by Angus MacCaull
A group of old Acadian men chat around a crib board mid day at Le Gabriel in Cheticamp. My French is passable, but I don’t understand their accents. Two old women have lunch with one of their adult sons while a young man shows his preteen how to play pool. The girl’s mother arrives with her own cue. John Cougar Mellencamp’s voice fills the restaurant’s high ceilings. It’s a huge space, like a barn or a hockey rink. Jerseys cover the walls. Stars’ cards are bolted under plastic on the bar: Gretzky, Lemieux, Brett Hull. More recent players glide across the big screen TV showing SportsCentre up above.
I order the fish burger with mashed and a tea. The bartender sets the tea down, boiling hot in a small thermos. He’s wearing all black. I notice that the brand is Red Rose and that it’s been served with milk instead of cream. This is exactly how my mother the Cape Bretoner taught me to drink tea. When the burger comes, it’s real fish, lightly battered. The potatoes are creamy. I’m not a local, but I feel like I’ve had a home cooked meal.
Le Gabriel is not for the faint of heart. The atmosphere is at times a little rough, at others jovial; and as reviews online will tell you, the food can be hit or miss. In the off season it feels like a community hall. During warmer weather, large numbers of tourists traveling the Cabot Trail can overwhelm the kitchen and slow the service down to a crawl. But on nights when the cooks and servers are on top of their game and live fiddlers have the dance floor full, a meal at Le Gabriel is a wonderful Cape Breton experience. It’s a good time not easily forgotten.
The restaurant’s namesake is the Gabriel of Longfellow’s poem Evangeline, which tells the story of two lovers expelled from Grand Pre by the British during the 18th century. The owners of Le Gabriel, the Doucet family, are proud of their heritage. And rightly so. Their restaurant is a symbol of the tenacious Acadian spirit that continues to add so much to the colour and life of Nova Scotia.