Maïs, Le Mal Necessaire, Datcha, and Café Sardine – four extremely disparate spots, linked only by their glaring hipness and their 29-year-old owner, David Schmidt.
Schmidt is something of a food-and-drink industry King Midas, each of his institutions having been met with dazzling praise by critics and unwavering loyalty by customers. Highly conceptual in his approach, each of his four bars and restaurants feature a unique theme that sets them far apart from your average minimalist-cum-industrial hipster hangout – and will still leave you with spare money in your pocket.
His nearly-obsessive attention to detail is made immediately obvious by the meticulous décor in each of his establishments. Take Mais, for example: the colourful, cartoonish style of the blown-up menu that adorns the wall was inspired by Mexican wrestling posters. It’s at Schmidt’s Mexican-ish restaurant that we wait for him on a rainy Wednesday evening, as the ever-popular Mais begins to fill up despite the drizzle. He comes bounding in right on time, dressed weather-appropriately in a sleek black anorak. He greets us, and then launches emphatically into a story about a police run-in he recently had at the soft opening of Le Mal Necessaire, as though we were all old friends meeting up for some drinks. He orders us a round of thoughtfully-mixed cocktails and begins to tells us his story.
“It’s a perk, getting to know everybody who comes by. I enjoy people, that’s why I’m in this business.”
Hailing from St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, Schmidt moved to Montreal when he was 21 years old, attracted by its “metropolis vibe and ethnic diversity.” He started out as a busboy at well-known cocktail mecca Distillerie No. 1, and then made the quick ascent to bartender in his own boozy Cinderella story. “I knew exactly what I wanted when I started there, so it happened pretty quickly,” he explains.
Schmidt soon dived headfirst into the restaurant industry when he opened Le Chien Fumant with a partner in 2009. His first business, Schmidt said he learned about the industry “on the fly” – which is impressive, considering the upscale establishment remains a mainstay in Montreal’s fine dining scene. “It was stressful and beautiful and all-encompassing, a really interesting time,” he reminisces.
After selling his shares in Le Chien, Schmidt, in his classic style, boldly ventured into more unknown territory: he opened a café, the wildly successful Café Sardine in the Mile End (fun fact: its name comes from its limited space, quite literally in that “you are packed like sardines in there,” explains Schmidt). The warm colours and open layout of the homey café were inspired by a trip Schmidt took to Barcelona – travel, it seems, forms a large part of his inspiration. “I have a little notepad where I jot down things that I like when I’m exploring another city,” he says, citing the typical process of other, more traditional artists.
In a somewhat serendipitous accident, Schmidt met Japanese chef Hachiro Fujise while he was working at Guu in Toronto. Schmidt sat across from him at the bar and struck up a conversation, which led to a friendship, which eventually led to Schmidt convincing Fujise to move to Montreal to open up a pop-up izakaya within Sardine – and thus Iwashi was born, Sardine’s nocturnal counterpart, which takes over the space in the evenings.
“Montreal is a canvas, a beautiful city that you can mold and enjoy with cheaper rents and great opportunities.”
It’s this kind of thematic ingenuity and business-minded flexibility that has made Schmidt so successful. After Sardine, he took on unchartered waters once again with Datcha, the popular “Russian-lite” themed dance club in the Mile End. Datcha is smoky, dark, and achingly cool. It boasts a killer lineup of local and international house & techno DJs every weekend, having hosted everyone from Iron Galaxy, to Tommy Kruise, to Wy Wy. “The Mile End was lacking a club scene, so my partner and I opened Datcha here,” says Schmidt. “Datcha means ‘chalet’ in Russian – we want to create a feeling of being lost, like going up to your chalet for the weekend and losing your mind.”
All of Schmidt’s spots are certainly places one could comfortably spend hours in – like his newest offering, tiki-themed Chinatown basement bar Le Mal Nécessaire. This is the next stop on our journey, and once we descend past the neon-lit pineapple that marks the bar’s entrance, Schmidt immediately spots a handful of people he knows drinking at the bar. He excuses himself to go buy them a round of drinks, and we wait on the retro wood-outfitted benches as Schmidt walks around the room, making the acquaintance of customers he hadn’t yet met. Cultivating himself as a brand is as much a part of his business model as high-quality drinks. “People want the owner to be a personality,” he says. “It’s a perk, getting to know everybody who comes by. I enjoy people, that’s why I’m in this business.”
With uber-cool Le Mal now up and running, Schmidt has crystallized his status as a leader and innovator on the local scene. Next up, watch out for Datcha’s sister bar, Kabinet, opening next door and serving oysters throughout the day. Each new addition to the Schmidt family means more diversity in Montreal’s entertainment scene, and this is a great thing. “Montreal is a canvas, a beautiful city that you can mold and enjoy with cheaper rents and great opportunities,” muses the ever-poetic Schmidt, “We need more high-quality, inexpensive places, and that’s what I want to bring to the table.”
Photos by Elio R.