Where baked beans are the star of the breakfast show
When I lived in Montreal in the late aughts, my Sunday-morning haunt was the Binerie, a rustic sliver of a diner located in the Plateau section of the city not far from Rue Saint-Denis. There is no other place like it in Montreal, a city not lacking in great breakfast joints. The place is so nondescript I’d been walking past it for months before I realized it existed. You get the sense, as you step into this cozy nook, that it stands outside of time. It seats just 23 people, typically counter-bound men reading yolk-stained copies of Le Journal de Montréal, the city’s daily tabloid. The walls are lined with Edmond J. Massicotte illustrations of traditional Québec life, as well as yellowed newspaper clippings and faded posters. It is a place you can go to feel very close to those around you, but also very far.
The Binerie specializes in old-fashioned Québecois cuisine made in-house, heavy dishes like tourtière (meat pie), ragoût de boulettes (meatball stew) and pâté Chinois (shepherd’s pie, basically), the kind of food you might find at a sugar shack—a maple-syrup producer that also serves hearty meals. But the main attraction at the Binerie comes with the breakfast: $8.25 (in Canadian dollars!) for a heaping plate of eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, potatoes, and slices of bread browned on the stovetop, and to top it all off, a scoop of house-made cretons (pork pâté) and a bowl of golden-brown beans. As you may have guessed from the name, the Binerie’s true specialty is baked beans (fèves au lard), slow-cooked for 18 hours in the same cast-iron oven that’s been in operation since the restaurant opened in 1938.
Many diners in Montreal serve beans for breakfast, but mostly as an afterthought: overly sweet industrial stuff scooped carelessly into a paper soufflé cup. At the Binerie the beans are homemade, and they don’t contain any added sugar. For a salt-hound like me, that’s a true blessing; there is no greater culinary pleasure than a bowl of hot beans, heavily salted and peppered, on a frigid Montreal morning. Oily but not swimming in their own liquids, the beans are alternately soft and crispy on the outside; the few deep brown ones in the mix whose exteriors have been caramelized by the heat are worth savoring. These beans mean business.
Philippe Brunet, the Binerie’s avuncular proprietor, has owned the restaurant with his wife, Jocelyne, since 2005. He inherited the original recipe for the baked beans from those before him, and he keeps it very secret. To please his customers, some of whom prefer their beans sweet, Brunet puts out glass dispensers filled with thick molasses and maple syrup so diners can flavor their beans accordingly. But he does it grudgingly. “It just changes the flavor completely,” Brunet griped in a recent phone conversation. “You might as well eat cardboard if you’re going to do that.”
While I agree completely with Brunet’s assessment, in fact, beans in Québec are traditionally sweetened, according to Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny, a Québecoise cookbook writer who has studied the cuisine of her province in depth. A recipe she uses, for example, contains some combination of navy beans, salted pork, onion, brown sugar, molasses, ketchup, dry mustard, and water.
The beans’ path to the province of Québec is a very Canadian one. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Montreal-born politician and seigneur Joseph Papineau made a trip south to New England and acquired a recipe for the modern equivalent of Boston baked beans. Upon return to his logging camp, probably in or around Montebello, Papineau passed the recipe on to a cook who prepared the beans for the lumberjacks on site. They much preferred them to the stuff from Old France, a combination of white beans, pork, broth and a little vinegar. “Québeckers like their things sweet,” Mongrain-Dontigny told me.
Breakfast beans aren’t unique to Québec, but they have a sturdy history in French-Canadian cuisine. Traditionally, households would bring a pot of beans to their local bakery on Saturday night, and let them cook unattended to free up time for other chores. After mass the next morning, so the story goes, they would retrieve the finished product and scarf the sweet beans down for breakfast.
It seems to me a very Montreal proclivity that the Binerie would defy—or at least ignore—the customs of the surrounding culture in favor of unsweetened beans. Several of the city’s classic restaurants, as it happens, can be defined by some endearingly—and maybe confusingly— obdurate trait. At Wilensky’s Light Lunch, for instance, immortalized in Mordecai Richler’s novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, customers are charged extra if they order a pressed bologna sandwich without mustard. (In other words, being annoying will cost you.)
The Binerie, which produces between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds of beans in a week, positions itself as the standard-bearer of “authentic” Québec cuisine, at least to those in Montreal who might have a hard time finding a good pig's’ foot or a dessert of pouding chômeur. The Binerie seems to be resting its reputation on a kind of imagined past, which is what makes it a great restaurant; it created—and normalized—its own tradition.
So perhaps the Binerie isn’t the throwback I’ve always thought it was, though it certainly feels like one the minute you take a seat at the counter. A hill of beans, I’ve found, is quite a comfort in this crazy world.