Tastes like gentrification: the evolution of Pointe-St-Charles restaurants

The food scene in the Pointe mirrors the neighbourhood’s development — and Montreal's. Not everyone is happy about the changes, but "it’s nice to see the area being alive," says one restaurateur.

Serge Landau has been serving up Cali-Mexican cuisine at Pointe-St-Charles’s Café Cantina for the last decade. After a slow start, he has seen an upswing in business, first from hungry workers at companies that arrived in the neighbourhood, then from residents of new condo developments. “Where you had no life before past 5 o’clock, now you have people walking by.” Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

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When Serge Landau opened Café Cantina in Pointe-St-Charles in 2010, the restaurant stuck out like a piñata at a funeral.

The area needed development after the Lachine Canal closed to shipping in 1970, but not everyone agrees that quinoa salads, brown rice burrito bowls and caramelized squash quesadillas were what was called for at the corner of Centre and Shearer Sts., an area known more for all-day breakfasts and smoked meat than Cali-Mexican food.

Landau says the early years of Café Cantina were a time of slow development, when the area was expected to boom. But the boom didn’t come fast enough for a number of businesses that opened and quietly closed, including Duo Bistro Express and Taverne Urbaine. Others that were more established also shuttered, such as Mesa Latina Traiteur, Charcuterie Wayne and the well-known Restaurant À La Fine Pointe, a diner that moved west on Centre St. to a smaller, less welcoming space. Only Quebec Smoked Meat Products Co. and Masala have stuck it out alongside Café Cantina, though Masala is only open four days a week for lunch, plus one evening.

But Café Cantina’s enchiladas verdes and fully loaded burritos have become mainstays, thanks in part to hungry tech workers from the nearby Nordelec building, who became Landau’s lunchtime bread and butter (or chips and salsa). As the building was renovated and more companies moved in (it now includes 800,000 square feet of office space plus 240 residential condo units), lunchtime demand increased. Then came the trickle-down effect of new condo buildings in gentrifying Pointe-St-Charles, as workers looked for housing nearby. And finally the area started booming.

“Where you had no life before past 5 o’clock, now you have people walking by,” says Landau, who sees the upside of the neighbourhood’s changes. “There are new buildings, so it brings new people into the area. It’s positive overall. People aren’t afraid of the area like they used to be even 10 years ago. It’s nice to see the area being alive.”

Landau says his lunchtime sales have plateaued as new restaurants increased the competition. Besides Café Cantina, there’s now Fugazzi Pizza (and upstairs cocktail bar Milky Way), Le Petit Sao, Boca Boa and Knox Taverne. Toward Charlevoix métro, there’s Café Bloom, Clarke Café, the fine-dining restaurant Miel and the brand new Florence Café. In the Nordelec building itself, new daytime-only options include September Surf Café, Buddha-Station, the Cacao 70 Factory café and a forthcoming taco counter from Grumman ’78.

Now it’s those condo dwellers who are helping Landau’s bottom line, since Café Cantina is still one of the only neighbourhood options open most evenings and offering delivery — which is important because, unlike his previous competition, Landau expects his current competitors to stick around. “In the last six or seven years, businesses are holding on and helping the area develop,” he says.

While more restaurants have opened in Pointe-St-Charles, Café Cantina remains one of the few options for evening meals and delivery. Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

Not everyone is happy about that development. For an edition of the University of the Streets Café conversation series in November, Montrealers filled a room at the Pointe-St-Charles community centre Bâtiment 7 for a discussion about the anti-gentrification movement in the city. Local resident Yasmin Hother Yishay said the new restaurants aren’t for most people from the neighbourhood.

“My neighbours don’t go to Knox Taverne. They’re families who have been here for a long time, or they’re young couples and they’re like, ‘I can’t afford a $50 meal. No way!’ ”

As for what she calls the “sprouting food court” in the Nordelec, she says many Pointe-St-Charles residents don’t even know it’s there.

Back in 2010, development was already pushing people out of Pointe-St-Charles and restaurants from their locations. After 1970, community groups and economic development organizations wanted new startup industries that would employ and train local people, wrote Damaris Rose and Annick Germain of the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in their 2000 book Montreal: The Quest for a Metropolis. The groups also wanted co-op and non-profit housing. Instead, condo developers won and little in the way of social housing was built, due to federal and provincial cutbacks.

Pre-existing social housing isn’t affected by condo development, but that’s not the case for new affordable housing, Rose told me in an interview in 2010. When a neighbourhood gentrifies, it inflates the cost of vacant land as well as existing houses. Even a decade ago, “inflation in house prices in the Pointe made it impossible for long-standing residents to even think about buying there themselves,” added Rose.

Renters are seeing monthly costs increase, along with the possibility of being forced from their homes. According to the latest report from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, rent increased by 3.5 per cent in the Sud-Ouest and Verdun between 2017 and 2018 — approximately $26 a month for studios and one-, two- and three-bedroom rentals.

Toss in the fact that a 2018-19 Centraide report cites Pointe-St-Charles’s high school dropout rate at 33 per cent (compared to 21 per cent on the island of Montreal) and that 29 per cent of area residents are low-income, and you start to wonder if the area needs more mid-priced restaurants.

Pointe-St-Charles isn’t the only developing neighbourhood seeing or expecting an increase in restaurants and condos. How many new cafés and condos will supplant casse-croûtes and apartments around the Université de Montréal’s MIL campus in Mile Ex?

Unlike the Pointe-St-Charles restaurants that opened and closed in the early 2010s, Serge Landau expects his current competitors to stick around. “In the last six or seven years, businesses are holding on and helping the area develop.” Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

A recent housing proposal from the city of Montreal, to be implemented Jan. 1, 2021, would compel developers of residential projects with five units or more to include social or affordable housing or contribute to a fund to finance social housing. But some people, including Rose, question how beneficial that would be.

“The devil will be in the details of the negotiations between municipal authorities and the developers. Once again, it depends on the availability of social housing funding from the province,” she says.

But it’s not all up to the province, she adds. “The Quebec government has still not sat down with the feds to sign a new bilateral agreement to get resources that are available via the National Housing Strategy.”

For now, Café Cantina’s rent is increasing at a manageable rate, says Landau. “I hope my landlord will appreciate the fact that I’ve been here since 2010 paying my rent.”

As for his upcoming taco competition, he isn’t worried. “Grumman will be closed at night. And it’s going to be different from what I’m doing, so it may hurt me at the beginning, but after, it’s the same.

“The whole of Montreal is changing,” says Landau. “As soon as the economy is starting to be a little better, people are more comfortable, they’re moving and investing.”

It’s the same for companies moving into the renovated Nordelec building as it is for small business owners like himself, he says.

“Gentrification, yes, but that’s everywhere. We need those kinds of customers.”

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