me a place at the counter and a menu. Once I sat down, settling on an order wasn’t too difficult—I picked out a smoked meat and chopped liver sandwich. It had always been my go-to order at Boulevard St. Laurent’s The Main, my typical smoked meat haunt, and I decided to stick with a familiar dish to counterbalance the unfamiliarity of the West Island.
Once I was served, I did my best to get the heaping pile of meat, bread, and mustard into my mouth. Even with my, eating all of it was beyond my powers, and I was looking for a conversation to distract me from just how much was going into my stomach. At this point (around 12:30), the restaurant’s expansive exterior was scarcely populated, since most West Islanders wouldn’t be ending their nights for at least another few hours, but Etif was more than happy to tell me a bit about Chenoy’s and his experience working there.
After moving to the West Island from Ville St. Laurent as a young child, he’d begun working at Chenoy’s a year and a half ago. Although he didn’t frequent the restaurant prior to working there, he found it to be a common spot for West Islanders to come and have a bite. “I think it’s, like, the hub of the West Island,” he said. “I see at least, like, five people I know every shift. Everyone goes here.”
The feelings of community and familiarity at Chenoy’s were confirmed by Ian, a fellow waiter, who served me a slice of their famous cheesecake even bigger than the sandwich. “They’re accustomed to coming here,” he said of their local customers. “Growing up with some staff members that have been here for a long time, they get to know the staff. Then there’s the ambience. It’s something that they get to keep enjoying.” He himself had grown up at the restaurant, having been eating the smoked meat and grilled chicken, his two favourite menu items, since he was five years old.
Despite the appeal of Chenoy’s for West Island natives, the restaurant’s clientele was far from being limited to locals, as Kajan, a man who worked behind the deli counter, explained to me. “All the people from out of town, they come, they say ‘Montreal? Chenoy’s,” he said. ““People come from Toronto on holidays, people come to Montreal, they always come to Chenoy’s.” Kajan had been serving the out-of-towners and natives for over ten years, after immigrating to Canada from Sri Lanka and getting his first and only job in North America working at Chenoy’s.
As much as I enjoyed chatting with the employees, I was looking forward to talking with the customers and learning more about their relationship with the restaurant. Unlike $2 Chow, where I was talking to people coming in and out nonstop from 1-3 AM, the crowd at Chenoy’s was a bit slow to matriculate. There was the odd takeout client here and there, but barely anyone stayed in the restaurant for extended periods of time until 2. Even then, it looked like a nightclub owner’s worst nightmare, with pairs of dudes scattered sparsely throughout the restaurant. Still, none of them seemed to mind, as they happily scarfed down their smoked meat sandwiches and poutines.
The first pair I talked to consisted of two guy in their early twenties, Sam and Moustafa. They came to Chenoy’s to order their usual Trio Tokyo platters, which were comprised of a smoked meat sandwich, chicken teriyaki, and teriyaki ribs, plus fries and coleslaw. It was one of many Chenoy’s trios, all of which were colorfully displayed in their own section of the menu. You know how a trio is usually one larger menu item (often a burger), paired with two smaller items (often fries and a drink)? Well, at Chenoy’s, the trios are made up of three large menu items (i.e. the smoked meat sandwich, chicken, and ribs of the Tokyo), PLUS other side dishes.
They’re perfect for hungry eaters like Sam and Moustafa, who’d come to Chenoy’s after a night at Scratch’s, a local bar with pool tables. They frequently partied around the West, and they always liked to end their nights out with the giant plates of food Chenoy’s offers. They had tentative plans to start partying downtown more this summer, but they’d mostly confined their social lives to their native area for the time being.
The opposite was true for Robert and Matt, two dudes in their mid to late thirties whom I spoke with next. Both were originally from the West Island, although Matt had since moved to Beaudry, and neither had been to Chenoy’s in over ten years. That night, they were partying downtown, which was where they found themselves most often, but they decided to come back to Chenoy’s for its nostalgic appeal. Robert referred to the restaurant as “a West Island staple,” and said that, at one point in his life, he'd come to grab a burger almost every weekend.
The homogenous flow of dudes was soon interrupted by Julia and Marie, two girls from the West Island who’d been playing pool at Shooters, another local bar with a pool table. They both said that they found themselves downtown for nights out most often, and Julia outed herself as a frequent customer at La Banquise. Still, they both had lots of friends in the West Island who spent more time partying there, and almost all of them were Chenoy’s regulars. “They know that if they go out and want to come back, it’s Chenoy’s,” said Marie. “It’s always open.”
Plenty of people took advantage of the “always open” aspect of Chenoy’s to come quite a bit later, as I soon saw. Around 3:30, a group of six kids in their late teens lazily walked walked in, all sporting eyes the colour of the smoked meat. When I asked them about what they’d been up to before coming to Chenoy’s, one girl, Erica, gave a brief and direct answer: “We were getting high,” she said.
Directly in front of them was a group of three guys who were in much higher spirits: Alex, Eric, and Michael. They’d been at a going away party in the West Island, and they considered Chenoy’s to be an essential part of their evening. “We had a fun time, and then we said, ‘You know what? We’ve got to come to Chenoy’s to conclude the night,’” said Michael. Not only did he explain his general fondness for the restaurant, but he even expressed his feelings for the cheesecake by singing “I’m in love with that cheesecake” to the tune of O.T. Genasis's “I’m in Love with that CoCo.”
Despite his feelings for the cheesecake, it was a different sort of love he would soon have on his mind. During our conversation, a girl in her early twenties had grabbed a booth by herself for a solo poutine, but she didn’t get much time to eat it before being joined by Michael in her booth. Alex and Eric seemed to enjoy this quite a bit, as they continually let out fake coughs loud enough for the two to hear. Regardless of their efforts, the two failed to completely sabotage his chances, as she was soon giving him her phone number. The two gave each other goodbye kisses on the cheek, and Michael marched back to his friends triumphantly, as their waitress, Lindsay, sat down with them to get updated on the gossip.
Whether they found love or just a smoked meat poutine, most customers were quite affectionate towards the Chenoy’s experience. Around 4 AM, a steady flow of customers started coming in, all of whom Ian described to me as “the regulars.” These were people, he said, who’d been hanging out outside of the West Island, and were just now starting to make their way home after the bars and clubs had closed at 3. One such table was a group of seven rowdy dudes who’d been partying at Chez Maurice in St. Lazare, where they were, as one of them, Richard, explained to me, “The darkest guys there.” He confirmed Ian’s description of their habits at Chenoy’s, saying that they came about once a week. “If you come out to party, this is the place to go after,” he said.
Indeed, as I saw, Chenoy’s functions as a place for West Islanders to come when they need a bite after hours. More then that though, it’s a place for anyone to come with friends or alone to spend some quality time with a good smoked meat sandwich, an inviting atmosphere, and a friendly staff. It’s certainly not all there is to life in the West Island, but it’s a solid introduction.