Bill Brownstein's 24 Hours

By Alidor Aucoin on October 30, 2008

Bill Brownstein never walked into a saloon he didn’t like. The Gazette’s man about town has compiled a loving tribute to  Montreal’s night spots in 24: Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a City. His interlocking chapters convey the mood of the city through the owners, employees, trend setters, and bar flys that  he¹s interviewed in 24 different locations around town.

 It’s the kind of thing Sunday Times reporter Nicholas Tomlin did so effectively with London - chart the happenings at various places around town over the course of a single day. Brownstein begins at the hip Garde Manger restaurant in Old Montreal, drops into Grumpy’s for some bluegrass music at 1 a.m., and continues his bar hopping marathon, stopping for lunch at Mas des Oliviers, taking high tea at the Hôtel St. James, (which boasts about the highest prices of any hotel in Canada), has dinner at Holder’s, visits Café Cherrier, “that practically perfect bistro” on St. Denis, then goes slumming with the Dead Doll Dancers at Café Cleopatre on The Main.

Brownstein plays it safe:  the places he chooses to explore are with one or two exceptions, are all worthwhile, but all mainstream. No startling underground discoveries or cutting edge revelations here. What sets this book apart from the usual guide book format are the intimate portraits Brownstein skillfully draws of the colourful individuals who have made Montreal home.

 “Montreal has a style that can¹t be explained in a few sentences,” Brownstein writes. “For a city that many gave up for dead not that long ago, Montreal offers a life like few other metropolises on the planet.”

 The names that fly through the pages define the city’s cosmopolitan charm: We cross paths with people like Old Montreal developer, Dimitri Antonopoulos, Imad Smaidi, “the ever beaming beanpole proprietor of Boustan,” Raja Thamthura and Lowie Magdaluyo, “on the bagel beat,” actress Elise Varo, “mother and bartender” at Mas des Oliviers, Nick Tedeschi, who “nurses culture,” in a St. Henri coffee house, and Johnny Zoumbulakis, a strip club owner “who spends evenings working as a boy scout leader.”

Like everyone he writes about, Brownstein makes sure his customers, - his readers - are entertained. Taken together, the  cast of characters he befriends reveal the heart and the soul of the Œhood without being overblown about it.

Simon Finn, a musician who arrived from London in 1972 and never left perhaps sums it up best when he describes Montreal as “one of the last great romantic cities of the world where you have the oddest collection of characters, from artists to philosophers, to brick layers, from deadbeat journalists to used up musicians. What makes it so special is the way everyone interacts so effortlessly, be it talking politics, playing pool or just meeting women.”

The cheeky dedication is to de Maisonneve, who founded Montreal in 1642 and “paved the way for generations of party animals to keep rediscovering the city.”

Unfortunately, the cover design, which depicts a long-haired woman disappearing behind some velvet drapes, suggests sleaze rather than sophistication, and some fine evocative photographs by Daniel Francis Haber appear to be included as an afterthought. 

Published by Vehicule Press, the book is $18.95.


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