From the outside, it looks unprepossessing, not so different from any other diner in a working-class neighborhood. But when I peer in the window, I’m greeted by my own reflected face. And on entry, a pair of tits meets my gaze.
My boyfriend, James, and I have come to Montréal to experience one of its lesser-known cultural institutions: the topless diner. We park at our usual downtown garage and take the subway to the Pie IX station. I suspect the beatified 19th-century pope for whom the station is named would not take kindly to the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighborhood. Most of the seven topless diners I discovered in my research are in this area.
We enter just behind two construction workers, apparently regulars, who seat themselves at one of about 10 square, glass-topped tables. We follow suit and begin to check out the menu, which rests on the table along with a sheet advertising the diner owner’s other businesses: a bar, a sex-toy boutique (represented by a photo of a double-penetration jelly vibrator) and a pro-wrestling “dirt-sheet” website. It turns out that the mirrored windows are two-way; we can see across the street to a store that, coincidentally, installs tinted windows.
Our waitress approaches and asks what we’d like to drink. She closely resembles “American Idol” loser Nikki McKibbin in visage and punkishly dyed hair. But unlike McKibbin, she is tall and very slender — and surely even a reality-show celebrity would have a better boob job than the one before us now. The bottom halves of this woman’s breasts droop while the nipples point jauntily skyward. It looks awfully uncomfortable.
The waitress tugs down her pink referee-striped skirt to cover a modicum of cheek, revealing that her abdomen is super-ripped. She has the kind of musculature along her hip bone that most men work in vain to achieve. Completing her skimpy sports-themed ensemble, she wears massive platform sneakers and thigh-high wooly gym socks with stripes at the top, pulled so tight that the weave is visibly straining.
What strikes me is that this young lady — what the heck, let’s call her Nikki 2 — does not seem the least bit thrown by my presence, though I’m one of only two women in the place. (The other is a Chinese dowager who seems somewhat confused, but resigned.) I don’t suppose many wives or girlfriends accompany the truck drivers and construction workers for a slice of pizza with the “Serveuses Super Sexy,” as they are billed at Les Princesses. Indeed, many of my female coworkers had found the idea downright depressing.
I order a water, and James gets a Diet Coke. Nikki 2 smiles, but hastily returns from the kitchen to inform us that they have “run out of ice” — a first for me at any dining establishment.
It’s a strange feeling, being virtually the only woman in the room with covered breasts. I feel . . . dowdy. I make a superhuman effort to maintain eye contact with the waitress. At the same time, I want to absorb every detail of the experience. Mirrors arranged at a tilt all along the walls facilitate this. I try to pay equal attention to the grainy televisions airing hockey and CFL roundups, the man with the skull-print do-rag who looks like a fat Pete Townshend, and the serveuses, warts and all.
Not long after we’re seated, James remarks that the women must be strippers at their “day jobs.” It’s a reversal of expectations, as he had hypothesized before our arrival that we would be waited on by “women who couldn’t make it as strippers.” I had predicted hysterectomy scars, C-section at the very least. Instead, we see trendy tattoos — Nikki 2 has a heart dedicated to “Alex” extending from the small of her back to below the top of her low-rise thong-skirt.
Curiously, another of the three waitresses — an unenhanced, girl-next-door type — not only has the requisite tramp stamp but is wearing knee-high moccasin boots that meet two all-black, unidentifiable tattoos on the insides of her knees. The woman working the counter has large piercings that weigh down her small, pancake-y teats.
Of course, we’re here to eat as well as gawk, so we force our eyes back to the menu. I am torn between a Michigan burger and a smoked-meat sandwich, which I consider to be as “regional” as the topless diner itself, and therefore worthwhile. James is set on “Le Camioneur” (“the trucker”), a plate containing two eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, French toast and baked beans. Perhaps the combination holds an ancestral memory for him: James’ French-Canadian great-grandfather was known to bring a can of beans and white bread for lunch every day when he worked in the fields.
Unfortunately, Nikki 2 informs us that breakfast is no longer being served. (So much for my working title, “Legs and Eggs.”) While James hurriedly chooses a cheeseburger instead, I order a small poutine to go with my smoked meat. Nikki 2 says the sandwich already comes with fries. When I persist, she leans in and says in a husky attempt at seductiveness, “I’ll do what I can. I’ll call the boss.” Despite the fact that Les Princesses’ raison d’être is to appeal to “gentlemen,” this is the only time during our visit that we witness any attempt at “sexiness.”
James says he had feared a DJ playing “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” or “Cherry Pie,” or at least dimmed lights or strobes, but the ambience here is very much that of a down-home purveyor of pancakes and pastries. The music is fairly relaxed, ranging from Midnight Oil to hits by Nelly Furtado and Jason Mraz. On the other hand, the word merde is spoken often and with impressive fervor by staff and customers alike.
As we wait for our food, the counter waitress comes out, piercings flapping. The least dressed of the three serveuses, she wears a clump of gold jewelry around her neck and a white thong with a sheer white sarong that does not quite cover her crotch. Her matching platform boots, which show years of wear and scuffing, bring her to a height of about 5 feet. The thought crosses my mind that the boots might belong to the restaurant, having aided scores of diminutive waitresses before her. The woman’s size makes her seem even more naked, like a baby bird.
James points out a man weaving his way into our field of vision. He has a huge, toothless smile and appears to be in his nineties, but could just as easily be a weathered 50. He parks himself at the counter and talks nonstop. My Canadian French is shaky at best, and though the waitresses appear to know this customer, even they seem at a loss to understand him.
Nikki 2 arrives with our meals, including the poutine, which she says she coerced “the boss” into adding for 50 cents extra. It is not the best poutine I’ve ever had, but far from the worst. The fries are sweet and crisp. The gravy is savory, the curds as sharp as good cheddar. My major complaint is that they do not melt.
The smoked meat comes sliced in what I can only think of as tranches — a better word to describe the pieces than the English “slabs.” The thick meat is moist, though not entirely without grease. It soaks through the light rye bread, leaving aromatic, clove-heavy juices in its wake.
James describes his meal as having “a McDonald’s feeling.” The bun looks similar, but a thicker patty and the unexpected addition of relish make this burger a bit more substantial than the fast-food version. The fries wouldn’t quite hold up against those of South Burlington’s Al’s, though.
By the time we finish eating, it’s two o’clock. The lunch rush is over, and Nikki 2 has donned a white Baby Phat tracksuit. The counter serveuse, still nearly nude, eats a smoked meat standing at her post. She is joined by a tall man with a soul patch, pimped out with a plethora of gold chains. He appears to be the manager. When I ask him if they take credit cards, he tells me to use the ATM. It is handily adjacent to the bathrooms, which are labeled with illustrations of men and women playing Heineken guitars. A few customers seem to disappear inside for disproportionate lengths of time, leaving friends and coworkers to wait and buy candy bars at the counter.
The owner approaches James and hands him his card, but this Québecois Hef-equivalent has an accent so thick that, despite his efforts, we are unable to communicate with him. He returns dejectedly to his table, which is flanked by several other males and the waitress with the knee tattoos, who like her comrade, is still undressed and eating a sandwich.
As we step onto the street, our meals paid for, we feel a sense of relief at returning to the real world. Still, what shocks us is how normal it felt in that parallel dimension of mammaries and mayonnaise. I had expected to sit at our table red faced, not knowing where to look, but in fact the waitresses might as well be merely in uniform. And I suppose they are.
Restaurant Les Princesses,
4970, rue Hochelaga, Montréal,
Hours: Monday - Friday, 5 a.m. - 8:30 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday, 5 a.m. - 9 p.m.