On Jean-Talon, just west of St-Michel, Montreal
(Sign is now gone)

Look, up in the sky! It’s a... chicken?: Why does a huge chicken sit atop this sign? Is Sylvio the “Roi du Poulet” (“King of Chicken”)? Actually, the sign at Sylvio Roi is wonderful. One of the last of the great big signs, it sits on a huge pole rooted in the pavement in front of the restaurant. It seems to me there used to be many more of these amazingly oversized signs that would attract your attention to a restaurant from blocks away... that is, until it was decided that signs like these were a blight on the city’s landscape and should be attached to buildings rather than standing out on their own in the asphalt. Now people complain that signs are covering up the buildings, so maybe they’ll find their way back up onto tall poles again some day.

Sub-signs: The big sign at Sylvio’s includes a series of smaller sub-signs beneath it: PIZZA, HOT DOGS, SUBMARINES... practically the entire menu is up there for you to read before actually walking into the restaurant. Surprisingly, BBQ is at the bottom of the list, despite the giant chicken up top.

Return of the chicken: Greek short order cooks and French-Canadian (or Québecoise) waitresses wear t-shirts featuring the big chicken from the sign along with the phone number for deliveries.

Someone should order a gin and tonic: A standard interior for this type of place: a few steps above street level; long and narrow; booths on one side; stools, counter, and grill on the other. But at the front, behind the cash register, someone, at some point in time, went through the trouble of turning part of the shelving and surrounding wall into a black, padded leather bar. I’m certain that no one has ever ordered anything harder than a beer to go with his or her hot dog.

The right appetite at the wrong time: I eat French toast and sausage at 12:30 p.m. on a Sunday, as all around me hot dogs and poutine are consumed.


Beaubien, corner of 9th Avenue, Montreal
(now a Portuguese churrascaria)

Which one’s Linda?: Two white-haired, over-65-year-old ladies hobble around in orthopedic shoes behind the counter. One makes her way out to take my order. “We’ll be able to get some air in here now,” she says, “the air conditioner is working again.”

Old lady colour scheme: It’s the last day of my summer holidays. I read my newspaper while listening to the clinking of a spatula on the grill. I patiently wait for my French toast and bacon. The walls are painted yellow... a chalky-coloured pastel yellow that seems to be a favourite of old ladies everywhere. There is no eavesdropping to be done; the only other customers are two old ladies at separate tables, each reading a tabloid newspaper, and a group of 4 guys (from the meat department of the supermarket across the street) who are draining their last cups of coffee soon after I sit down.

Are bacon and eggs “Canadienne”?: From what I can tell, all that’s served at Chez Linda is breakfast fare: bacon and eggs, sausage, French toast, and pancakes. However, the sign outside bills the place as serving “cuisine canadienne.” The rest of the sign doesn’t make much sense either. At the very top: a coach-house lantern (the type I’ve seen on signs at some steakhouses in the US). And right below the lantern, above the restaurant’s name, the element that attracted me to this joint in the first place: two early-60’s-looking cartoon characters, a man with a huge bow tie and a woman wearing a cape and mortar-board, both jumping up into the air and clicking their heels.

Phase 0?: If the food here is really “cuisine canadienne” as the sign says, and Chez Linda is located here in Canada, does this make it a Phase 0 restaurant?



On Bélanger (where else?), just west of St-Michel, Montreal

The Pizzeria Project: The first stop in our attempt to eat at every single pizzeria on Bélanger St. between Lacordaire and St-Denis.

Two sides to every story: Depending on your mood, you can choose from the greasy spoon room (turquoise colour scheme, old fashioned booths and counter, and a view of the pizza oven and cash register), or the dining room (featuring live music on Friday and Saturday nights).

What? No Greek food?: Although it looks like a typical Montreal-style Greek-owned pizzeria, Belanger Pizzeria is actually Italian-owned, making it a Phase 2 ethnic restaurant, which serves good, hearty, basic Italian fare. If you’re there on the right day, you might even be able to get an order of tripe…

The Main Event: Enrico plays the accordion in the back room on Friday and Saturday nights and, surprisingly, draws quite a crowd. His son Gino accompanies him on drums. The place is packed when we arrive... and everyone seems to know each other, like it’s a big party or something. Like in a lowbrow version of Goodfellas, a guy comes out of the kitchen carrying a table over his head, walks into the dining room and puts down the table for us right next to the drums, in the centre of the action. Enrico drinks and talks more than he plays. When he sees us fingering the air and discussing his technique, he stops singing, calls us up and proceeds to give us an accordion lesson in front of the crowd. There are guest performers too. Ms. Sicotte has just returned from a four-month engagement on a cruise ship and she performs her “around the world” medley for us. She puts her arms around us, sits on our laps, and asks for a kiss on the cheek. Luigi comes out of the kitchen, wearing his tomato sauce-stained apron, to sing us his favourite song. Enrico announces that his food is ready; it’s time for a break. But wait a minute... a big beefy guy walks in from the greasy spoon room where he has been sitting and smoking and looking off into the distance by himself for the last half-hour. He’s wearing a light grey double-breasted suit, a black shirt, a white tie, and a very large pinky ring. He looks like he’s packin’ a piece. He walks up to Enrico... maybe to tell him “There’s no way you’re taking a break before playing what I’ve been waiting to hear.” But no, he turns to face us, microphone in hand, eyes closed, a melancholy look on his face… and breaks into a stunning rendition of Mala Femmena...

Thought about: There is a little bit of Dean Martin in everyone.


On Van Horne, west of Côte-des-Neiges, Montreal

Sign: Not much in the way of an attractive or vintage sign but we did have a long discussion about the faded gold lettering on the restaurant’s glass doors. Did it date back to the seventies? The sixties? It looked like a forties typeface but that would be impossible... this strip mall location could not have existed back then.

If not the sign, what then?: Overall ambiance is what draws us here. The huge dining area... the harsh, extra bright strip lighting, blinding customers as they make their way to a booth or table...

Thought about: The place always brings back memories of a similar joint in Florida... The Rascal House... maybe you know it.

Are you guys crazy or what?: The one waitress and the guy behind the counter look at us like we’re nuts, walking in here at 10:15 on a Friday night. The place is devoid of any customers save for two elderly gentlemen, sitting at separate tables at opposite ends of the room. This does not stop them from having a conversation between sips of their matzah ball soup. We are handed the menu that applies to this time of day, respecting religious and cultural tradition, and I order what must be the last matzah ball of the day.

Overheard #1: “When was your last chest x-ray?”

Overheard #2: “Where’d you get those shoes? ‘Cause those are some nice shoes...”


Sign-Based Eating… Does it mean scheduling your meals based on the Zodiac? Reviewing restaurants using only hand gestures? Having a sandwich at a four-way stop? No, nothing that crazy... but then again…

Sign-Based Eating was born of our fascination with the atmosphere and ambiance of “dive” restaurants. That’s right, dives. The type of place you normally wouldn’t choose to have a meal but just happen to find yourself in. Maybe you just wanted to get out of the rain. Maybe you were driving through a small town and there was nowhere else to stop for lunch. Maybe you were just looking for a quiet spot where you could be alone for awhile. For whatever the reason, our attraction to these types of places has grown over the years. It seems like all the best conversations, eavesdropping, and deep thinking take place in restaurants we’ve chosen to frequent not because of the food but simply because of the bad lighting, worn-out wallpaper, mismatched counter stools, rude waitresses, old plates, outdated music on the jukeboxes and, of course, the element that often first catches our eye, the sign outside or in the window.

The Sign-Based Eating project was inspired by a couple of other food-related pastimes...
One is “label-based shopping”—which is not what you think it is. Ever buy your groceries based solely on the aesthetic qualities of the packaging? Go out of your way to find a can of Italian tomatoes with a label that looks like it hasn’t been redesigned in the last 50 years… just because of the way it makes you feel? That’s label-based shopping.

The second source of inspiration came from the “Phase System” of rating ethnic restaurants (initially developed by our friend, Fred Sarli). Phase System ratings are (also) not based on food quality but on the overall ethnic authenticity or down-home/rustic qualities of ethnic restaurants. Ratings work as follows:

Phase O: There are no Phase O restaurants outside of their country of origin. For example, an Italian restaurant serving home-cooked-style Italian food in Italy is a Phase 0 restaurant.
Phase 1: A restaurant serving authentic-as-possible ethnic food outside of the home country. The emphasis is not on decor or ambiance but on the food, the right ingredients, and a home-style approach.
Phase 2: A restaurant that looks a little more like a restaurant and a little less like someone’s grandmother’s kitchen. The proprietors may have begun to put candles on the tables, and have started cutting corners, using local ingredients rather than imports.
Phase 3:
a) A restaurant serving ethnic food but owned and operated by members of another ethnic group (e.g. a Greek-owned deli that serves ravioli with meat sauce).
b) An ethnic restaurant that has gone somewhat “upscale” (e.g. an Italian restaurant in which you still find lasagna on the menu but where you can also order a pizza with smoked salmon, watercress, and a béarnaise sauce).
Phase 4: The equivalent of ethnic fast food (e.g. a restaurant in which the pizza crusts come ready-made and are simply dressed and stuck in the oven).
Our collective quest for Phase 1 restaurants, together with our appreciation of the label-based shopping aesthetic, led to the development of the Sign-Based Eating concept.

In seeking out basic, simple ethnic restaurants that served good food, we became more and more fascinated with their lack of typical restaurant atmosphere… so much so that we began to seek out restaurants with a similar “non-ambiance” that were not necessarily ethnic and did not necessarily serve good food. In other words, the overlooked underbelly of the restaurant trade. We became more interested in the mood or feeling that one could experience than in the quality of the food itself. This is not to say that all restaurants featured here serve bad food, but simply that the food was not the primary reason we chose to eat there. By the way, for added interest, ethnic restaurants featured here are also given a Phase System rating.

Since the authors of this blog currently reside in Montreal and Toronto respectively, the blog mostly provides a taste of what Sign-Based Eating in these cities can be like. But the wonderful thing is that Sign-Based Eateries can be found anywhere. Every city or town—no matter the size—has a place that can make it into a post here. More often than not, it’s one of the older restaurants in town; its very incongruity with the modern world catches the eye and magnetically draws you near… if not for a meal, then at least for a peek in the window to see if the decor lives up to your initial expectations.

Admittedly, eating in these types of establishments is not for everyone. But if you somehow just feel better in places that have the ability to transport you, movie-like, to another time and place—where waitresses, bewteen nicotine-fueled coughing fits, still manage to call you “Dearie” (or “Cher / Chère” in Montreal) and where gruff cooks hunch and sweat over gargantuan blackened grills—you’ve come to the right place. Even if there’s only one such place in your neck of the woods, it’s worth patronizing once in a while. Heck, you might find yourself sitting in the same booth your parents did when they had their first kiss!

Living in Canada’s two largest cities, we feel rather lucky. There are hundreds of places to discover... Travelling to other cities also opens up opportunities for more Sign-Based Eating. Of course, since this is a somewhat subjective pursuit (different people will be attracted to different aspects of dive restaurants), you may be dismayed to find that some place you considered a “natural” isn’t found here. We therefore invite you to send us pictures and a description of your favourite Sign-Based Eateries. Who knows, maybe it’ll make it into a future post here.
(You can write to us at signbasedeatingATmacDOTcom, but you'll have to replace the "AT" with an "@" and the "DOT" with a ".")

Our photos try to show the elements that attracted us to these restaurants in the first place; the accompanying text conveys the experience of just “being” there.

Order the special, it comes with coffee and dessert, and enjoy.

John Trivisonno & Dave LeBlanc