Montreal, Quebec – Wilensky’s Light Lunch

“This is my favourite place in the world.” - David Chang

How could you not be curious to try it after that? You have “bad boy” chef-owner David Chang of the Momofuku empire, the chef-owners Frederic Morin and David McMillan of the famous Joe Beef in Montreal, and comedian Aziz Ansari from NBC show Parks and Recreation; and finally Anthony Bourdain, better known simply as “Bourdain”, narrating the whole clip… instant fame for any restaurant.

I actually walked by Wilensky’s Light Lunch in Follow Me Foodie to Montreal last year on my way to Fairmount Bagels which is just a few stores down. It was pointed out to me by a local who said it was an institution known for their hot dogs, but when I took a peek inside it didn’t look too exciting and only a handful of people were sitting at the counter. So I passed.

A year later and Follow Me Foodie to Montreal Round 2 happens again. I had my restaurant itinerary mapped out and Wilensky’s was not on the list, that is until loyal FMF reader and commenter Linda tweeted me the video above.

The new show The Mind of a Chef hasn’t even aired yet, but the preview clip has already been circulating on the internet. Perhaps not as exciting as blackmail photos of an A-list celebrity, but for a foodie it was enticing.

I was still somewhat sceptical and not dying to try it because the sandwich didn’t even look that good on TV, so I questioned if it was worth visiting. Part of me knows not to trust anything that’s “best in the world” or “best in the city”, or highly raved about that’s shown on TV, but then the other part of me always has to see for myself.

Restaurant: Wilensky’s Light Lunch
Cuisine: Fast Food/Sandwiches/Deli/Hot Dogs
Last visited: July 21, 2012
Location: Montreal, QC (Plateau Mont-Royal)
Address: 34 Avenue Fairmount Ouest
Transit: Saint-Laurent / Fairmount
Where I stayed: Le Place d’Armes Hôtel & Suites
Price Range: $10 or less

1Poor 2OK 3Good 4Very good 5Excellent 6FMF Must Try!

Food: didn’t try enough
Service: 3
Ambiance: 3 (for what it was)
Overall: n/a
Additional comments:

  • Since 1932
  • Montreal institution
  • Family owned and operated
  • Traditional “rules”
  • Local favourite
  • Line ups
  • Limited/basic menu
  • All beef items
  • Some vegetarian options
  • House made sodas
  • Hole in the wall
  • Quick bite
  • Budget friendly/cheap eats
  • Eat in/Take out
  • No tipping “policy”
  • Sun Closed
  • Mon-Fri 9am-4pm
  • Sat 10am-4pm

**Recommendations: Wilensky’s Special, pickles, home made fountain sodas (cherry soda, cola, or pineapple soda etc.), hot dogs

I was surprised there wasn’t a line up at the door and I expected the inside to be packed like Schwart’z Montreal Smoked Meat. It looked pretty much the exact same as when I passed by it last year, but maybe with a few more seats filled. The truth about Wilensky’s is that nothing has changed since 1932.

And bang! 1932. Wilensky’s has been open for 80 years and going and it’s still the same family and staff running the show. This definitely has to do with why it’s a local favourite. To be honest, even though it is considered a “local favourite”, a lot of locals don’t even really know about it. Long time residents and people in the neighbourhood know about it, but beyond that I wouldn’t say it’s that “famous”. However after The Mind of A Chef airs, I’ll be lucky if I even get a seat next time. I did talk to Sharon Wilensky (the daughter), and she already said the line ups have been crazy since the clip was released on the internet.

Part of me was expecting “soup nazi” like service from Seinfeld and I was slightly intimated. I took a seat at the counter and she asked me for my order.

Sharon: “What can I get for you?”

Me: “Whatever “the thing” is to order here.”

Sharon: “We’re known for our “Wilensky’s Special”.

Me: “I’ll take one.”

Sharon: “With or without cheese?”

Me: “However you would have it. The traditional way.”

Sharon: “One Wilensky’s Special. No cheese”.

The service was almost exactly how you saw it in the clip. It was nice, but not quite inviting and almost a bit dreary, dry, and serious. I could hear birds chirp. It wouldn’t laugh if I tickled it and I don’t even think Guy Fieri could give it life… although I could imagine him securing it for an episode of Diners, Drive Ins and Dives.

And this was the famous sign and the “rules” at Wilensky’s. You take the sandwich as is, you don’t ask for it to be cut in two, and you don’t tip. Yes. There is a “no-tipping policy”. According to the website they believe everyone should be treated equally and any change left at the counter is donated to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. It’s little tid-bits like this that make Wilensky’s so special and makes this post so much harder to write.

Wilensky’s is a place that locals hold dear to their heart and there’s a lot of history behind it – read their story here. It’s a nostalgic place with traditions, and places like these are always tough to write about. It’s never really just about the food. It’s everything else that comes with it. It’s the familiar faces, old fashioned soda fountain with house made sodas (which I wish I knew about at the time), recipe that has stayed the same, old fashioned grill, attitude and “rules”, that people come back for.

On the table:

Uh huh… hmm. Perhaps from another angle?

… and nope. Yup. Wishful thinking that it would look more impressive than the one on TV, but no, it was “as seen on TV”.

I tried to find its good side…

But it really was just a flat baloney sandwich. It was as exciting as the service.

I knew the rules, but for some reason they slipped my mind and I accidently asked for it to be cut in half. Being a food blogger it’s natural for me to ask for something to be cut in order to get a photo of the cross section (and yes, I am fully aware of how “nerdy” that sounds). Obviously she said “we don’t do that here” and then it all clicked in again. It’s just the way they do it here. So with no utensils available I resorted to plan B…

There! My cross section photo.

**Wilensky’s Special - 3.5/6 (Good-Very good)

  • A sandwich made with all-beef salami and all-beef bologna with mustard and grilled on a roll. $3.90 ($4.49 with tax)
  • Okay so it wasn’t the most amazing sandwich I’ve had in my life let alone in Montreal and I would rather have Schwartz’s, Lester’s, or Olive + Gourmando (all in Montreal).
  • It’s comparing apples to oranges, but I prefer the orange if that makes sense… ?
  • I remember walking down Fairmount Street while eating this sandwich and a few locals would stop to tell me I was eating “the best thing on the street”. (I guess I really look like a tourist?)
  • The sandwich was invented by Moe Wilensky.
  • Back in the day people would ask Moe to make them “something special” and after playing with combinations of salami and baloney he came up with this.
  • The sandwich was how Eastern European Jews would make salami sandwiches at home, but the combo was different.
  • Apparently back in the day when nobody knew what to really order or make and resources were limited, many Jews just ordered a baloney sandwich.
  • It was a very basic and simple sandwich.
  • It was 1 slice of baloney, 5 slices of salami and a smudge of mustard sandwiched between a hot off the grill pressed Kaiser roll made from cornmeal.
  • For me, the bread was the highlight. It’s specially made for them by a bakery.
  • It was actually a very big bun, but it gets very squished, thin, and grilled until crispy.
  • It was a kaiser roll made from cornmeal so it was slightly sweet. The cornmeal gave it that extra crispiness.
  • It was soft and slightly fluffy despite it being flat and comparable to an English muffin.
  • The meat wasn’t too special for me and it’s not made in house.
  • The baloney just seemed like the same processed meat at the grocery store, although fair enough that I don’t know what this really tastes like.
  • I’ve had limited grocery store baloney in my life time, but this one wasn’t artisan.
  • The salami I didn’t even remember was salami and I thought it was an all baloney sandwich.
  • It was very standard salami and this wasn’t anything too special either.
  • The meats weren’t too salty, but there were no other flavours or spices or anything.
  • I couldn’t even really detect the mustard, but they do give you a bottle of mustard to add yourself if you wish. It’s not frowned upon to do so either.
  • I heard many people ordering the Wilensky’s Special with optional swiss/cheddar cheese, but this is not the traditional way to have it, and I asked for the original version.
  • I could imagine it being better with cheese, but personally I didn’t really get it. It would be a “ham and cheese” sandwich.
  • It was a good sandwich and I enjoyed it, but it was more of a nostalgic experience that I couldn’t relate to.
  • I would understand it more if I were a local and not a tourist who decided to check it out after a floating clip on the internet.
  • I guess it could also be seen as a “bang for your buck” place offering great value, but honestly the sandwich was really small.
  • It was almost the size of a McDonald’s hamburger and I would need 2 to be full.
  • I wouldn’t consider the sandwich “light”, but volume wise, one was a snack. (You should see those kaiser buns before they’re pressed)
  • For nothing being made in house and a “heat and serve” operation I actually found it kind of pricey.
  • I wouldn’t tell anyone to avoid it since it is an institution and it’s still a good sandwich, but just don’t get overly excited about it or you might be disappointed.
  • If I had to have a bologne sandwich, then sure, I’ll have the Wilensky’s Special!
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Wilensky's Light Lunch on Urbanspoon

9 Comments

  • Linda says:

    Awwww thanks for mentioning me in your blog!!! I feel so honored :*)

    that clip made me laugh so much! did you end up getting a sandwich with cheese? aziz did mention how great the buns were, ‘where do you get that’s buns?!?’ lol glad you made it out, I guess it’s like going to NYC and getting a hotdog at greys papaya, a tradition :)

  • Linda says:

    ps – price range $50+?! lol

  • mimihui says:

    Since 1932
    Montreal institution
    Family owned and operated
    Traditional “rules”
    Local favorite……………8o years long we must go and try before we getting too old …let’s go…~ thanks followmefoodie~

  • Sara says:

    Being a local and having never heard of this place until I read your post, I believe it’s more hype than anything! Cause when a restaurant makes really really good food in our city, we talk about it! We don’t need no TV show to put a place on the map.

    And your experience pretty much sums up what I think it would taste like: dry, old, bland. Just like its strict rules and decor. Come on! Like no cutting, obligatory mustard, it’s just BS to get attention. And those chefs on that show, there everything but critical of what they eat… ….especially those 2 chefs from Joe Beef… serving foie gras version of the KFC double killer.

  • KimHo says:

    After your mention of Mind of a Chef, I quickly checked PBS (should be available for those in Shaw) and there are a couple of episodes lined up for this week. PVR set! Having said that…

    I think this is the type of restaurant I might visit (but would be difficult given their hours) and would like it for what it is. In a way, it feels like one of those restaurants hidden in neighbourhoods and exists because they have a clientele and don’t necessarily care if they need to expand or become famous. If I had to draw a comparison to some places in Vancouver, they would include Fraser Park (which I visited *way* before it became “famous” thanks to shows such as You Gotta to Eat Here), Chez Meme in Burnaby, Burger Burger in New West and Save-on-Meats before it closed and reopened. The sort of most notable would be Save-on-Meats: back then it was a diner with simple food and cheap prices. Most people avoided it because it was too close (for some) to the DTES. However, with the resulting gentrification and remodeling of the space, it is now that people dare to go there… But, food is a shadow of their former past. Can I make this at home? Of course! However, I am certain it won’t taste the same! :)

    There is one thing I learned long time ago is that cooks (and, probably chefs), don’t care much about fancy food. Kitchen meal aside, after you have been working the whole day cooking, the last thing you want to do is to take your time to cook something complicated. I believe that’s the reason why cooks (and, again, probably chefs) would like places like this.

    As for mustard and what not. Again, it falls in the category of history. Instead, it baffles me when people want to extremely customize their dishes. That’s what the restaurant intended to cook, that’s the way it should be! Come to think about it, some older restaurants tend to be more strict about it. Louie’s Lunch (New Haven, CT, a place I still kick myself for not going last time I was nearby…), one of the places which is attributed to be the birthplace of the modern burger, serves their with cheese, onion and tomato as only condiments. No catsup, mustard or relish. Oh, and white bread!

  • Mijune says:

    @Kim – yes, every city has it’s traditions. A Chicago hot dog – never with ketchup. I agree for the most part about cooks/chefs not caring too much about “fancy food”, but at the same time when they’re traveling they always visit the “Thomas Kellers”, “Charlie Trotters”, “Rene Redzepi”, and “Grant Achatzs” of the world. They still appreciate good food and fine dining, but on a different level because a lot of them can make it themselves. For “normal diners” the majority of us can’t cook the way these chefs cook. I’m speaking very generally and it differs with each chef though.

    @Sara – lol you’re a tough cookie :) I did have 3 locals on the street randomly say I was eating “the best thing on the street” though… so I think locals do know about it… but the ones in the neighbourhood and the ones that have been around for a while… if you do decide to try it, let me know your thoughts!

  • WS says:

    Yes I think the locals in Montreal(not just in the neighbourhood) know about Wilensky’s. Heard about Wilensky’s since I was very young(born & grew up in Montreal). Many locals & non-locals first heard about Wilensky’s from Mordecai Richler novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Before that Wilensky’s was mainly known in the local Montreal Jewish community.

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