The Real "Cheesy" Story Behind Montreal's La Banquise
Say the word "poutine" to anyone in Montreal and one restaurant will instantly arise in their mind. Okay, to be fair, a few restaurants probably will given the mass appeal and popularity of the dish, but first among them is certainly La Banquise, the 24-hour Plateau poutinerie that's nearly as famous as poutine itself.
A favourite among locals and tourists alike, La Banquise is synonymous with poutine, largely thanks to the 30+ poutines available at the restaurant and its international fame. Seriously, look at a single tourism-centric article talking about poutine/food in Montreal, and La Banquise will 100% be on the list.
But unlike many over-hyped restaurants, La Banquise always delivers on what it promises, namely a heart-and-belly-warming poutine. No matter the time of day or how indulgent you'd like to be (do you want a plain poutine or one topped with 3 kinds of meat?), La Banquise is there for you.
And La Banquise has been providing the essential-for-life dish that is poutine to Montrealers for more than 40 years, but not always in the same way. Like any much-adored establishment, La Banquise has grown and evolved quite a bit over the years, to the point that you probably wouldn't even recognize the Banquise of yore.
But truly loving a restaurant means knowings its whole story, so you can appreciate how much it has changed to meet your needs. So in order to celebrate the city's favourite poutinerie (even if it's not your favourite, you still know its delicious), here is the untold story of La Banquise.
In The Beginning There Was No Poutine
No doubt a shock to many is the fact that, when it first opened, La Banquise didn't even have poutine on the menu. Actually, no form of cooked food was even served; La Banquise was originally an ice cream shop.
Pierre Barsalou was the original founder of La Banquise, a fireman who worked at Fire station 16, only a short hop away on Rachel street from where the restaurant now stands. With dreams of opening his own ice cream parlour, Pierre got the chance in 1968 when a fire damaged 994 Rachel E and the space needed a new leasor.
In May, 1968, La Banquise was then born, with Pierre doling out ice cream and milkshakes throughout the summer, whenever he had time. The ice cream-origins of La Banquise is actually where the restaurant gets its name, with "banquise" being French for "floe," a seldom-used term for "a sheet of floating ice."
Only a year after opening, Pierre decided to diversify his menu options, transitioning from ice cream shop to casse-croûte. Fries, hot dogs, hamburgers, and other like options (still no poutine, though) were served at the revitalized Banquise, which was kept open 24-hours since Pierre could only get behind the counter before/after his shifts at the fire station (and on days off, of course).
La Banquise remained a simple casse-croûte for the first few years of its operation, catering to the working-class locals of the area, and not yet serving the iconic dish its modernly famous for. But all that would begin to change by the early 1970s.
The Dawn Of Poutine At La Banquise (And In Montreal)
Who originally created the concept of poutine and where is a matter up for serious debate (one we've already explored), but no matter which origin-story you're going with, the fact remains that, even by the 1970s, poutine wasn't nearly as popular as it is today.
In fact, Montreal had yet to really even be introduced to poutine by the 70s, with La Banquise only adopting the dish thanks to well-timed trip taken by one the restaurant's employees.
As told in a Gazette piece retelling the tale of La Banquise, after one of Pierre's employees took a trip to a small Quebec town, he enjoyed the sublime deliciousness of the poutine. Hearing him rave about the perfection that is fries, gravy, and curds, Pierre decided he would take his employee's story to heart and try the concept out on the La Banquise menu.
Good thing Pierre did, because as soon as the poutine was first introduced at La Banquise, it instantly became a hit. Soon, poutine was the most popular dish at the restaurant.
Variety was still a feature of the poutine menu at La Banquise from the start, but not quite to the same level. Originally, two poutines were offered, the classic (so just fries, curds, and gravy) and an "Italian" flavour with tomato sauce.
Granted, two types of poutine isn't a lot of options, but at a time when poutine wasn't nearly as widespread or adored as it is today (and not seen on tons of menus) it's a larger number than it seems. One can't also ignore the role that La Banquise must have played in the emergence of poutine as the dish of Montreal, since they were no-doubt among the first and most frequented purveyors of the meal.
From Father To Daughter: La Banquise Changes Hands
After about 25 years running La Banquise Pierre was getting a little weary; By the early 90s he was thinking of retirement and selling the restaurant entirely. Pierre's daughter, Annie Barsalou, had other plans, however, and positioned herself as the new owner and manager of La Banquise.
But Annie, who was just 19 and finishing her bachelor's degree in hotel and restaurant management, wouldn't simply receive the keys to La Banquise. The elder Barsalou asked Annie to work in the restaurant for a full year, in order to see if she really wanted to run the place.
Annie had already been managing the finances and bookkeeping for the restaurant, but now she would be working in the thick of things on the front floor as a waitress. But after a year, Annie's mind was unchanged, and in 1994 she bought La Banquise from her father at the age of 19.
Young, but never naive, Annie came on as La Banquise's and instantly reinvigorated the establishment. Providing the restaurant with a brand new look (the beginning of the kitschy-neon atmosphere seen today) and working sleepless nights, Annie also realized the restaurant's secret weapon: the poutine.
The realization came slowly to Annie, as after a year of working as the manager she noticed customers consistently asking for different toppings on their poutine. Starting with simple additions like smoked meat, the requests became more personalized (and arguably strange) as time went on.
Annie saw a demand for more unique poutines, so rather than have her customers ask for poutine add-ons, she went ahead and added new, original poutine-recipes with various toppings to the menu itself in 1995. Each subsequent year saw more recipes created, until eventually La Banquise boasted the diverse menu of poutine it is known for today.
La Banquise: The Montreal Institution
An accomplishment that's more a little impressive, Annie Barsalou has made La Banquise into a veritable Montreal institution.
Starting with a staff of 5 employees when she first came on as owner, Annie now manages a staff of 80 individuals. A measure of success one can only apply to a poutinerie, La Banquise burns through about 10 tons of potatoes each and every week, and it shows no signs of slowing down, as the lines at 3am showcase.
But it isn't just the poutine that accounts for La Banquise's success. According to Annie, it's the atmosphere.
Understanding the varied clientele of La Banquise, Annie has retained the restaurant's neighbourhood charm (which consistently allures the regulars who work nearby and dine there for lunch on the daily) along with a youthful energy that brings in students and tourists at all hours of the day and night. Everyone feels welcome at La Banquise, an ambiance Annie hopes to always maintain.
A certain attention to quality can also be attributed to the La Banquise's continued success. La Banquise easily could have become a shell of its former self as its popularity grew, catering to tourists and first-time poutine eaters who don't really know any better.
Instead, La Banquise continued to cater to the people who originally helped the restaurant flourish, namely true Montrealers. And while any native of the city (or anyone who has lived here long enough) will probably have their personal recommendation for "the best poutine in Montreal," none can deny the variety, atmosphere, and sheer tastiness of a poutine at La Banquise.