34 Avenue Fairmount O. / Clark
Phone: (514) 271-0247
Cost: $ 13.36 for two
Wilensky’s needs no introduction. I will not go into a convoluted story about its humble beginnings, its history or popularity. By now many Montrealer’s and foodies from all denomination or cultural background have heard about Wilensky and are familiar with its history. If not, let me just mention in just a few words, it is a Jewish sandwich shop that has been around in its present location on Fairmont and Clark Street in the city’s Mile End, since 1952. It is a family run business that has served a many Montreal generations and has sold millions of their now famous sandwiches appropriately called “The Wilensky Special” to anybody who has come from far and wide.
What is a Wilensky Special, it’s a grilled beef salami and bologna sandwich with mustard on a cornmeal type Kaiser Bun. At Wilensky’s it is pressed flat and always served with compulsory mustard and cheese if desired. Don’t forget your order of a hand mixed cherry cola and sour pickles to go with that, made the same way for the last 85 years.
I first had a stab at Wilensky’s famous sandwiches back in the 90’s while working at the Royal Vic. A colleague used to make weekly visits to either Wilensky or Slovenia’s to pick up sandwiches for the department. I did not think much of them at the time, other than it was an inexpensive lunch and it beat the cafeteria food. But it weighed down on my mind and I soon found myself craving another. After that day, every time he made his rounds, I would ask him to get me one too, a habit that continued for many years. I soon left the hospital to move on to better things, but my memories of the Wilensky Special and spicy sausage sandwiches were implanted in my brain forever. I soon found myself making annual treks to either Slovenia’s on St Laurent or Wilensky’s to keep up the tradition.
This year feeling my impending immortality approaching. I decided to impart my experiences and traditions to my progenitors. I wanted them to experience the little things of my life that brought me joy for so many years through food culture and the history of my city.
Even though, Wilensky deviates from my usual reviews of fine dining establishments, as it is considered fast food more than anything else. It does not mean it is not good food and still merit an honorable mention. As a matter of fact the Wilensky’s Special sandwich is ranked as one of the world’s best sandwiches according to the Globe and Mail newspaper.
Considered a landmark, the diner was not only made famous by Mordecai Richler in his novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz but has been featured in countless local newspaper articles, and has been featured internationally on television shows like The Mind of a Chef with Anthony Bourdain and David Chang.
Wilensky’s is so deeply imbedded in Montreal‘s culture that it is considered an institution like so many other Montreal restaurants that are still around from that era. It has so much more to offer than just a quick lunch and food. It is an integral part of our past and history that has formed Montreal’s landscape. It offers insight not only on who we are by our habits, but how we came to be and why. It would be an injustice not to experience it at least a once in someone’s lifetime.
Predominantly considered a Jewish Deli, it is not strictly kosher and there is no extensive menu. You can only get but a handful of items off their small menu. Aside from the Wilensky Special, you can order chopped egg or cheese sandwiches. They also offer open faced all-beef hot dogs, no steamies or fries are served here. There is plenty of old fashioned soda fountain drink to go with your Wilensky Special, which is a must.
Relatively unchanged since its start, the shop is like a museum with bare minimum décor. Everything is industrial green color reminiscent of the 50’s. A counter with wall to wall cupboards and nine stools sits at the far end of the shop, there are no tables or chairs, standing room only if you do not get a prized seat on the stools. The tin ceiling, manual cash register and all the accoutrements that hang on the walls are symbolic of a bygone era when life was much simpler and very inexpensive.
A sandwich is still relatively cheap at $ 4.09. For $ 4.53 you can add Swiss cheese. The prices are really the only thing that has changed over the years. Everything has virtually remained the same and they do not want to deviate from a formula that has worked for many years. They will always put mustard on their sandwiches, and charge you $.10 cents more for no mustard, they will never cut it in two, and don’t ask too many questions. You can still find the family behind the counter, Sharon and her daughter, are there most of the time to greet you. We had a great time and a wonderful conversation with her daughter on our visit and she was more than happy to explain their history to my daughter.
What we liked the most was the old newspaper ads plastered on the cupboards doors dating back to the turn of the century. They contained interesting articles of the day and ads listing the costs of such item such as homes and cars. A conversation piece in itself, it started a plethora of comments from both staff and patrons seated next to us. The comments divulging more unheard stories from the past as if we had stepped into a time warp. This all happening while we sampled the Wilensky Special sandwich, along with two hand-made colas of spritzer and syrup and a half sour pickle each.
Finally the lunch crowd had ebbed and it was quiet, we sat on the stools for a little while longer listening to more stories till it was time to go. We immensely enjoyed our time together at Wilensky’s, it was a valuable lesson on history and we also got our annual fix.
I hope that we will be back sooner than later. But I left satisfied that my daughter witnessed a piece of food history past and present.
** Wilensky is open from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm daily -Monday to Friday
Saturday- from 10: 00 am to 4 pm
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