Montréal — There’s over 5,000 restaurants in this, Canada’s culinary capital. But there’s only one Robin des Bois (Robin Hood), a unique non-profit restaurant run by volunteers and governed by a modern-day Robin Hood named Judy Servay.
Just like the hero of English folklore, Servay, the general manager of Robin des Bois, takes from those who have to give to the have nots living in Montréal’s iconic Plateau district.
“We’ve been open 12 years,” says the bubbly Servay, who got the idea for the non-profit restaurant when she was working in the entertainment industry.
“We had great parties back then, cooking 400 meals in our offices and giving them to a local shelter. Everyone was always happy afterwards. They were the only parties where you feel better the next day,” she laughs.
Above: Owner of Robin des Bois introduced the smash room after a boyfriend breakup.
“So when I left that business I thought about how a restaurant could be used to help the community,” says Servay, who greets every patron with her infectious enthusiasm and smile.
In the 12 years the restaurant has been open, Servay has turned over $125,000 to four different charities in the area, including a women’s shelter and a youth organization.
“Even tips given to our volunteer servers are donated to charity,” said Servay, whose 130-seat restaurant is located on Rue St. Laurent, just steps away from where legendary Montréal icons like Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen grew up.
Volunteers come from all walks of life — new Canadians, people looking to re-enter society after overcoming personal issues and seniors hoping to stay active.
“Some come to get experience before getting a permanent job in the hospitality industry,” says the GM, who adds “we don’t ask too many questions here.”
Servay does employ 20 permanent staff, including two full-time chefs to insure menu continuity and the dishes created in the Robin des Bois kitchen are every bit as good as those served in some of Montréal’s high-end restaurants.
The restaurant does not rely on public funding and buys most of its own food to ensure quality and freshness.
The reasonably-priced menu favourites include a delicious dahl soup, burgers, octopus and, of course, poutine. And take-out items, like jars of duck fat rendered from Robin des Bois’ popular confit duck legs, help bring even more cash into the restaurant’s coffers to aid the disadvantaged.
The restaurant’s eclectic decor is thanks to some donations and the kitschy items give Robin des Bois a homey feel.
Above: As the name (Robin Hood) suggests, this restaurant gives back to the disadvantaged.
A unique feature of Robin des Bois is the “release room” — a former cloak room at the front of the restaurant where customers can smash plates, Greek style, against a cement wall.
“I came up with the idea,” says Servay with a wry smile. “I had a terrible breakup with my boyfriend after a 10-year relationship and I was so angry I took a bunch of plates and threw them against a wall. It felt so good!”
Shortly after, Servay introduced the idea at the restaurant and it was a smash hit, producing even more revenue.
“We charge $5 for each plate and encourage customers to write something on the plates before smashing them against the wall. One woman came in and bought 20 plates. She had a bad break-up, too.”
The one-of-a-kind restaurant is open six days a week (closed Sundays) and has become a functional space for weddings, corporate events and team building — it even holds yoga classes on Saturday mornings before opening.
Servay is most proud of the kids camp she holds every summer.
“The disadvantaged kids attend free while others pay. They come in and work with the chefs and make dishes which they later eat.” Then we let them serve the customers. You should see the smiles on their faces when they interact with people,” says the enchanting Servay.
Robin des Bois draws patrons from across Quebec and some are high-profile politicians. “Former Quebec premier Bernard Landry was a regular customer and some famous Montréal chefs like to eat here,” she reports.
Servay and her volunteer staff are helping write another uplifting chapter of Robin Hood — I mean Robin des Bois.
JUST THE FACTS
• Robin des Bois is located at 4653 St Laurent Blvd., just a short drive from Old Montréal.
• Volunteers can register online at https://robindesbois.ca/
• For more on Montréal, go to https://www.mtl.org