It’s a nondescript lunch counter at the back of the ground floor of a nondescript, five-storey West End office building. To an uninformed passerby, it could pass for another hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon. Hardly.
Looks can be most deceiving. Café Renán serves up gourmet food at bargain-basement prices. No steamés or poutine to be dispensed here.
Renán Alvey, the soft-spoken Panamanian owner-chef of this 19-seat eatery has a simple philosophy: “I just want my customers to eat the way I would feed my family.”
That entails dishing out lemon and rosemary chicken, stuffed peppers with sausage and steak tacos, among other mouth-watering specialties, along with mixed salad and rice. And all for just $7.75 a plate. Items that many might pay three times that price at some restos and still not deliver as well on the taste front.
The café, open from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Monday to Friday, does offer traditional bacon-and-egg breakfasts, and burgers and club sandwiches for lunch. But, not surprisingly, most of Alvey’s regulars opt for the specials or the chicken and tuna salads.
What’s most fascinating is that the majority of his customers come from adjoining apartment buildings and other offices in the ‘hood as well as from different parts of the city. Even from the South Shore and West Island. Apparently, one devotee even makes a point of occasionally driving in from Quebec City.
Because of still-existing COVID-19 fears, only about 25 per cent of those occupying the office building housing the café have returned to work. Yet Alvey notes, since reopening June 23 after shutting down in March, business has almost returned to pre-pandemic times thanks to his bustling take-out trade.
“It’s been the best-kept secret in town,” says athletic therapist Chris Arvanitis, a self-described foodie who works in the same de Maisonneuve Blvd. W. edifice. “The reopening of the café was one of the main reasons I wanted to come back to the office. At least I knew I wouldn’t be starving for great food.”
He is torn between the piri-piri chicken and chicken teriyaki.
Matt Fox, Arvanitis’s athletic therapist colleague in the building, has also been smitten: “I couldn’t even buy the raw food products for the price he sells his food. So what’s the point of even trying to cook at home when I can eat like this for less than what it would cost for far less nutritious fast food? It’s just nuts.
“I love the steak tacos, but I am absolutely addicted to the chicken-avocado wrap. Small wonder that customers were lined up for take-out when they got word the café was back.”
Jean-Pierre Tremblay and his wife, Jackie, were among those rejoicing when they learned the café was reopening. The retired couple live in an adjacent apartment building.
“I just don’t understand how anyone can make this kind of food at those kinds of prices,” Jean-Pierre says.
Responds Alvey: “By searching around the city, I am able to find quality good at good prices and pass it on to my customers, because I know there is a limit to what they will pay for lunch and breakfast, here or for take-out.”
“We’ve been spoiled,” says Jackie, while picking up her chicken enchiladas order. “Honestly, we don’t cook for ourselves ever anymore now that it’s back. But it’s more than that. Renán and his family are just the warmest of people.”
Though Renán runs much of the show, his wife, Emma, a full-time operating-room orderly at the nearby Royal Victoria Hospital, comes in to assist whenever time permits and spends much of her weekends shopping for restaurant supplies with her husband. Also pitching in when school is out is their 15-year-old son Gael.
While the café has existed for nearly 40 years, Alvey took it over 11 years ago. His previous restaurant experience entailed working at a coffee shop in the old Royal Victoria Hospital.
“I think customers were really surprised at first,” a smiling Alvey says. “I didn’t want to serve typical fast-food they could find anywhere else. So I brought in some favourite recipes that I learned from my father. I guess it was a gamble, but so far no one’s complaining.”
Café Renán, which is closed for vacation Aug. 24-28, is located at 4920 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.