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Farewell to Moishe’s, an Elegy

In my family, growing up, any major milestone or achievement was celebrated by a trip to Moishe’s.  It was reserved for major events because it was at the outer edge of our budget, and so, it had a special almost mystical glow around it.

My father was the main creator of this myth; he loved everything about the place. He loved the guy in the parking lot who would retrieve your car and have it waiting for you as you crossed the street, the waiting area, cloakroom and bar, which were always crowded because there were no reservations. There was a tray of assorted candies at the edge of the bar. As a child, you were encouraged to take licorice candy from the plate. He loved the long low elegant room with its mahogany trims and the smooth, professional waiters who seemed to anticipate your every need and desire. Mostly he loved being known and recognized. The long-time Maitre D’ Hymie, would always greet my father with a cheery, “Hello Hershel!” He would guide us to our table, continuing to schmooze all the way. I realized this meant that he had known my father for a long time, possibly from grade school. You could always tell where, when and how people knew my Dad by the name they would call him. My mother and most of his close friends called him Zvi, the Hebrew name he adopted as a teenager in Zionist youth groups. Harry, his English name, used mostly in business, and oddly by his sister, was a more formal and less intimate name. Hershel, however, his Yiddish name, was reserved for close family and people who had known him on St. Urbain Street or from Bancroft School.

Once we were seated in the high backed armchairs, the grey-haired, distinguished, waiter would come bearing the tray of famous “forshpies”: vinegary sweet coleslaw, garlic sour and crunchy half-sour pickles and delicious fresh breads and rolls.  These were all tempting, but my parents counselled restraint. We would then contemplate the menu, arguing over the merits of the rib steak, or Shish Kabob or filet mignon. Sometimes fish was considered, but usually, the choices were very carnivorous. Then there were the appetizers: chopped liver was a must, and pickled salmon sometimes made an appearance. The Monte Carlo potatoes were dreamed of between visits, and the deliciously grilled mushrooms and peppers or the creamed garlic spinach were only there when my Dad was feeling particularly flush. We would usually get the rib steak, “the best cut,” my father would say, redolent with garlic and spices, always perfectly cooked, the charred exterior giving way to the tender, marbled meat beneath. Sometimes it was the shish kebab, my husband’s favourite, with its sweet and tangy marinade soaking into the rice pilaf. Finally, there were the tiny French pastries on the tray. You could take as many as you wanted (or could still fit into your stomach), each one two bites. I would always try to nab the jewel-like strawberry tart. 

The first time I went to Moishe’s was a great occasion. I was about eight or nine and felt so grown up. I loved everything about it. I remember going up the steep, narrow stairs to the Ladies washroom, being so impressed by the marble stalls and the lounge area with its velvet couches and its gilt mirrors designed for women to check their makeup and straighten their stockings.

One time in the ’70s, a couple walked into the dining room as we were eating. The entire room hushed, and all eyes turned towards them. He was a long-haired blond man in a sharp suit. She was wearing a full-length mink coat and had a sleek dark bob set off by large diamond earrings. The silence was broken by a rising tide of murmurs. “It’s Guy Lafleur, Guy Lafleur!” Every neck in the place craned to look at them. They were ceremoniously led to a quiet table. Then everybody respectfully turned away and resumed eating.

One memorable visit we were there to celebrate our fifth anniversary, bringing our six-week-old daughter Ali with us in her car seat bucket. “This is the youngest child we’ve ever had here,” Hymie told my father, who beamed with pride. This time, when I climbed the stairs to the lounge, it was to breastfeed my baby on the velvet couch.

The last time we went to Moishe’s, my parents were both gone. We were there to celebrate my youngest daughter Emma’s graduation from medical school. The room had been updated, the waiters were younger, the menu was a little fancier and had more non-kosher style items on it, but the experience was still the same. Ali was also there with her husband and two children. As I took my six-year-old granddaughter up the steep, narrow stairs, she was impressed with the marble stalls and velvet couches. “Look, Bubby, it’s so beautiful here!” she said as she primped in front of the gilt mirrors while trying on my pearls. We went down the stairs and snagged some candy from the tray, rejoined the table and raised our glasses in celebration. We were planning to go this year on April first to celebrate my husband’s retirement and my birthday, but, alas, it was not to be.