The Real Story Behind Montreal's Orange Julep

From 1922 'til now.
The Real Story Behind Montreal's Orange Julep

Iconic in every sense, Montrealers everywhere are instantly flooded with waves of nostalgia any time someone says the words "Orange Julep." Whether for the famous orange-based beverage, its charmingly kitschy architecture, or the summer muscle car nights, everyone has a reason to remember Gibeau Orange Julep.

Simply put, the Orange Julep, which has rested (and will no doubt continue to) on Décarie Expressway for decades is a Montreal landmark, one known across the province and Canada at-large.

But while you may love the classic, creamy orange drink served only by the iconic casse-croûte, not to mention the amazingness that is the restaurant itself, there's probably a lot you don't know about the Orange Julep.

And with a history that goes back nearly a century, it's not all that surprising that you, along with many Montrealers, aren't aware of the "real" story behind the Orange Julep.

While the Orange Julep's narrative isn't exactly littered with intrigue, betrayal, or conspiracies (this is a casse-croûte, not Game of Thrones, after all) the Montreal landmark does have a unique story all its own, one that is both charming, inspiring, and intrinsically linked to the city.

The Origins Of The Orange Julep

Well before there stood the giant orange on Décarie we all know and love, the Orange Julep began as the dream of one man, Harmas Gibeau. Much like many living in Montreal, Gibeau hoped to enter the food industry, but rather than just open a simple restaurant, Gibeau aspired to share his trademark beverage, the Orange Julep.

Gibeau, however, wasn't the inventor of the now-infamous Orange Julep drink. Rather, the Julep was a family recipe created in the 1920s (or exactly in 1922, as some sources say), with some positing that the concept for the drink was entirely based on saving money; by including dairy and egg whites in the drink, the amount of expensive orange juice needed for the recipe would be lowered, thus reducing the overall cost.

Regardless of the intent behind the Orange Julep, the beverage was a family favourite, and Gibeau believed others would feel the same once they had a taste.

Gibeau was right, of course, but he learned of the adoration for the Orange Julep as early as the 1930s. Taking to Belmont Park, a now-defunct amusement park that opened in June of 1923, Gibeau sold the first batches of Orange Juleps to thirsty Montrealers who no-doubt clamoured for more.

Thankfully for all involved, Gibeau's aspirations went beyond being a purveyor of beverages at an amusement park. Gibeau wanted a fixed location of his own, one that would be as unique and original as his orange drink.

The Original Orange Julep

Unknown to some is that the current Orange Julep is actually the second iteration of the restaurant. The first even predates the Décarie Expressway, dating back all the way to 1945, about 13 years after the first Juleps were sold.

Smaller than the Orange Julep standing today, Gibeau's original restaurant was still spherical and orange, but was fully concrete. Two floors made up the structure, with a small window located on the second floor, making the building look like a fairy-tale house, as noted by Gazette journalist Peter Lanken in 1969.

Gibeau allegedly hoped to actually live in this two-story concrete orange with his family, selling Juleps and food by day and sleeping in the restaurant by night.

Whether anyone in the Gibeau family actually spent anytime living in the concrete orange remains to be seen but given the popularity that sprang up for the Orange Julep, there could have been days where it was so busy they needed to sleep in the restaurant.

While it may be hard to imagine a busy Orange Julep before the Décarie Expressway brought scores of drivers careening past the casse-croûte, the restaurant itself was enough of a draw for customers. The tramway between NDG and Ville-Saint-Laurent which road along Décarie helped bring folks to the Julep, but the area was definitely underdeveloped in comparison to today. Namur metro wouldn't be built for another couple of decades.

The general lack of building/traffic around the Orange Julep, however, actually helped to establish one of the restaurant's most longstanding traditions, namely the weekly summer car shows. Showing off your muscle car at the Orange Julep was the thing to do for car-owners in the 50s, and still is in on Wednesday nights in 2016.

But urban development would eventually come into the area, forcing the Orange Julep to change along with the times.

The Orange Julep We Know (And Love) Today

When the Décarie Expressway expanded in the 1960s, the Orange Julep was pretty much forced into moving. Pushed only a little back from its original location, the second incarnation of the Orange Julep, the one we know and love today, opened its doors in 1966.

Unlike the previous building, the second Orange Julep wasn't a solid sphere, as you probably already know. Instead, the exterior orange shell was built out of fiberglass divisions that were ordered right from a Montreal pool manufacturer.

There are still several floors to the Orange Julep, though, with the first making up the small-yet-entirely functional kitchen that serves burgers and poutines. The second floor is "employees only," as a longtime Orange Julep worker revealed in an MTL Times interview.

The third floor of the Julep is used primarily as a storage space (mostly for disposable julep cups) and the basement is where all of the oranges are squeezed for the casse-croûte's iconic drink.

This was also when all of the picnic tables around the Orange Julep sprung up, providing everyone without a car a place to sit and eat. But car-based customer were still a major focus of the Orange Julep, with roller skate-clad waitresses serving meals all the way into the millennium.

Actually, the roller skate servers are one of the only things to really change since the Orange Julep reopened in the 60s. The practice was phased out in 2005 (long after almost every other restaurant in North America had done the same) due to workers' compensation board issues.

But that hasn't really stopped the Orange Julep from maintaining a kitschy 1960s vibe. Aside from the prices, the Orange Julep still is stuck in the 60s, and unlike the rest of Montreal that is seemingly preoccupied with modernization, the Julep is happy exactly how it is and has been for years.

Hopefully the Orange Julep will never change, partly because its imposing orange presence is truly synonymous with Montreal (and even helped a pilot land a plane at the airport when the guidance system was busted) but more for the fact that the Orange Julep stands as a shining example that if you have a dream, it can be achieved, just like Hermas Gibeau did.

Now, if only we could just get our hands on that drink recipe...

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