The Flavors of Montreal

Besides a burgeoning food scene, this Québec metropolis has avant-garde galleries, contemporary shops and more

Montreal is often referred to as Paris without the jet lag. A European joie de vivre can be found in North America’s only French-speaking metropolis (the second largest after the French capital). And of course, it’s more affordable and accessible than a trip across the Atlantic.

When it comes to food, Montreal’s sought-after bistros are just the beginning. While the French heritage is reflected in the city’s best tables, the culinary culture owes as much to the early coureurs de bois who first tracked the land as to the diverse immigrants who would later populate the city. Today’s restaurants are actively defining a cuisine montréalaise—one that honors the past while looking to the future.

As the city emerges from the economic doldrums of the past few years, the evolution of its identity is echoed in redevelopment projects that see old neighborhoods taking on new shapes. Here are three parts of the city where you’re sure to taste the flavors of Montreal.

Montrealers are typically wary of large-scale development projects, scorning terms like “cosmopolitan” and “world class,” and preferring to cultivate their own brand of cool. But if ever there were an area ripe for a rethink, it’s downtown Montreal. Here, captains of industry left their mark in the gray stone mansions of the Golden Square Mile and the Sun Life Building on Dorchester Square, Montreal’s first skyscraper. But while the area’s main commercial artery, Ste. Catherine Street, has long buzzed with consumer activity, it lacked much in the way of cultural life besides the Place des Arts—until now.

From west to east, new investments in the arts are giving the area a boost. The venerable Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal unveiled a new pavilion that takes visitors on a journey through the history of Canadian art in a soaring space that was previously a church. The Musée d’Art Contemporain hosts the Québec Triennial, showcasing the best contemporary artists in the province. And a new concert hall, L’Adresse Symphonique—outfitted with a 5,100-pipe organ and acoustically sensitive wood paneling—is the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s new home. In fact, the whole of eastern downtown has been dramatically transformed with a $120 million entertainment district dubbed the Quartier des Spectacles. At the center of this mammoth 30-block development is a public square full of color-lit fountains and designed to hold the tens of thousands who flock here for outdoor comedy, jazz and film festivals.

New dining options go hand in hand with the redesign, and that’s a bonus for what was long a culinary wasteland. (Even a good poutine, the sloppy dish of fries, gravy and cheese curds known to Quebecers as the ultimate hangover cure, used to be hard to come by.) A bright spot in the landscape is Brasserie T, which puts you center stage, in a see-and-be-seen glass box set on the main plaza of the Quartier des Spectacles. The little sister of widely acclaimed Toqué from celebrity chef Normand Laprise, it’s a futuristic setting in which to savor expert steak frites, luminous beet and chèvre salad and the saucisse de Montréal, the answer to France’s famous Toulouse sausage.

Past and future also come together at Taverne Square Dominion, a 1920s tavern restored to its former glory, with terrazzo floors and vintage glassware. It tips its hat to the gin runners of the Prohibition years (co-owner Alexandre Baldwin claims to be descended from one), with Canadian-inspired cocktails. Chef Eric Dupuis’s menu is influenced by the cultures that made up the city at that time: “English, French and sailors,” as he puts it—think corn fritters, mussels in cider, and sticky toffee pudding.

What’s old is new again in Montreal’s historic quarter. It was here, in 1535, that explorer Jacques Cartier discovered an Iroquois settlement on the St. Lawrence River and named the island Mont Réal in honor of its mountain. Old Montreal’s narrow cobblestone streets and 18th-century buildings still echo with the sound of hooves, thanks to the quintessential tourist experience, a horse-drawn calèche ride. Notre Dame Basilica is where pop songstress Celine Dion was married and hockey-player-closest-to-sainthood Maurice “the Rocket” Richard was memorialized.

The renewal of Old Montreal—or Le Vieux, in local parlance—began in the 1990s, as tacky souvenir shops gave way to boutique hotels, chic design stores and a dining scene that playfully acknowledges Quebec’s past. An ode to the artisanal, Olive & Gourmando bakery is a great stop for brunch (take a chance and order the “poached egg on your face”) or one of the butteriest croissants you’ve ever tasted. At Kitchen Galerie Poisson, oysters and the catch of the day are served informally in a narrow room befitting the Fourth Arrondissement. As the menu informs, the signature foie gras is actually cooked in the lave-vaisselle—yes, that means dishwasher, but don’t worry; it’s sealed in its own little jar.

Just past the gleaming dome of historic Marché Bonsecours is one of the area’s most sought-after dining rooms, Les 400 Coups. Against a gray palette, the freshness and vitality of Marc-André Jetté’s market-based food seems to glow on the plate. Desserts by star pastry chef Patrice Demers are the coup de grace—try his cloud-soft chocolate pot de crème with a hint of Maldon salt. You may even see him signing copies of his cookbook.

The Old Port, which began as a hub for the fur trade 250 years ago, is now a year-round recreation area, site of Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas, a skating rink and an annual pop-up cabane à sucre, an urban sugar shack showcasing foods made with the province’s maple syrup. A recent addition to the landscape is Bota Bota, a former ferry converted into a floating spa. On the front deck, sink into a hot tub with views of Habitat 67, architect Moishe Safdie’s iconic housing development, and the pioneering edifices of Place Royale on the opposite shore.

As you follow busy St. Laurent Boulevard north, you’ll tread in the tracks of many waves of immigrants. Mile End, a largely residential neighborhood, was the end of the line for Jewish, Greek and Portuguese populations, who as early as 1910 began setting up the small shops and ethnic eateries that still give the area its character. The latest residents are maintaining that small-scale feeling, with a focus on handmade rather than haute. Mom-and-pop shops sit next to boutiques selling recherché items. The serene sea of marble countertops and stainless steel utensils at the gourmand outfitter Les Touilleurs will give you kitchen envy. You can sign up here for a workshop on the art of pizza- or pastry-making. Boutique Unicorn and Les Étoffes both offer well-curated selections of clothes from local and international designers, for her and him, respectively. Drawn & Quarterly, an independent bookstore, is also a publisher dedicated to graphic novels and cartoons, capturing the creative spirit of the neighborhood.

Foodies should stop at the St. Viateur Bagel Shop, which has been turning out rounds of chewy, slightly sweet, sesame-studded goodness for more than 50 years. Ask for the bagels closest to the oven; they’ll still be hot when you sink your teeth into them. For lunch or brunch, just look for the line of customers outside Lawrence, where British-born chef Marc Cohen, who trained with Gordon Ramsay, turns out “head-to-tail” cuisine like skewered duck hearts—surprisingly delicious. Down the street, Le Comptoir is a prime example of the small-scale charcuterie trend: Peek downstairs to see a cold room of pig carcasses waiting to be butchered and cured by talented young chef Segue Lepage. His refined but rustic meats are complemented by a wine list of small, organic labels.

If there has never been a better time to eat in Montreal, there’s also never been an easier way to work it off. Bixi, the city’s credit-card-activated public bicycle system, will take you from one meal to the next with minimal pedal power and a lot of pleasure in between.

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.

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