The chicken? The sauce? The paneling? Some theories on what’s kept this Montreal barbecue spot so popular for so long.
There have been some legendary barbecue chicken establishments in this city, but few have drawn the fervour of aficionados quite like N.D.G.’s Chalet Bar-B-Q, which goes a long way toward explaining why it is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
Regulars come from far and wide, and let’s just say that it’s not for the dim lighting and knotty pine décor from another era. But it is for its attentive service from another era and for its familiarity and, of course, for its — dare I say, for fear that Colonel Sanders may spring from his grave to strike me down — “finger-lickin’-good” chicken, slowly charcoal broiled in ovens that go back to 1944.
A spirited discussion ensues at one lunchtime table among three buddies who have been frequenting the place since they were kids some 60 years ago.
“It’s obviously the chicken that keeps us coming back,” they coo almost in unison.
“It’s like walking into my parents’ basement here,” says one of the guys, Dave Masterson. “It has always felt like home. But it’s the whole package: the chicken, fries, sauce, coleslaw. It’s unique. There’s nothing like this in the whole planet. I know. I’ve tried so many of the others. But that sauce. … it’s just so addictive.”
So much so that Masterson used to drink it straight, before even getting to the chicken and fries.
“It was back in my high school days,” Masterson elaborates. “A few of us would drink that instead of coffee, and I’ve been sauced ever since.”
Nor is Masterson unique in this regard. “We have customers who come in to order two sauces, and drink one before the meal,” notes Danny Colantonio, the Chalet general-manager for nearly 30 years.
But Colantonio insists the magical ingredients that go into that sauce are known only to owner Louise Mauron McConnell, daughter of the Chalet’s Swiss-born founder Marcel Mauron.
“The sauce is all part of the mystique of this place, which keeps bringing me back,” says John Rochon, a regular for 63 years. “My parents would only be able to take us out a couple of times a year, and this was our big treat to come to Chalet. And it remains a treat for me all these years later.”
At another table, Tom Rogers, 86, recalls coming to Chalet when it first opened 75 years ago. “I came with my mother and I must have liked it then, because I haven’t stopped coming back.”
“I’ve only been coming here for 72 years,” declares his pal Paul Doyle, 88, the 2018 Irishman of the Year. “So they must be doing something right.”
“And I’ve only been coming here for 70 years,” cracks their buddy Charlie Baillie, 84, the former Montreal Alouettes star and longtime coach of the McGill football squad. “It’s always been good times and good food here, and it was a very effective place to come when I would recruit players for McGill.”
Another regular, André Picard, 82, first romanced his future wife here 66 years ago. “We would go to a movie every week, then have dinner here,” he recalls. “We never stopped coming after we married. She died two years ago, but my son Daniel and I keep coming back every week. It’s the chicken — it’s better than any other in Montreal — but it’s also the great memories.”
Colantonio is struck by the devotion of his customers: “I could do a book about this place: As the Chicken Turns. There are just so many stories here.”
“That’s what happens when we serve three and even four generations of the same families,” explains server Louise Goedike, who has been slinging chicken here for “only 28 years.”
“What customers keep telling me is that they love this place for the chicken and the fact that nothing changes here — not even the waitresses,” jokes server Mella Gianforte, a relative Chalet newbie with just 24 years on the floor.
“That’s really the secret: Nothing changes here,” Colantonio says. “We re-did the floors about six years ago, but we don’t dare change the panelling, otherwise our customers will ask what’s going on. This is a slice of time preserved for them. It’s a taste experience here, and it’s a visual experience as well.
“But I really credit the concept, from the beginning, of broiling chicken over hardwood charcoal. That is the flavour-maker. We don’t use other flavour enhancers, either.”
In a week, about 3,000 customers pass through Chalet — which closes only Christmas Day — and almost as many do takeout. This requires 2,500 birds and eight thousand pounds of potatoes weekly.
“In the old days, there used to be a sign saying if customers wanted forks and knives, ‘please ask,’ ” Colantonio recalls. “In those days, everybody used to eat the chicken with their fingers and, yes, many drank the sauce straight out of the cups. They still do, but we bring the cutlery anyway.”