The restaurant Les Princesses d’Hochelaga, an enduring, threatened Quebec oddity where patrons are served by topless women, is located in the city’s east end, next to a used car dealership and across the street from the headquarters of the province’s badminton association. The sign outside barely conceals what goes on inside–“Serveuse Sexy 18 ANS+” has been covered up with a bit of tape—and at 6:30 a.m. its two dozen tables are filled with bleary-eyed men whose attention, for the most part, extends only as far as their fresh copies of Le Journal de Montréal, the city’s blue-collar bible. Youngish women, who would be naked were it not for a six-inch-wide strip of sheer fabric around (most) of their naughty bits, stream out of the kitchen, delivering plates of bacon, eggs and margarine-soaked toast. Hockey highlights are playing without sound on the televisions. It smells like grease and bad manners.
Such is the daily grind at Les Princesses, one of roughly 10 so-called Restos Serveuses Sexy on the island of Montreal. It has been around for 11 years, and the restaurant property itself has been a sexy for at least a decade longer. Tradition aside, though, the restaurant is currently fighting for its survival—victim, its owners say, of an overbearing city hall. A three-year investigation into Princesses has resulted in the permanent suspension of the restaurant’s liquor licence, and a looming threat that police will shut it down altogether.
According to the city, what is true for Princesses is true for just about every other serveuses sexy on the island: as long-standing as they may be, many of them are illegal, because they don’t have a permit to exhibit eroticism. At the heart of the issue lies a deceptively simple question: what, exactly, constitutes eroticism these days? Put another way, does a topless waitress constitute eroticism, or is it just a shirtless woman, her arms laden with plates of runny eggs and flattened grill cheese?
Certainly, the restaurant’s proprietors haven’t been angelic. Between 2004 and 2007, city police, posing as clients, recorded nine repeated infractions against the province’s liquor code, including the sale of alcohol without food—illegal for a restaurant—and the showing of dirty movies on its four television sets.
What riles Les Princesses co-owner Gaétan Thomas, though, is the charge that his waitresses provide an “erotic show” by the simple fact of being naked from the waist up. According to city bylaws, an erotic show is anything “inciting the sexual instinct by showing the human form in a fashion that draws attention to a woman’s breasts, pubic area, genitals or buttocks.” One needs a licence for this type of operation. (A man doing as much, it seems, is fair game.)
There is quite a bit of this in Montreal, on downtown Ste-Catherine Street in particular, but in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve’s industrial district, where Les Princesses is located, it is prohibited. Thomas, though, says his restaurant isn’t a show; it is simply a restaurant where the waitresses happen to be topless. “They aren’t doing a show, they are serving sexy breakfast,” he says.
He has a point. According to the Quebec liquor board, which revoked Les Princesses’s licence a few weeks ago, an “erotic show” is de?ned solely by the presence of nudity. “Because there is clothing involved, a wet T-shirt contest, for example, is not considered nudity,” says Réjean Thériault, of the province’s liquor board.
In other words, the waitresses at Princesses could wear T-shirts, spray one another with water, and be as jiggly as they want, and all would be kosher in the eyes of the law. Shed that thin cotton veil, though, and everything changes. It irks the staff to no end. “The only reason I work here is because I’m not interested in giving a show,” says Kristelle Sabourin, who with five years’ experience is Les Princesses’s doyenne. (After the police investigation, the staff donned T-shirts in an attempt to conform to the law; business tanked. “People were calling to find out if the waitresses were still dressed,” Thomas lamented.)
He isn’t giving up. The 54-year-old former general contractor has appealed the suspension of his liquor licence, and will continue operating until the police tell him otherwise. Recently, several of his clients and former employees testified in municipal court. One fellow said he’d driven 35 km five days a week for the last 10 years to eat at Les Princesses. Under cross-examination, however, he said he probably wouldn’t visit as often if the waitresses weren’t topless.