We arrived at Wolf and Workman after the dinner rush, as the atmosphere settled back into calmness. Toby Lyle, one of the owners, met us with a friendly salutation and a genial smile. The light English accent heard in his “bonjour” immediately put us successfully in the British pub ambiance, initially piqued by the inviting brick walls. An old hand in the bar industry, Toby has three establishments, all in the Vieux – a neighbourhood whose evolution he followed closely before choosing to open his own pubs there.
“During the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I got to know this neighbourhood, because I was an usher at the Centaur. Then, I worked for about three years at the U Lounge, which has since become Santos. And after that, I started working at Hotel W as the bar manager,” Toby explains. He has witnessed the changes that this neighbourhood has since undergone; an area that was once not as welcoming or busy as it is now. “At the start, where I was at, we had a jazz club, office buildings, much less tourism, and basically no residents. I would say that things started to shift around 2008 to 2010. People started to take pride in living here, and the whole atmosphere changed.” For him, the opening of more and more hotels in the neighbourhood also drew in more tourists year-round and breathed new life into Old Montreal. “And that goes for the locals, too,” he adds.
“Before 2010, I would never have wanted to open up Wolf and Workman here on rue St-Paul”, he explains categorically. “But, the type of clientele and amount coming in has vastly changed.” Open all year, noon to evening, the establishment has seen not only a clientele for business dinners or happy hours (the pub’s specialty, as one would expect), but also one for tourists or friends coming to relax in this charming British space. Toby expounds further: “Wolf and Workman usually sees workers and tourists more than locals – Brit N’Chips opened up on rue McGill in 2010 – but that’s normal. We are in the business quarter after all.” However, one thing did surprise him. “Honestly, the thing that I wasn’t expecting was that Brit N’Chips, which is so typically English, has been very successful with the francophone Québécois crowd,” he explains with true joy. His pride in his English roots is palpable.
The reason his French is perfect is that Toby feels like a born and bred Montrealer, and for him, bilingualism is just as much an asset as it is an everyday necessity. “It’s one of the first criteria when I interview people for a post, everyone must be bilingual from the start.” Born in Quebec, he spent his summers as a child with his family in England. And as he runs his hand through his front-combed hair, we had to acknowledge his gentlemanly, slightly seafarer-esque side. “Before opening, my partners and I went to London. I wanted them to understand and experience what we were about to create together: an authentic English pub,” explains Toby, who had long known the subtleties of and differences between British pubs. Be they Scottish, Irish, or English, each is its own thing.
It is an authenticity that doesn’t just appear out of thin air, and this establishment’s English essence is felt all the way down to its very name. “I love history,” he begins. “So Wolf and Workman owes its name to two old mayors of Montreal: Wolfred Nelson, an Anglophone who was a patriot, a doctor, and a military commander, a truly impressive and engaging man; and William Workman, who had his office here. In England, names of pubs are usually linked to local folklore, and we wanted to express that here too!”
Even if the alcohol and certain menu items aren’t from here, a real effort has been made to bring Québécois products to the table and bar menus. “There are two reasons,” Toby explains. “First off, more and more distilleries are popping up in Quebec, and honestly, they are doing a really great job. And second, there are a lot of tourists coming here to the historic neighbourhood, and I think that Old Montreal is such an excellent tapestry of local products, that we should not miss this opportunity to share it with others.” Toby equally loves surprising people from the area with products or alcohols that they would not normally expect to find around here.
“In the past few years, the restaurant and bar scene has become highly professionalized. You would find students and people here and there that would work in a bar as a side job, but the majority of people see it as a career, and I think it’s for the better!” Toby says with a celebratory cheer. He appreciates being able to count on a staff that is becoming more and more qualified. “Of course, you can see it in graduates from ITHQ, which offers solid training, and in their level of French/English ability, if the person has experience working or living in Montreal,” he explains. “And this might surprise you, but on the topic of foodservice, if someone has even worked at McDonald’s, for example, it’s often a plus. They have stringent rules and processes in place there, and it teaches an excellent foundation for cleanliness, quickness of execution, etc.”
This line of work is very demanding and the hours are far from easy. When we talked with him about reconciling work and family, this father of a little four year old daughter looked to the ceiling with a somewhat regretful look. “We haven’t barred many from working here,” he said as if almost making an excuse. “And if my daughter wants to work in this field when she gets older, I won’t discourage her. On the other hand, she will have to start at the bottom. For me, that’s a non-negotiable. You need to do your classes and learn for yourself,” the experienced businessman and pub owner states without question. He adds, “When someone is made for this job, you can see it right away. One of my old busboys is already a business partner.”
When one looks at the trajectory Toby has taken, most often associated with his establishments, it’s surprising to note that every single one has been a success. “Associate yourself with people that you know, that’s my advice. You will share a bank account and a lot of stress, but you are better off knowing the other person or persons who you are going into business with!”