After 46 years serving , Paolo Momesso is retiring on top and closing shop on his own terms, a privilege that few restaurant owners are privy to in today’s financial climate.
“We would like to thank you all for your support all these years. Sadly, as of today, we will officially close our doors. Thank you!” Those were the words posted to Facebook on Jan. 22 by the official Momesso’s restaurant account. Just like that, a single post tore a hole in the fabric of the city’s culinary tapestry as one of Montreal’s iconic inns heralded its closure a week ahead of schedule.
The owner of NDG’s renowned Italian eatery, Paolo Momesso, had publicly announced the restaurant’s impending closure two weeks prior, planning to serve their last subs on the weekend of Jan. 26-27. At that announcement, hundreds of hungry and nostalgic Montrealers came in droves to take one final bite of the diner’s legacy, emptying their final stock prematurely and shutting it down a week earlier than expected.
It was at 5562 Upper Lachine Rd back in 1978 that Momesso’s Café served the first of their now culturally renowned subs under founding father, Alessandro Momesso. Forty-six years later, Paolo Momesso, the restaurant’s owner and older brother to Montrealer and Canadiens legend Sergio Momesso, attributed his age to the closure of their iconic café. The 68-year-old Momesso took over the family business after the passing of his father in 2006, upholding the family values that characterized the restaurant as a staple of NDG and its immigrant culture.
Speaking on Momesso’s cultural presence within the area, NDG city councilor Peter McQueen said, “It’s really too bad that the family decided they did not want to continue operating it [the restaurant]. It’s just a huge loss. The Momessos are a huge part of the St-Raymond community.”
As a prominent cultural beacon, Momesso stated that to preserve the restaurant’s legacy and memory within the city, he shut the place down rather than sell the business and brand to an outsider.
Though Paolo Momesso closed shop on his own accord, the closure of such a symbolic institution of city culture is always cause for concern, even more so amidst the current state of the city’s economy, which has drastically affected Montreal’s culinary diaspora for over a decade, accentuated by the effects of the pandemic.
According to the Association Restauration du Québec’s (ARQ) latest polls, the province has seen a decrease of over 3,000 restaurant permit holders since 2019, strongly affecting the city’s cultural and economic identity.
Restaurants are community anchors. For one, they are social hubs. After all, the point of wining and dining revolves around the communal element. Restaurants also allow for cultural blending as the culinary industry fractures barriers to immigrants who value cuisine and lack social connections in the city.
Despite the province heralding 22.4 per cent of the country’s culinary real estate, 66 per cent of total restaurant bankruptcies in the country occurred in Quebec in 2022.
Additionally, the province is tied with British Columbia for having the highest chain-to-independent restaurant rates, with independent restaurants only-narrowly maintaining half of the market.
The director of public and government affairs at the ARQ, Dominique Tremblay, believes that owning a restaurant is more difficult than it used to be due to inflation and that business owners are now facing twice the hurdles. She spoke to the current state of the culinary industry saying: “They’re feeling the effects of the increase in service and food prices, and on the other hand, they’re feeling the consumer’s reaction to inflation, as people have less money in their pockets to spend.”
Amidst the challenges, city mayor Valérie Plante’s Projet Montréal is investing in the culinary industry to ease the stress plaguing the city’s restaurant and small business owners. Despite the city’s efforts, however, owners are still feeling the pressures of the fractured state of the industry.
“We’re trying to keep businesses alive and well right here in Montreal so people can shop in their local neighborhood, walk to the businesses, and walk to eat out,” McQueen explained. Through the PME initiative (Petite et Moyenne Entreprise) the city has forwarded $37 M to help support local businesses on local arteries in Montreal.
Victor Santopietro, part-owner of St-Leonard Italian eatery and culinary hub Milano’s Café, appreciates the city’s efforts yet remains skeptical of the efficacy of such initiatives. “Listen, if you don’t help yourself, the city doesn’t do much,” Santopietro said, stifling a laugh. “Do they help us? You know, you have to help yourself, that’s the best advice I can give.”
According to him, the major hurdles that restaurants currently face are staff turnover and increased food prices, especially when trying to buy locally.
Santopietro emphasizes the importance of not only buying local, but also the impact that restaurants have on their subsequent communities. “It’s not an easy business,” he said. “We have to understand that no one is invincible, there’s a beginning and an end to everything”. Milano’s Café is a staple of the St-Leonard community as it s a meeting ground for not only the older generations of Italians in the city who make their daily track for an espresso and a sub, but for the younger generations of Montrealers as well, who immerse themselves in the cultural wealth of the community through food.
Eateries like Milano’s around the city have been adapting by cutting their schedule and simplifying their menu to save on labor and food costs. However, the responsibility of financial responsibility to preserve culturally significant restaurants lies on the shoulders of the consumer as much as it does the owners.
“Is it their obligation [to help]? No. But it is nice if you support your local businesses,” Santopietro said. “We try to buy a lot of local products so we can make the economy roll instead of buying overseas, but at a certain point you try to do what’s best for yourself.”
There are countless long-standing culinary gems offering delicious goods and spreads at every street corner. Though times might be bleak, Montrealers play a key role in preserving the city’s culinary identity. As Santopietro said, “Just pass by for a coffee sometimes. Once a month, instead of going to a big chain restaurant, help out the regular Joe.”