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Following pasta flap, top Montreal resto takes language office troubles public

MONTREAL – One of Canada’s most famous restaurants has come forward with its own tale of troubles with Quebec’s language watchdog, days after a flap over the word pasta made international headlines.

Montreal’s Joe Beef, which has been featured on international cooking shows and has a best-selling book, is the latest restaurant to complain about the Office quebecois de la langue francaise.

This time it apparently came down to some wall art containing English words.

Owner David McMillan said inspectors took issue with a memento from a Prince Edward Island beach that says “exit” and an antique sign above the staff bathroom that says “please leave this gate closed.”

They thought another item, an old sign from a Tennessee butcher, was part of the restaurant’s menu, he said.

McMillan said he was shocked by the lack of understanding of the inspectors, who were young and seemed like “deer in headlights.”

He said the visit left a sour taste, but added he has no plans to move his celebrated restaurant elsewhere any time soon.

“I love Quebec… but it’s not getting any easier,” McMillan, who is completely bilingual, said in an interview Saturday.

“My wife is French, my business partner is French, my children go to French school, but I just get so sad and depressed and wonder, what’s wrong with these people?”

McMillan decided to keep most of the art up, except for the bathroom sign, which he wanted to take home.

The restaurant wasn’t threatened with a fine and they haven’t heard from the language cops recently, he said.

“We wrote a letter back, explaining how each one of the items mentioned was a gift, a memento… stuff that restaurants have on walls,” he said.

The office could not be reached for comment Saturday.

McMillan stressed that the restaurant’s menu is in French only and all the staff are bilingual.

The Joe Beef cook book, which McMillan has called “a love affair with this province,” includes tributes to traditional Quebec cooking and culture. It was published in both French and English.

Inspectors visited the restaurant four or five months ago, McMillan said, but he only decided to come forward after an Italian restaurant revealed earlier this week that it had been targeted for using Italian words — including “pasta” — on its menu.

The OQLF backed down after the case erupted into a media frenzy, citing an exception for cultural products. McMillan said the public outcry over that incident gave him the courage to come forward.

“When we first started getting letters from them and the visits from the inspectors, we were just scared of doing anything,” he said.

“I had enough followers on Twitter to make a stink out of it, but we just felt alone.”

Under the Parti Quebecois government, the OQLF has received a six per cent budget increase this year, to $24.7 million, in an effort to protect the French language.

Many linguistic nationalists worry that any erosion of French in Montreal could, eventually, lead to its disappearance.

But following the controversy coined “pastagate” online, the government minister responsible said the agency would be more careful in future.

It was a significant swing for the PQ, which had pushed for stricter enforcement of the province’s language laws while in opposition.

On Saturday, Quebec Liberal leadership candidate Raymond Bachand also weighed in, saying on Twitter that overzealous language inspectors are damaging to the province’s reputation.