Culture  Hip hop beats and tasty treats

Daniel Gocke exposes Nouveau Palais’s Thursday night secret weapon

Versailles. Buckingham.Nouveau. There are now three great palaces that humanity may celebrate. Or so it would seem given the excited clamour that greeted me whenever I asked someone about Nouveau Palais in Mile End. However, this “palace” is not characterized by a meeting of rococo excess and 17th century self-indulgence. Nor does it have a lot in common with those traditional grand bastions of antiquated protocol and closeted xenophobia. Nouveau Palais falls somewhere on the more unassuming side of things. In short, there is very little that is palatial about Nouveau Palais at all.

Standard-issue paper placemats sit on aging laminate tables. Lifeless watercolours are the only interruption to the otherwise blank expression of the sparsely populated walls. For reasons unknown, a taxidermied fox occupies a place of pride on a raised shelf in the corner, his unblinking eyes surveying his kingdom of young diners and abundant wood paneling with magisterial poise. Here, a quirky simplicity reigns supreme, and the first impression is that of a cozy, but perhaps unprofitable, cafe in a motorway service station.

The king and queen of Nouveau Palais are Jacques and Gita. A few years ago, they took over this 1930s diner and transformed it into a Mile End mecca. What once served as a stop-off for late night-poutine is now one of the more lively watering holes in this part of Montreal. While the decor may have remained, the new owners have reinvented the Palais with a stripped-down menu and a throng of buoyant patrons.

Following in the footsteps of other great music-making princes such as “The Artist Formerly Known As” and “Paul,” next in line to the throne (I know this whole palace trope became tedious quite a while ago) is local rapper Cadence Weapon. Every Thursday, Cadence provides Nouveau Palais with the soundtrack to its “Eat to the Beat” night. The concept is simple: there is food and there is music. Simultaneously. Fortunately, the laid-back hip-hop on offer makes the task of eating the Palais’ simple dishes to tempo much easier than it would be at drum n’ bass night at Le Belmont. The night runs from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., and maintains a full room served by a cheery staff.

At around 11:30, a green midnight menu card lands on our table. I ask Cadence what his recommendation would be, to which the response is immediate: “Burger. Everytime.” For those of you who doubt a man who manages to pull off a pink and lime green striped shirt while maintaining some semblance of cool, then there are other food options to consider, including some pretty mean looking perogies. One of my party did have some minor complaints to make about what he felt was a salad seasoned with perhaps a little too much zeal, but ordering one of these at 11:30 p.m. was never going to be the most sensible choice for a dining experience. My mac and cheese on the other hand was one of the better decisions I made that week.

So it should be pretty clear that the Palais doesn’t quite live up to its name. Nevertheless, it is a place loved by a loyal host of regulars, and with good reason too. If it is banquets and tuxedoed service staff that you’re after, prepare to be disappointed. If you’re more at home in a relaxed but animated setting, with good homey food and more-than-affordable drink prices, then the Palais holds its own. It might not be a palace, but it is a great late-night staple, and in the steadfast dedication to its traditional roots, the Palais has kept the most important stuff intact.