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Montenegro on the Main

Diving into a dive bar’s history

To many McGill students, Montreal exists as though it has never before been explored. Duluth’s graffiti appears as the cave paintings of Lascaux, and it’s difficult not to feel like Marco Polo the first time one ventures down the wondrous Boulevard St. Laurent. We newly discover Montreal as if it were our own little secret, our own little surprise to tell the world once we’ve packed up and returned to our humble homes. For those who wish to find the keys to unlock the secrets of Montreal, as deeply hidden in Leonard Cohen’s trench coat pockets as those keys may be, Plage Montenegro is a good place to look. And an even better place to drink.

Reopened in October 2010, Plage Montenegro (formerly Miami, and still called Miami by regulars and older McGillians) is a small dive bar on St. Laurent just north of Roy Street. The choices are few, considering that Boreale Blonde and Rousse are the only beers on tap, but $15 pitchers and $5 pints are prices that are hard to beat. Not a beer drinker? Plage Montenegro is “the only place on St. Laurent you can get a shot of Jameson for $3,” boasted a waitress in an interview with The Daily.

The student appeal is obvious, but Plage Montenegro is by no means exclusively a student bar. The clientele range from middle-aged men arguing in the smoky back room to young Francophone locals playing pool. What separates Montenegro from similarly cheap bars like Biftek or Barfly is its timelessness. Once up the creaky, carpeted stairs, Montenegro feels like a safe-haven from the raucous St. Laurent, and, except for the new blue paint job, Montenegro remains the same Miami it was twenty years ago.

Yet before it became home to sloppy exchanges outside Korova and tragically broken high heels, St. Laurent was a neighborhood street and home to various European immigrant communities. You can catch glimpses of what it must have been like walking down the street fifty years ago, amidst the smell of Portuguese chicken emanating from chimneys and women wearing babushkas waiting for the 55 bus. We want to hear about their lives, assuming they know the true stories of the street. The same goes for the tale of Montenegro, and luckily, the original owner (who wishes to remain anonymous) is still around to tell you the truth, or at least some variation of it.

The old owner appears too clean cut for 2 a.m. at Montenegro. His blue shirt is pressed, as always, and his memory remains particularly acute, especially with regard to dates. “I opened the Dalmatian Restaurant on March 1, 1969,” he explained in a beer-filled interview with The Daily. “There used to be a red carpet, and red curtains, and over where those chairs are, was a kitchen!” It’s hard to picture, yet the Dalmatian Restaurant of the early 1970s was a major social hub for Croatian immigrants. “People came all the way from Toronto and Ottawa for Sunday dinner, even Serbs and Slovaks.” Fumbling through old photos, I glimpse this era of bowties and smiling families gathered around shish kebabs.

The specifics of the bar’s ownership through the years are hazy, and no one knows or is wishing to dispel exactly why Miami was closed and reborn as Montenegro. At one point, the past owner described that Miami was “so fucking dirty. There were more bikes and dogs in here than people.” This image too is hard to imagine, considering the beautifully-furnished photos in my hand. Yet,  St. Laurent is perfect evidence that things do change with time. The name changes from Dalmatian Restaurant to Miami, and Café de Poet to Blizzarts, seem emblematic of the street’s gentrification.

However, unlike other second floor spaces, such as Korova or Tokyo, Montenegro has maintained its…dignity, if you will. The question remains: how? And why? Unlike its neighbors, this precious little blue gem has somehow slipped under the radar. “Well, I think what people like is that it’s simple. It hasn’t changed. And a certain type of person comes here,” noted the waitress. Glancing around, no particular “type” struck my attention. Noticing my confusion, the waitress clarified, “Well, not a type. Just people who want to enjoy other people. People who just want to rela – those types of people.” By that point, the old owner had sunken down in his seat for a nap, and everything suddenly made sense.

The Dalmatian Restauraunt, Miami, Montenegro, and everything in between – this space has served as the closest thing to home for many people over the decades. For newly-immigrated Croatians, Dalmation Restaurant offered the taste of their long-lost cuisine. Every Sunday, people could revisit their distant pasts in familiar company. Like them, we are immigrants too, searching for our place within this strange city. It’s precisely the transient nature of Montenegro that enables it to remain itself. In its own way, it’s a small microcosm of Montreal. Economic and cultural shifts have defined both the city and this establishment. Its essence lies in its simultaneous adaptability despite being the same old place, a port in a storm.