It's been a quiet winter so far. Fittingly, as the last weekend of January approached, only two notices for weekend events had found their way into my inbox. One was from broken-beat DJ/producer Kevin Moon, aka Moonstarr, telling me about a new Friday night show at Café de Lima called Soul on Top. The other was from DJ/ producer/promoter Ghislain Poirier letting me know that on Saturday, Bounce le Gros v.5, a monthly event at Zoobizarre, was going to double as a CD launch for his "Bounce le Remix" collection.
What were the chances that two of my community's key players would monopolize a weekend by throwing separate events at bars situated right across the street from each other? This wouldn't be such a head-turner if these clubs were on Saint-Laurent, in the Plateau, in Mile End, or downtown. But they aren't.
Café de Lima and Zoobizarre are on Saint-Hubert Street, on the stretch between Beaubien and Bellechasse in the Petite-Patrie/Rosemont neighbourhood. By day, this area is the tail end of an oddball four-block outdoor shopping mall; a mix of coffee shops, restaurants, wedding and formal wear shops, and shoe stores that feature everything from white-vinyl platforms to dowdy wedding shoes. There are cheap fashion stores, electronics stores and even a friperie or two. It's the street where the rôtisserie-chicken chain Saint Hubert opened its first express store. Camera giant L. L. Lozeau has been there since 1927, currently in a purpose-built store at the corner of Saint-Hubert and Bellechasse. The Jean-Talon Market, the biggest in the city, is just a few blocks away and the street is accessible from both the Beaubien and Jean-Talon metro stations.
This stretch is also beginning to look more and more appealing for its post-6 PM offerings-don't look now, but "it" status may be creeping in. In addition to Café de Lima and Zoobizarre, there's also Le Petit Medley, Soho, Le Quartier Général, L'Hémisphère Gauche and the Plaza Theatre where a friend of mine first saw one of those new hot-shit bands with the word "wolf" in their name.
Café de Lima is the street's newest bar, having opened last December. Owner Yves de Lima is also responsible for Salon Daomé, the popular dance loft-lounge on Mount- Royal. Under the name Daomé Scène, de Lima is responsible for the operation of both clubs, his Monte Christo School of Dance, and for producing gigs at venues he doesn't own. The space Café de Lima now occupies used to be the location of the dance school, which is currently hovering between his other venues until he can find a new spot.
I spent a good chunk of my post-midnight New Year's festivities commandeering the dance floor at Café de Lima with one of my favourite dancing partners, Stefan Verna, a filmmaker. It's to the venue's credit that I had no idea Stefan was going to be there-this is the kind of place that attracts dancers and creative types of many styles. If, however, your signature move is something you prefer to keep between you and your bathroom mirror, you can always just chill out on the many couches or in the back area.
It's also to de Lima's credit that he doesn't advertise for either club (Stefan told me he had checked out Café de Lima one other Friday night and it was rather quiet-although he said the music was great regardless). But de Lima isn't worried. He's giving the club more than a year to pick up and already has an interesting weekly line-up in place: Monday is the Improv League ($3, 7 PM); Tuesday is a Latin night with the city's renowned soul-man Andy Williams ($3, 5-7 PM); Wednesday is Soul Karaoke, where you can front to the classics ($3); Thursday is house with Uzi ($3, 7 PM until closing); Friday is Andy Willams's Soul on Top weekly show, featuring Williams and a rotation of DJs ($5, late); Saturday is Soulfulistical which is soul (who knew?), funk and hip hop with DJ Godfather D and a rotation of DJs ($5, late); and Sunday is jazz with Williams (free). The space is longer than it is wide, with a good amount of seating and two bars at either end. In February, from 5 PM onwards simple sandwiches and salads will be offered.
Across the street is Zoobizarre, which opened in March 2005. It is owned by three local artists and Alex Auché, an import from France who decided to join some friends in Montreal. The space is the former location of the Cave, which is appropriate, considering the interior décor.
"We were searching for a bar with an alcohol licence and we just found this place really funny; like a cavern or cellar from sixteenth-century France, but it's fake so it's funny," said Auché. "It's a cozy place. For North American people, it's really nice to be in a place like that."
It attracts a similarly creative crowd, but those who like a harder touch than what Café de Lima has to offer. Ghislain Poirier's monthly Bounce Le Gros show is a good example. Poirier is the kind of DJ neighbours call the cops on: a true disciple of booming bass. At least twice while spinning at Zoobizarre, the police have had to pay a visit. On one of those occasions the cops made friends with the bouncer and said they'd try to come back once they were off-duty. They left with mixed CDs.
"It's kind of an unusual place," said Poirier. "It doesn't look like a real club, it's pretty small too and they have a really good sound system. It doesn't take too many people to do a really good party there. It feels like a house party."
Both these bars seem to be late-night haunts-we'll have to wait and see how Café de Lima fares with its earlier gigs. For pre-drinks and post-work bevvies, Le Petit Medley, at the corner of Saint-Hubert and Bellechasse, offers a different flavour. When I visited on a Wednesday night around 6 PM the place had a very nice buzz going on, while up the street Soho was almost empty. Both bars have similar atmospheres, with Soho's leaning slightly closer to that of a pub's while Le Petit Medley inclines more towards the chic side. Still, it proves the street can offer people lots of choice, a key for any area's success.
As I waited at the bar of Le Petit Medley to speak with the manager-the gregarious Liel Plamondon-I noticed French and English conversations and many customers chatting familiarly with the bar staff. Plamondon told me that the small plaques posted around the bar engraved with people's names honour the bar's regulars. The bar has been open for five years.
In that weird-but-successful one-block stretch of shopping that is the Saint-Hubert strip, there are now four obvious nightlife selections, covering the evening-to-late shifts and offering food, drink and much in the way of tunage between them. But as Jane Jacobs (famous urban-planning analyst) once pointed out, a successful neighbourhood is a multi-functional neighbourhood. What cinches Saint-Hubert as a visit-worthy nightspot are things like the twenty-four-hour pig-out resto, Roi du Smoked Meat. On New Year's Eve, with grumbling bellies, a friend and I stumbled in there. A charming, older French career waitress served us smoked meat and poutine with such efficiency that I would have given the place a thumbs-up just for her. Fortunately, it's the food that counts, and I'll be damned if I've ever eaten a better, melt-in-your-mouth smoked-meat sandwich in all my life. It was the perfect complement to a great night out.
Melissa Wheeler is getting to know Montreal's culture creators. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Melissa Wheeler.