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At first blush, there appears little doubt that designer Zbulon Perron’s Buvette Chez Simone is a classic example of urban gentrification. After all, Montreal restaurant critic Mark Slutsky has described one of the Parc Avenue wine bar’s predecessors as “the most notorious dive bar in Mile-End,” where illicit transactions and the odd fight were not unknown. Not to mention the freezing bathrooms. But if the word “convivial” appears in almost any review of the popular bistro, Chez Simone explicitly eschews the impersonal minimalism of so many contemporary watering holes.

The five wine-aficionado owners selected the moniker “Buvette” precisely, says Perron, because it refers to those “unpretentious…unassuming and occasionally makeshift places” where Europeans gather for a drink and something to eat. To establish the intimacy typical of the buvette, he had first to tame what was a relatively large space. Thus, within the largely retained architecture, he established three discrete areas designed to accommodate and even encourage varied types of contact among patrons. An imposing U-shaped bar dominates the centre of the room, while a raised section has small tables for close encounters. In a third area, he introduced unusual T-shaped tables, standing bars typical of train station buvettes and large communal tables. From bright red ceiling crosses, similar shaped light fixtures hang low to compress the room’s volume.

There is nothing austere, monochromatic or slick about Buvette Chez Simone. Materials reflecting wine, such as oak and cork, are mixed with colourful, even quirky materials — such as the bright orange electrical cords that refer, says the designer, to the illuminated garlands of many buvettes. “I like a lived-in quality that gives the comforting impression that [a place has] always been around by keeping some of the original architecture and through the use of recycled materials,” says Perron. One wall has been “tiled” with a mosaic of old industrial shelves of various green hues turned on their flat side. Hospital waiting room chairs, antique apartment doors leading to the wine cellar and terrace furniture crafted from old barn beams add a decidedly tactile quality.

Last November, this energetic recycling of an unloved Montreal bar into a contemporary European buvette scored both the 2008 Crativit Montral Grand Prize and the Intrieurs FERDIE Prize. This only adds to Zbulon Perron’s reputation for lively, engaging commercial spaces that has included — with Willo Perron — the earlier award-winning American Apparel prototype store. Buvette Chez Simone, with its accomplished wine, tapas and charcuterie menus, all served within a richly but unpretentiously layered space, sustains Perron’s credo that “form must follow human experience.” CI