Culture | The street wants eats

Ban on street vendors leaves a bad taste in the mouth

In the gastronomic paradise that is Montreal, only one thing is missing: street meat. Hot dog stands, common sights on the street corners of so many North American cities, are nowhere to be found. In fact, with the exception of the ice cream pushcarts in parks and at Tam-Tams, you will be hard-pressed to find any kind of street food here. Street food isn’t allowed in Montreal, and hasn’t been for more than 60 years. Buying and eating food in the street is fun and convenient, everybody knows that. So why on earth would anyone in this fun-loving, food-eating town prevent it?
There was a time in Montreal when street vendors sold everything from bananas to baked beans, filling the air with their insistent cries. Maybe it was all this yelling, but in 1947 Montreal began cracking down on the mobile food vendors that jostled for space on city sidewalks by creating health and safety bylaws that effectively cleared the streets.

That decision was challenged – and upheld – in 2003 when a city commission studied the issue and decided mobile food vending shouldn’t be allowed in Montreal, period. They conducted a series of hearings – asking everyone from the owner of the hot dog serving Montreal Pool Room to the Quebec Restaurant Association – what they thought. The results were close to unanimous: street vendors, they decided, are hard to monitor, compete with restaurants, and are inconsistent with the image of Montreal as a classy and charming place. This last idea was echoed in a 2009 report on food in Montreal by Al-Jazeera, the Arab-language news network. It quoted a Montreal food writer suggesting francophones preferred to savour and linger over their meals, while implying – with a hint of snarkiness – that anglophones ate more quickly, and wouldn’t mind scarfing a hot dog on the street; “Food is just food in English Canada. In Quebec food is like holy material and that’s a very French thing.” The city’s insistence to keep street food off the streets seems to say something about Montreal’s attempt to prove its culinary scene is world-class.

Not everyone has taken the lack of street food lying down. Fed up, a Montreal restaurant owner named Ahmed Trabelsi took the law into his own hands when, in 2002, he set up an illicit hot dog stand in a downtown square. For one glorious hour, he fed the hungry midday throngs the perfect al fresco lunch. After the cops descended and shut him down for not having a permit, CTV News quoted Trabelsi as saying: “They are imbeciles… Everyone in the world has a right to sell hot dogs.”

Not to mention tacos. The Montreal Mirror recently profiled a couple of professional chefs trying to get their taco truck legally on the streets. Unfortunately, they’ve gotten tangled up in red tape: neither the boroughs nor the city will grant them the permits they need to hit the streets. If a truck that sells duck confit tacos can’t change the mind of the powers that be, what can? When I asked at the permit counter at the borough office of Plateau-Mont-Royal, the clerk seemed genuinely confused about why street food isn’t permitted. Making vague gestures at health and safety, he then trailed off, citing the long history of the rule as the strongest reason for its ongoing enforcement.

Street food is fun, handy, and encourages people to spend time outside and participate in public life. In fact, having tasty hot dogs or tacos for sale on every corner seems much more in keeping with Montreal’s epicurean joie de vivre than in conflict with it. It’s also rather difficult to believe that a few food carts around town could really threaten the thriving restaurant scene, especially considering that pretty much every other city in North America seems to pull off having both. Our food scene is amazing, but the city’s refusal to grant permits to vendors seems paranoid and, to the drunk and hungry staggering home at 3 a.m., downright sadistic.