Bens De Luxe Delicatessen and Restaurant was a renowned deli in Montreal, famous for its Montreal-style smoked meat. In 1908, Benjamin Kravitz, a Lithuanian immigrant and his wife Fanny Schwartz opened an eatery named Fanny’s Fruit and Candy Store on Saint Lawrence Boulevard. They expanded their menu to include smoked meat sandwiches using Ben’s mother’s recipe. In 1925, the store was renamed B. Kravitz Delicatessen (aka Bens de Luxe Delicatessen Sandwich Shop). During the Great Depression that left millions of Canadians unemployed, hungry and often homeless, Bens provided a breadline and Ben himself would serve the people who were lined up outside his restaurant.
In 1929 the restaurant moved to Burnside (now Boul. de Maisonneuve) and Mansfield. In 1949 Bens Deli moved to its last location on the south-east corner of De Maisonneuve and Metcalfe, into a three-storey brown brick building, designed in the Streamline Modern style in 1949 by Charles Davis Goodman, who also designed the Jewish General Hospital and the Laurentian Hotel. The building had a rounded front corner, green awnings, large bay windows and a large illuminated wrap-around sign. The restaurant was on the ground floor and the upper two floors were rented.
Bens Deli was open 23 hours daily, and being located in the downtown theatre district, was a popular late-night dining restaurant, visited by thousands of locals and tourists alike. It also became a favourite among celebrities and movie stars. Among them were Burl Ives, Ed Sullivan, Bette Midler, Jack Benny, Leonard Cohen, Catherine Deneuve and Liberace, as well as sports celebrities Bob Geary, Gordie Howe and Jean Béliveau. Even Canadian Prime Ministers Pierre Trudeau and Paul Martin, and Quebec Premiers René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau and Jean Charest ate at the deli. A large number of autographed photos were featured on the restaurant’s Wall of Fame.
At its peak in the 1960s, Bens employed 100 staff, and served up to 8000 customers each day. In 1956, Ben Kravitz died and the business was taken over by his three sons, Irving, Al, and Sollie. Irving died in 1992, leaving ownership of the deli to his wife Jean, and their son Dr. Elliot Kravitz. Business declined and the deli fell in disrepair, the menu changed, so did the quality of the smoked meat, prices went up, and fresh ingredients were switched for cheaper substitutes.
The staff, now reduced to 25, joined the union, and went on strike in 2006, demanding a pay increase and better working conditions. In December that year Elliot Kravitz announced that Bens would be closed for good. For two years Bens sat empty, with its contents and memorabilia stacked inside. In 2008 the building was demolished to make room for the 15 floor St. Martin Hotel and Suites. The deli’s memorabilia, including the autographed photos from Bens Wall of Fame, dishes, menus and interior signage, were donated to the McCord Museum.
Source: National Post / CBC / McCord Museum / Museum of Jewish Montreal