A Tale of Two Cafés

On the east side of Montreal, two almost neighboring coffee shops, each with its own fiercely loyal customers, exemplify the city at its best

By ROBERT SARNER, August 20, 2016

Ever since living in Paris, cafés have been essential to me. After moving there from Toronto in 1979, cafés figured prominently in my expatriate life. At the time, Toronto was bereft of the kind of places that proved vital to me in Paris.

Living on the Rue du Renard next to the Marais in a tiny, poorly heated studio on the seventh floor with no elevator, cafés became my second home.   My favorite ones -- Café La Palette and Café Costes -- served multiple purposes. They were my living room, my study, my work place, and my daily perch from which to observe Parisian life and satisfy my caffeine cravings. Each was an oasis of comfort and solace. An antidote to the city's attrition and anonymity. A source of lively discussion and compelling characters. An outpost where I could take stock, see friends, have meetings, lose myself in reverie, read newspapers and edit articles for Paris Passion, the magazine I started in 1981.

Since then, my reality has changed considerably but not my penchant for cafés that exude life and offer a window into local culture.

Every morning in Montreal, on Rue St. Viateur in the hip Mile End neighborhood, Taras Grescoe arrives at Café Club Social for a coffee and a human connection. At around the same time, 50 yards to the east on the same side of the street, Paul de Tourreil enters Café Olimpico for a similar reason. After years of this daily ritual, both writers are fixtures in their respective haunts where staff know them well along with their choice of coffee. Neither Grescoe nor de Tourreil would ever think of changing places.

Club Social doesn't look like much from the outside. Nor the inside. But once past the transom, it's hard not to feel comfortable due to its unpretentious, slightly disheveled décor and convivial atmosphere. The café seats about 60 inside and another 45 on the adjoining outdoor terrace.

Jay Lucifero is one of five brothers behind Club Social. True to the café's name, he's a great socializer and loves facilitating contact between people. His warm, gregarious manner -- in French, English and Italian -- make him well suited for the job. As there are no waiters, Jay and one of his brothers prepare the coffee in front of customers at the wooden bar, engaging in friendly banter with both regulars and first-timers. As most order lattes, (served in glasses), the whir of the overworked coffee machine is near incessant.

From the moment I discovered Club Social, it intrigued me. I loved the ambience and the easy interaction between people. The more I learned about it and its fiercely devoted clientele, the more the place fascinated me, both for what it is and how it conjures up a side of Montreal I find so appealing.

For all of Social's popularity, Café Olimpico commands a similar allegiance among its habitués. It's no less a revered institution in the area, with an equally rich history as a family business with Italian roots. Framed photos from the café's early days and flags and memorabilia of Italian soccer teams dominate the walls. It's animated and loud, in part due to the baristas who love to sing, laugh and shout greetings to customers. It's known colloquially to locals as "Open Da Night" since a former sign that said "Open Day & Night" was deformed and a nickname took root.

Both Social and Olimpico offer a glimpse into Montreal life, which can be especially interesting for visitors to the city. With their welcoming nature and francophone, anglophone and multi-ethnic customers interacting so harmoniously -- both cafés exemplify Montreal at its best. As most people -- customers and employees -- in both places seem genuinely happy to be there, a positive feeling reigns.

The success of Social and Olimpico and their close proximity to each other mirror the two legendary bagel shops nearby that have long divided Montrealers into opposite camps -- those who swear by the bagels from Fairmont and those who only buy them at St. Viateur. It makes me think of Paris where people patronize either Café de Flore or Deux Magots and never the twain shall meet.

In 2009, a French-language paper in Montreal published an article about Social and Olimpico titled La Guerre des Cafés, as if there was a war between them. There's not. While the two may compete for business, they have much mutual respect and affinity.

"Most people who come to Club Social are very loyal to it," says Olga Kavalieratos, 49, a native Montrealer and a regular since 2003. "I've been to Olimpico a few times in my life but only when a friend insisted on going there. Each time, I felt as if I was betraying Club Social."

Giuseppe Sacchetti knows Olimpico well, being a regular since 2004. He's never been to Club Social.

"Ever since I discovered Olimpico, I've always loved it," says Sacchetti, 31, who last spring opened a health food eatery just across the street. "Perhaps because of my Italian background, I enjoy the Italian café bar aspect of it. I like how it's so open to everybody and brings people together. An important part of their success are the baristas behind the counter who are such characters."

Invariably, most people develop a strong sense of loyalty to their café of choice.

"I'm not sure why but there's always been a division between Club Social and Olimpico," says Francois Furstenberg, 43, a longtime resident of Montreal and a Social regular until 2014 when he moved to Baltimore to teach history at Johns Hopkins University. He and his wife visit Montreal often and always frequent Social when in town. "It the kind of thing where you have to pick a side on the question of Social versus Olimpico. Even if they're both quite similar, you have to be a partisan of one over the other."

Indeed, both cafés share many characteristics -- a street corner location; popular sun-kissed terraces; acclaimed latte with the right ratio of milk to coffee; a passion for soccer; cash payment only; not laptop friendly; the antithesis of Starbucks; excellent people-watching; customers can bring in food to eat with their coffee; and a two-thirds francophone, one-third anglophone crowd.

The major differences are Olimpico is larger (seating about 80 inside) while Social serves alcohol in the evening.

People rarely speak with any ill-feeling about the rival café they don't patronize, even those who first frequented one before switching to the other. Most people I spoke to know where they stand. Loyal to one café, a stranger to the other. Sonia Bluteau, 44, a communication executive at L'Oréal Canada, is a rare exception.

"Ever since I moved to the nearby Le Plateau area in 2012, I go to both cafés," Bluteau told me. "It depends on how busy they are. When the weather's nice, I love sitting outside on their terraces. They both have excellent coffee. I've met great people at both, including some who became friends. I can't think of another place in Montreal where you find this type of people. Both cafés are so reflective of Mile End, which is what attracts me to them."

One of Montreal's trendiest neighborhoods, Mile End is a somewhat bohemian, multicultural low-rise area that has long attracted writers, artists, designers, musicians, and filmmakers. It oozes with charm, which contributed to its gentrification over the past 25 years and now is considered one of Canada's hipster capitals.

Rue St. Viateur is Mile End's main commercial street, home to an eclectic mix of small businesses including Latina, a food store which in 2012 initiated the city's first Givebox, a "community closet" for people to donate belongings for others to take. The nearby offices of videogame giant Ubisoft employ 2,600 people, many of whom frequent Olimpico and Social.

Both cafés have a rich heritage, each created by Italian immigrants before eventually being passed on to the next generation. Olimpico is the older of the two.

In 1970, after operating a pizzeria for 10 years, Rocco Furfaro opened an Italian bar, naming it after a soccer team in Italy. Initially, it attracted mostly cigarette-smoking Italian immigrant men, who enjoyed playing cards and using the pool and foosball tables. From the outset, soccer was a popular topic of conversation and customers watched games there on TV. Eventually, women started to frequent it and some of the Italian customers moved out of the neighborhood.

"This isn't simply a business or a job for me," says Rocco's daughter Vicky Furfaro, 54, who owns and operates Olimpico and whose son is now involved in it. "It's a community. I need to continue what my father started. We have an amazing clientele, many of whom have been with us for years. I'm fortunate that most of my staff have also been with me a long time. They don't have to ask our regulars their names or how they take their coffee."

Down the street at Club Social, today's reality is a far cry from how it started in 1982 as a private social club for Italian immigrants. In 1984, board members gave it to Vincenzo Lucifero who had immigrated to Canada in 1960. It took on its present incarnation in 1990 when Vincenzo's son Franco refurbished the premises and opened it to the public.

Franco's brother Jay began working there in 1995 and for years has been the one most associated with the café.

"There's no mystery behind our success," says Jay, 59, dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans. "We make Club Social like an extension of our living room. We love that so many people consider this like a second home. It means a lot to me that they keep coming back here for so many years. It's certainly not just because of the coffee. I get the greatest satisfaction when people say to me, 'Thank God, you're here.' To which, I respond, 'We're here only because you're here.'

Sarah Bartok moved to Montreal in 2010 from Vancouver where she lived for six years after living in Calgary. A radio broadcaster who recently moved to Toronto, she frequented Club Social at least once a day while based in Montreal.

"What makes Club Social such a great place is the people," says Bartok, 44. "You can strike up a conversation with anybody. It's so relaxed. That has a lot to do with Jay who talks with everybody. He makes sure everyone meets. He helps make it such a welcoming environment. It says something about Montrealers. There's a misconception about them that they are cold or language is an issue."

Taras Grescoe is an accomplished non-fiction writer who lives near Social which he's dutifully frequented since 1998. He's often there twice a day, ordering a dry macchiato. The café has played a big role in his life. It's where he met his wife and has edited several of his books including his recently published Shanghai Grand in which he cites Social and the Lucifero brothers in the acknowledgements.

"What I love about Club Social is that it's a genuine neighborhood place," says Grescoe, 49, who, with his wife, brings his two sons there on Saturday mornings. "The lack of attitude and snobbishness of the brothers who run Social make it so appealing. Their warmth is not a commercial attribute, it's their temperament."

Paul de Toureil, 46, a writer who has lived in Mile End for the past 20 years feels similarly about his café. "I love the atmosphere at Olimpico," he says. "It's human and warm. The genius of this place is its consistency. It doesn't change. One day I was amazed when I learned many people come here from miles away."

If many writers and other creative folk gravitate to Olimpico and Social, both establishments discourage people from using their laptops there due to its anti-social impact on the ambience. Social has signs on tables dissuading patrons from using their computers there and Olimpico covered up its electrical outlets to limit laptop use.

In both cafés, things become more intense when there's a major sporting event, especially if it's a soccer game that attracts a full house. Both have multiple flatscreen TVs on the walls, usually tuned to a sports channel.

Such is the appeal of these cafés that many visitors to Montreal include them on their itinerary, as if they were a landmark.

"We discovered Olimpico by accident the first time we came to Montreal two years ago," says Sokratis Vsakilesivis, 30, a Masters student in Toronto. Since then, he and his girlfriend come to Olimpico when in town. "We can't find anything like this in Toronto. The vibe here is different. There's a great energy from both the staff and the customers and we love the coffee."

Several times a year, my wife and I travel to Montreal from Toronto. We always go to Social or Olimpico where we've made friends who we meet for coffee. Being there makes us almost forget we're only visiting, which is the ultimate compliment. We still can't agree on whose coffee is better.