Ruby Foo’s Ghosts Live In Albany by Robert Sapienza

July 11, 2009

The following article was published in THE SUBURBAN, April 9, 2003

Invisible friends assemble in a silent vigil on Decarie Boulevard. They reunite once again to mourn the demise of world-famous Ruby Foo’s Restaurant 19 years ago. The wind echoes the roll call of phantasms of the rich and famous.

These ghosts are alive in the heart of Mr. Albany “Benny” Lajoie, 78, on this 19th anniversary of the closure of the legendary Montreal restaurant.
Lajoie, referred to as Benny, devoted 33 years of his life to the restaurant rising through the ranks from barman, shift manager, personnel manager to purchasing manager. Hosting and attending to Hollywood stars, sports heroes, powerful politicians and controversial newsmakers were the order of the day for Benny.

The roll call continues. Tyrone Power? Here! Ann Baxter? Here! George Raft? Here! Edward G. Robinson? Here! Rudy Vallee? Here! These icons of a bygone era call out to comrades still alive.

Hockey legends Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau and Bobby Orr also added excitement to the restaurant’s atmosphere. Former Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau and the central figure in Canada’s most infamous spy scandal, Gerda Munsinger, all figured prominently throughout Benny’s career.

A native of Ste-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Benny joined Ruby Foo’s in 1951 after working for the post office and bar tending on weekends at Club Rejean at the corner of Laurier and Park avenues. At the time, Mike Siebert, one of Benny’s customers, was a bartender working at Ruby Foo’s. Siebert admired Benny’s bartending skills and recommended he apply at Ruby Foo’s the moment there was a vacancy. That chance soon arrived.

“One night he comes in and he says, ‘you asked me once if there was ever an opening you’d like to work at Ruby Foo’s.’ I said, yes! ‘Well, there is one, you want to go?’ Sure, I said, there’s an opening? Did somebody quit? He said, No, I got fired – go!”

Without further delay, Benny filled that “vacancy” and was hired on Friday, July 13, 1951. “I won’t be there long with that date!” Benny recalls thinking to himself. Little did he realize that his 33-year adventure had begun.

His bartending skills were of such repute that by the time he was promoted to management, he had trained most of the best bartenders in Montreal. Both the Quebec and Canadian governments invited him to participate in studies about the profession. His input was instrumental in the setting of training standards to be used by bartending schools. Bearing a striking resemblance to actor Leslie Nielsen, Benny exhibits a quick and keen sense of humour. His instant recall of people and events makes his stories come to life.

Ruby Foo’s opened on May 10, 1945 and was the first Chinese restaurant outside of China Town, hosting both Montrealers and international visitors. The restaurant was the “showplace of Montreal” and was a “must see” spot on everyone’s itinerary. It was considered Canada’s largest restaurant, accommodating 800 customers and employing 300 people.

Tourists arriving in Montreal for the first time would inevitably end up at Ruby Foo’s. “All a tourist had to do was ask a taxi driver ‘where’s a good place to eat?’ and in no time they were dropped off at Ruby Foo’s,” Benny recalls. In fact, in all its advertising the restaurant was labeled, “The Show Place of Montreal”. The restaurant became the catalyst that helped Montreal evolve into a world-class city.

The restaurant’s reputation was so impressive that during Queen Elizabeth’s 1959 Canadian royal visit, Ruby Foo’s pastry chef was “loaned” to the Queen for her entire trip. When she inaugurated a new hotel in Frobisher Bay that year, Ruby Foo’s was charged with the preparation and the transport of the catering.

Former Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau would dine there almost every Sunday just to savour the Duck a l’Orange. Trudeau often boasted that it was the best tasting duck anywhere in the world, and he’d traveled a lot! He’d often asked Benny for the special sauce recipe, so that he could give it to his personal chef. “I told Mr. Trudeau that the recipe was the chef’s closely guarded secret,” Benny explains. “So, I thought maybe I could compromise and got the chef to present Mr. Trudeau with a container filled with the sauce to take with him – he was happy with that!”
Benny reminisces about the night Maurice “The Rocket” Richard came in after scoring the winning goal in the last game of a Stanley Cup Series against the Detroit Red Wings.

” The Rocket usually liked to come in through the back door so he wouldn’t attract attention, but this one night he comes through the front door and was met by a standing ovation. It was the one and only time The Rocket ever did that. He was a real gentleman and a humble guy,” Benny recalls.
Another occasion that is fresh in his mind is when Hollywood great, Edward G. Robinson had his picture taken with the restaurant’s owner, because they looked like each other. “In those days, we still had cigarette girls and restaurant photographers, so this one night Robinson was dining and our boss, Mr. Bercovitch, or Berko as we liked to call him, went to pay his respects, and the girl said how much they looked like each other. So, Robinson asked for a picture of the two of them.”

Notoriety was no stranger to Benny’s bar. He relates the episode when underworld figure Georges Lemay was so impressed with Benny’s ability to mix cocktails that Lemay asked him for pointers. Benny wrote out 20 recipes for cocktails, while still tending to the other customers. “Lemay was so happy that someone took the time to do this for him that he was still thanking me as he left the bar,” Benny relates, laughing.

One of his most memorable incidents was the night he inadvertently introduced former Canadian defence minister Pierre Sevigny to socialite Gerda Munsinger. Little did he realize that this introduction would later lead to one of Canada’s most ill famed government sex and spy scandals. Benny still feels odd about this incident, because he had no idea that this meeting would eventually propagate Canada’s greatest scandal – a scandal whose repercussions are still felt today in political circles. He feels it is an extraordinary claim to fame.

“You see, in those days, it was not unusual for the restaurant to be a meeting place for discreet liaisons – to put it gently. You know what I mean?”
His career was not without humorous incidents. “One night, a well-known customer arrived with his girlfriend and I see the man’s wife at the bar!” Benny recounts with a chuckle. ” I had to jump over the bar to get to him in time to warn him!”

His loyalty to Ruby Foo’s caused him to clash “nose to nose” with Quebec labour leader Louis Laberge. The heated exchange occurred at a union negotiation session, when Benny was personnel manager. In another incident, he sent away meat purveyor Willie Obront, when he attempted to “muscle in” on the restaurant’s food purchasing procedures. Obront was later convicted and jailed for his participation in the “Tainted Meat Scandal”.
A former light-weight boxer, Benny still maintains his athletic, five foot seven physique. He left the sport when he was “advised to take a dive” before a match. Benny’s organizational skills and love of people led him to organize and play on Ruby Foo’s bowling, hockey, softball and hardball teams. He admits to being a “poor loser”, but with his unique sense of humour, no one has ever begrudged his “winning ways”.

The restaurant changed ownership in 1975. Although still popular, it began to suffer the effects of changing social lifestyles, hard economic times and growing competition. Benny reveals that mismanagement set in and the restaurant began to incur financial woes until its closing in January 1984. Asked to share his feelings about the day that staff members were advised of the closing, his persistent smiling face transforms itself into a mournful, anemic mask.

Reliving that fateful day, he whispers, “I saw it coming.” His voice breaks as he reflects on the still painful memory. “I felt like the sky was falling – like a house collapsing on top of me. I went to my office and I started to cry.”

After collecting his belongings, he went home and was too distraught to tell his family immediately. Ruby Foo’s had been everything to him. “It was my whole life and my chance to make a good living.” Part of him died that day, and the event proved to be his most difficult boxing match ever.
Albeit devastated, the veteran boxer got up again to fight another day. He went on to lend his expertise to the Helene de Champlain and Le Roi du Smoked Meat restaurants until his retirement in 1995.

Although shattered by the recent death of his wife, Benny still reflects happily upon his life and has decided to write his memoirs. He wants to add his own chapter to the history of Montreal’s golden age – an age of post-war reconstruction filled with hope, opportunity and the chance to realize one’s dreams.

The kitchen table where Benny sits is strewn with many of the photographs in his collection that bear testimony to the pomp and circumstance of his Ruby Foo’s experience. Ladies in fashionable chiffon dresses escorted by tuxedo adorned gentlemen smile up at you, welcoming you to their exclusive world. Movie stars, royalty and self-made millionaires parade before your eyes, basking in the glory of their opulence. Every photo is a statement of personal triumph, fulfillment and an unabashed celebration of life. As the ethereal roll call fades for another year, what has the Ruby Foo’s adventure meant to Benny? His answer is swift and persuasive.

“Ruby Foo’s was the ‘luck’ in my life. It was the biggest break I ever got in life. If I had to do it all over again, I would!”

All that is left today at the corner of Decarie Boulevard and De la Savanne Street is the Ruby Foo’s Motel. Although bearing the same name, there is no longer a connection to the famous restaurant. Ruby Foo’s restaurant was leveled shortly after its closing in 1984 to make way for a modern office building and a parking lot.

Should you happen to pass by that parking lot on a windy winter evening, stop and listen. You may hear that ghostly roll call of the rich and famous. Benny still does.

Comments

22 Responses to “Ruby Foo’s Ghosts Live In Albany by Robert Sapienza”

  1. Ruby Foo’s Ghosts Live In Albany by Robert Sapienza | Montreal Travel - Culture and Recreation on August 13th, 2009 4:56 pm

    […] You find the original post here http://www.scottishvoice.org/blog/?p= | Janet […]

  2. Janet on August 25th, 2009 9:18 am

    Great story isn’t it?

    Enjoy!

    Janet

  3. Kenn Barton-Jones on November 23rd, 2009 1:04 pm

    I was first taken to Ruby Foo’s Restuarant when I could barely walk! (early 1950’s) and continued to patronize the restaurant until the year it closed. I still have my small red Credit Card! The location could not have been more perfect to be able to finish work, have a great meal and then continue up the autoroute to the mountains for the weekend.

    I have only very fond memories of this amazing restuarant and it’s enormous menu — from the dry garlic spare ribs, the “true” chicken Soo Guy. Warm rolls were served from a large, heated “oven” that was carried through the dining room. The dessert cart loaded with true french pastires and amazing cakes ended a very fine meal. There have been many changes in Montreal, and yet many things have remained the same. It is unfortunate that the restaurant closed under the circumstances it did.

    Does anyone know if the original family still owns the menu and recipes? I cannot imagine that someone could not reopen the restaurant in a different location. I guess we could only hope!

  4. Janet on November 23rd, 2009 5:44 pm

    Great memories of a wonderful Montreal restaurant… Thank you for sharing them with us.

    As far as I know the restaurant did not re-locate or re-open. I will however, make inquiries .

    Janet

  5. Martin Dozois on July 11th, 2010 1:19 pm

    Hey! My father Jacques ”Jack” Dozois worked at Ruby Foo’s from 1953 to 1975, and then again for a short time before the closing in 1984. I know that I met Benny when I was a kid, and later on a few times. If your still looking for some memorabilia, I could get some pictures from my mom Estelle.
    I only wonder if this message will ever get to be usefull.
    Have a wonderfull day everyone!

  6. Janet on July 11th, 2010 5:02 pm

    Hello Martin,

    It has already been useful. I truly appreciate any and all comments.

    I would love to have some photos. Can you send them electronically?

    If there is anything else you would like to see on this site or hear on the show please feel free to let me know.

    Thanks again

    Janet

  7. Cindy on January 2nd, 2012 6:20 am

    My dad worked at Ruby Foo during the golden ages. Til this day he still talks about those days. I was wondering if there was a library or archive of some of the photos back in the days…

    Thank you for sharing this article. This is
    the only article I have found on Ruby Foo that comes close to all the fond tales my dad talks about.

  8. Janet on January 25th, 2012 11:11 am

    Hi Cindy,
    C-Host Robert Sapienza (Scottish Voice on Radio Centre-Ville 102.3 FM, Montreal) left the show some time ago. A few years later I interviewed him about Ruby Foo’s and his connection with it. I will check to see if the show is in our archives. Robert’s father-in-law was the bartender there for many years.

  9. Stacey Wee on February 19th, 2012 2:27 pm

    I was listening to Stuart McLean on the radio yesterday, and he was talking about the colorful history of Ruby Foo’s. I was intrigued, as my father-in-law worked at the restaraunt in the 1960’s, after he arrived in Canada from Hong Kong. He passed away last summer, and we came across a few silver forks, engraved with Ruby Foo’s. I was hoping to find out more of the history and employees to compliment our find.
    thanks
    Stacey W.

  10. Ross manella on October 5th, 2012 7:42 pm

    I truly enjoyed this wonderful passage .My family was the original owner until it was sold in the late 60’s. .There were 3 brothers Charlie, my dad, Henry and Hymie and a few other partners. Many people have asked for the recipes. My late cousin Moe Kaizer who was head of purchasing for many years has many of the recipes. Ruby Foos was an institution that will be forever remembered.I do have some original menus which I will try and post. Robert thank you for this. Unfortunately Ruby Foo’s never reopened although many people have made that suggestion.If anyone has any additional stories I would certainly enjoy hearing them.

    I remember Benny as a kid. Remember Duplessis-he was in charge of parking. Francis was the beautiful cigarette girl. Peter Wee head chef.

  11. anne greenstien on January 11th, 2014 12:04 am

    My mother was the banquet manageress of Ruby Foo’s in the 50’s. I remember sitting on the counter in the kitchen eating chinese the cooks would feed me. I thought that RF was the most beautiful place in the world. I also remember Francis the cigarette girl. what fond memories I have of the place.

  12. Stersephen My on January 20th, 2014 10:29 pm

    What a trip down memory lane
    still to this day my favorite spot to eat only now its just a memory that still makes my mouth water.
    From the wine stewart to the best spare ribs and egg rolls in he world it would be a miracle if one day someone could collect the recoipes and re open a Nouveau Ruby Foos
    Does anyone have the recipe for Ruby Foos spare ribs – 🙂

  13. Lyn S. Henley on February 7th, 2014 6:39 pm

    I loved this article – so informative and interesting and smile producing. Thank you!

    I have a Ruby Foo’s menu from the 50’s because I also have an undated photograph of my Mother and Father taken at the restaurant – I also remember when I was very young (4 or 5) I got to go to Ruby Foo’s with my Mom and a ‘date’ (my parents divorced shortly after my birth in ’57) and I too thought it was the most beautiful place in the world. I was a very lucky girl when I was little because before I was 8, I had the experience of eating at Ruby Foo’s, Piaso Tomso (I think) and Dagwood’s more than once because my mother was a single mother and if she had a date, child care was expensive and hard to come by. I learned my manners very early or I couldn’t go.

    Great article – does anyone know if the menu would be of interest to anyone who collects such things?

  14. Joelle Shefts on April 2nd, 2014 4:16 pm

    Hi,

    My grandmother, Florence Pike and the wife of a Mr. Foo, ie. Ruby Foo, started Ruby Foo’s in Boston…probably sometime in the late thirties. Some time later, my grandmother opened on 52nd Street between Broadway and 8th avenue in NYC. When she died, my mother, the singer Bernice Parks and her sister, Lilo Pike, took it over but it eventually failed. Though I spent a good deal of time there as a child I’d like to know more about Ruby and her family.

    Sincerely,
    Joelle Shefts

  15. danny dooner on June 22nd, 2015 3:32 pm

    would love to have a copy of an original ruby foos menu

  16. Louise on September 2nd, 2015 3:56 pm

    I worked at RF from 1977 to the day it closed in 1984. I was the one who locked the door while a journalist took my picture that was in the paper the next day. What a sad day for all of us.. Benny was my favorite person at the restaurant. I was secretary to the VP and the owner, Irwin Leopold as well as Banquet Director. So many different characters, Geraldine, the Hostess with the mostest, Benny, always smiling. I remember the Immigration dept. coming on payday and arresting a few Greek waiters in our Banquet dept. for being illegally in Canada.
    Their will never be another Ruby Foo’s.

  17. Beatrice on October 21st, 2015 3:40 pm

    My dad was head chef of the French section of Ruby Foo’s from the late 1950s until 1961. He made friends there that he kept “life-long”. Although he worked in the French section, we grew up also eating dishes that he learned from chefs of Asian background/training. Some of those still remain our all-time favourites.

  18. Jane on February 27th, 2016 11:36 pm

    Brings back wonderful memories. My Dad worked on Decarie Blvd. and every time he would take me to work with him we would have lunch at Ruby Foos, and often he would take both my Mom and I there on the weekend for a special occasion dinner. Fantastic experiences! Thanks for the memories.

  19. Robert Sapienza on March 10th, 2016 2:19 pm

    I am utterly amazed that my article written in 2009 is still getting comments in 2016!
    Sadly, my beloved father-in-law, Albany (Benny) Lajoie passed away in 2011.

    If you wish to share any memories feel free to email me at salcan@live.ca

    Best wishes to all and a very special thank you to Janet Stubbert for keeping this wonderful memory of Montreal in its GoldenAge!

    Robert Sapienza

  20. Janet on May 15th, 2016 9:38 am

    Wonderful surprise to hear from you Robert. I am sorry to hear of your loss. My deepest sympathies. Janet

  21. Shelley on August 18th, 2016 6:27 pm

    My grandfather was in some way a part owner/back of Ruby Foo’s, as legend goes. I have the fondest memories eating there: the cigarette lady, the egg foo young, the pu pu platter, and of course the entrance…a narrow corridor that led into the fabulous series of rooms. But I would love most of all to see a menu, any menu. Do you have any? Can you post one? Please let me know.

    Thanks for this!

  22. Colin Paterson on December 25th, 2016 4:14 pm

    Back in the 1950s Ruby Foos was a popular place for businessmen to linger over a long lunch with a few cocktails. My father was one of them. In the evenings it was the place to be seen by mostly Jewish families. You could get your picture taken and have it appear on the back of a pack of matches. My father took us to eat there about a half a dozen times. The Chinese food was made in a kind of an American style and there was no scrimping on the ingredients unlike a lot of Chinese restaurants that used every part of vegetables and every part of a piece of meat. The last time I was there was in 1970 when I took a gal tourist from
    Philadelphia named June Joseph for dinner there. We had shrimp in lobster sauce and I remember the pastry cart being brought to the table and wondering if I had enough money to pay for everything.

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