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Josh Freed: Rejuvenated Main a symbol of Montreal's annual spring rebirth


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A two-block wall of boarded-up windows and "à louer" signs on St-Laurent Blvd. has suddenly been transformed into bustling new storefronts.

Irfan Inoglu prepares a sandwich at Berlin Doner in the location of the former Main Deli on St-Laurent Blvd. A two-block stretch of the venerable Main has been rejuvenated this spring, Josh Freed writes. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Welcome to extreme spring.

Less than a month ago, the trees were barren, the ground mud-brown, the skies a drizzling steel grey.

Flash forward three weeks and BOOM!

We’re suddenly living in a near-tropical jungle with grass so green it hurts your eyes and lilacs exploding like colour bombs everywhere.

The flowers are symbolic of our city in spring, when the switch flips from OFF to ON in an instant and everything is reborn.

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Like the sudden greenery, people have exploded onto the streets en masse, a secret population hidden away who knows where for months before.

Last weekend on Rachel Ave., a huge Portuguese oom-pah-pah brass band took over the streets — for the Santa Cristo churchyard carnival, where hundreds dance outdoors and munch on bifana sandwiches.

A block away, Jeanne-Mance Park was filled with armies of picnickers, volleyballers, Frisbee-ers, and stoners listening to bare-chested tam-tam drummers beating on bongos.

This year, the tam-tams have competition from a nearby Caribbean DJ who plays reggae dance music that fuses bizarrely with the bongos.

Meanwhile, all over my neighbourhood, a Great Wall of Wooden Terrasses is growing daily, as locals battle to sit in the great outdoors after a winter locked indoors.

Our city’s rebirth is most visible in its storefronts. Three months ago, the Main near me was a two-block wall of boarded-up windows and “à louer” signs.

We’d lost the legendary Main Deli, the longstanding Cabane bar and several other stalwarts and the street looked ready to be rolled up.

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But some people look at failed storefronts and just see dreams.

Welcome to the season of rebirth, with at least seven newcomers on the same small patch where others recently failed.

Take Oscar Harman, 37, originally from Turkey and here via Alberta.

When the Main Deli went under, locals mourned. But Oscar saw opportunity, sweeping in to buy the building on the “busy, famous street” where his family partners hope to make their mark.

Last week the old deli reopened as Berlin Doner — an exhaustingly renovated, licensed and terrassed Turkish restaurant.

The cartoons of Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen are gone, replaced by a rustic Turkish décor; the smoked meat by “lamb pirzola” and tasty doner kebab sandwiches overstuffed with fresh veggies.

It’s barely open a week, but Oscar is already dreaming of a sister restaurant on Ste-Catherine St. “Then we will open more here and in Western Canada, and then Europe.”

And why not?

Just across the street, a long-standing Chicago wood-burning pizza place was also boarded up. But now it’s miraculously reborn as “Miracolo” — a hip Italian resto-bar. It’s owned by the ubiquitous Holder brothers, who already own two funky restos — Darlings and Le Majestique — just up St-Laurent Blvd.

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The new spot’s already packed at night and if they keep saving more places on the Main, we may have to rename the street St-Holder Blvd.

There are several more young newcomers on the same two-block patch of concrete. Buzzing Amelios Pizza has relocated into the shuttered Cabane bar.

Once popular Atma Indian restaurant has been transformed into Moonday, a candle-making café and workshop.

Amanda, the 32-year-old passionate manager, sits amid a crowded shop of customers learning to make decorative candles in jars, while munching on cookies and coffee locally brewed by Amanda’s fiancé.

“We used to sell candles from a warehouse, but the pandemic isolated everyone, so we wanted to get more people out doing something again.”

The owners worried about opening on the Main, which was having “a bad spell,” but Amanda believed in the street.

The result, a mere six months later?

“Our lessons are totally booked for weeks and even months to come. We’re all totally exhausted, but exhilarated. It’s fantastic!

“St-Laurent fell on hard times, but now I think it’s being reborn by a younger generation of entrepreneurs breathing new life into it.”

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Finally, let’s not forget Maria Castanheira, latest family owner of venerable Coco Rico Rotisserie chicken. Her dad opened the first incarnation 55 years ago and it still attracts many Portuguese people who’ve moved to the suburbs.

Maria wanted to appeal to a younger generation, too. “Lots of the old generation love coming here, so we couldn’t change the menu or mood.”

Then the Felix & Norton cookie shop next door joined this year’s crop of failures and Maria saw possibilities.

So Coco Rico is renovating and expanding next door, with a modern café specializing in Portuguese pastel de nata custard pies and soups, opening soon right beside the traditional chicken haunt.

As hammers bang all along the street, Maria warns those opening here there’s a price to their dreams.

“You’ve got to work hard, love your customers and love the street. Yesterday, I worked from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. and we’re open 363 days a year.”

But like everyone on this street of dreams, she believes.

“We’re a passionate, friendly restaurant with absolutely the best chicken in all Montreal and all of Canada.

“Tell me,” she says, speaking over the sound of hammering. “How can we lose?”

In Montreal’s spring, no way.

[email protected]

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