Brownstein: Montreal restaurateurs wary, but hopeful, after reopening edict

“There’s always that fear we could well be shut down again. It still feels unstable and precarious at this point,” Helen Karagiannakis says.

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Helen Karagiannakis is keeping her fingers crossed — “very crossed” — about the latest decree relating to the reopening of indoor restaurant dining on Jan. 31, as announced Tuesday by Premier François Legault .


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Like so many other Montreal restaurateurs, Karagiannakis, director of operations and maître d of the elegant French eatery Le Club Chasse et Pêche, has lived a yo-yo-like existence for much of the last two years with regulations constantly changing. She is “breathing a sigh of relief” that her dining room will be allowed to reopen with 50 per cent capacity and a limit of four people from one or two families per table, but she is still apprehensive.

As she should be. Restaurateurs can no longer take anything for granted.

“We can’t underestimate the importance of what our food culture brings to Montreal,” Karagiannakis said. “But it’s been a nightmare, especially this time around. It just seems that they react to opening and closing us at the very last minute. We’re always the first ones to take the hit — along with bars — and we’re the longest to stay closed.


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“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been dealing with issues of capacity, distancing and masking. We’re all vaccinated here. There’s not more we can do. The situation is not ideal for any of us in the business. But this is obviously better than being shut down. Yet there’s always that fear we could well be shut down again. It still feels unstable and precarious at this point.”

The major issue in the last government edict to reopen dining rooms was restaurateurs dealing with major staff shortages. The situation won’t be any better this time around.

“We’re lucky because we have a very loyal staff, but a lot of other places had such a hard enough time trying to maintain their staffs before,” Karagiannakis noted. “It won’t be any easier this time for them.”


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John Lattuca learned his lesson from the last time his Lattuca Barbecue in Old Montreal was allowed to reopen. He had difficulty getting his staff back.

“So when we had to close again on Dec. 31, I decided to keep all my people on the payroll throughout this latest closure,” Lattuca said. “It just wouldn’t have been worth it trying to find staff all over again.”

Lattuca’s specialties are briskets, beef and pork ribs and chicken on an off-island wood-fired barbecue — because on-island wood barbecuing is largely verboten. One-time winner of the World Brisket Championship, the Montreal native has a devoted following around the continent. But with dining rooms closed and tourism almost non-existent in the city, his business has dropped off considerably — even with takeout.


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“I’m happy to be reopening, but I’m hurting. We’re all hurting. I come in some nights to do takeout and wonder why I come in at all. On top of that, I can’t find product because of supply-chain disruptions due to the pandemic. I’m using every trick I know in the book to get product. We’re opening on the 31 st and I don’t know where I’ll get my most popular item, beef ribs.”

Lattuca faults the government for woes not only regarding restaurants.

“All we seem to do here is to react, rather than act,” he said. “Why didn’t they roll out the booster shots earlier here? We have to be ready for the next wave. This is the fifth wave we’ve had to deal with. How many more can we handle? All the same, we’d best be ready for a fourth vax.”

Pablo Rojas, the co-owner of Le Petit Italien and the two Provisions restos and butcher shop, welcomed the news that he could reopen two of the venues he had to close. But Rojas, who lashed out at authorities in my Tuesday column for their handling of dining room closures, still had reservations.


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“There’s still no rescheduling plan,” Rojas said. “Can I take a group of 10 people in March? If someone calls me to book for a wedding in the summer, can I take it? No! Because there is no plan.

“It’s great we can reopen on the 31 st , but now I want to know how many new COVID cases are we allowed to have before things go back to normal? What targets do we need to hit to completely reopen?”

Among other questions, Rojas also wants to know where the government compensation is for restaurateurs.

“What happened to that money these guys promised us for our losses over the last few years? I don’t see honestly see how this scenario is going to turn out any better than what it was before. We’re probably going to have to raise our prices for the losses we’ve already had to take, because the government has not been handling the situation properly. They’re only throwing us restaurateurs a bone now, because we’re barking the loudest.”

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