Finally! Another prospect of visiting Montreal and tasting its culinary riches. Be prepared for a treat made even lovelier because of our time apart and because the food scene manages to balance the past and the present and arrive with the best of all worlds in one city.
If you’ll be a first-time visitor, you will discover a city where English meets French and where Old World meets avant-garde. Returning visitors will feel as if they are reuniting with a grand dame, grown younger and more vibrant.
Montreal, the second-largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris, has always been the crossroads of French and English and of old and new. Narrow, cobbled streets lined with historic grey stone buildings snuggle up to skyscrapers in the modern business hub, and old-world charm rubs shoulders with a hipster ethos.
Like Paris, Montreal derives much of its identity from food. From swanky, Parisian-style bistros serving beloved classics to edgy eateries, innovative street food and everything in between, Montreal’s reputation as an exciting place to eat is well deserved.
The French traditions of Quebec’s 17th century settlers influenced Quebec’s food culture. Cooks were forced to use available “new world” ingredients but this led to great Québécois innovations such as pea soup, pork tourtière and maple-doused pouding chômeur.
Now, the spark of innovation based on Canadian food is catching fire again.
Half a century ago, the city’s top restaurants served classic French dishes. Today chefs still rely on that classical French training but now with locally grown, seasonal foods.
Plus, influences from so many cultures have also crept in that now “the cuisine defies labelling,” said Thom Seivewright, one of the city’s most knowledgeable tour guides.
Travel writer and food blogger Maysann Samaha describes Montreal as “a small, big city or a big, small city. “Food-wise,” she says, “we have everything a big city has to offer and you can get to it in within half an hour.” Which is true of these nine must-see, must-taste experiences that are spread out around the city, all easy to discover. Enjoy them in a two- or three-day visit.
Hand-rolled, wood-fired, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, pulled piping hot from a wood-fired oven — that’s the essence of Montreal bagels. Fairmount and St-Viateur, bagel makers since 1919 and 1957, respectively, are favourites, but nearly every Montrealer has their own first choice. St-Viateur’s are a little saltier compared to the slightly sweeter offering from Fairmont. I would queue up for either one, and because the shops are around the corner from each other, it’s easy to visit both, then judge for yourself.
Smoked meat sandwich
They have been smoking brisket at Schwartz’s Deli since Reuben Schwartz, a Russian immigrant, opened shop in 1928 on St. Laurent Boulevard. The classic item on the menu is a colossal sandwich with a whopping portion of succulent beef on rye, doused with yellow mustard and served with a dill pickle, coleslaw, French fries and a black cherry soda. Your visit to Montreal will be incomplete without sinking your teeth into this juicy offering — even if it means lining up along the street waiting to eat in or take out.
Gibeau Orange Julep
For generations of Montrealers, summer means a trip go the three-story high orange sphere, alongside Decarie Boulevard (now Autoroute Decarie) for an Orange Julep, a frothy, sugary, citrusy, hot-day refresher. Since 1945, “the big orange” has been a much-loved, albeit kitchy landmark. Gone are the carhops on rollerblades who delivered the order to the car, but the drink remains a thirst-quenching treat. If you are in town between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Wednesday evenings from May to October, you can enjoy a blast from the past when muscle car and antique auto aficionados gather to socialize and show off their pride and joy.
Montreal is the undisputed poutine capital of the world. Just ask any Montrealer. And at La Banquise, a vibrant bistro in the Plateau district, the city’s French-speaking heart, you can indulge in this gloppy Québécois mainstay. Poutine first appeared in the 1950s in snack bars throughout the province and its popularity spread quickly across the country and beyond in the 1990s. The La Banquise Classic piles up a messy mound of French fries, topped with chewy cheese curds, all smothered in a blanket of meaty gravy — unless you choose the vegan option. Your toughest job could be choosing from a staggering 30 different varieties including one topped with pepperoni, bacon and onions and a guacamole with chipotle sauce version.
The celebrity chef experience
At Au Pied de Cochon, a bustling Plateau district bistro, chef Martin Picard has earned a reputation based on his love of foie gras and his nose-to-tail cooking in which no part of the pig escapes his knife. For his wildly indulgent rendition of poutine, he fries potatoes in duck fat, then adds a plump lobe of foie gras.
Joe Beef, a cozy, hole-in-the-wall establishment in Little Burgundy district was made famous by a TV feature on “The Layover” with Anthony Bourdain. The menu is “unapologetically over the top.” And while famous for indulgent meat offerings, Spaghetti Homard-Lobster is probably the most popular dish, which mystifies co-owner/chef David McMillan.
Chef Normand Laprise has manned the stoves at Toqué since 1993, and continues to make annual lists of the country’s best restaurants. He defines his Quebec cuisine as, “very focused on local products and producers,” adding that “Quebecers have adventurous palates.” Toqué remains one of the city’s swankiest, special-occasion, deep-pocket dining destinations.
Reservations are required at each of these eateries.
To market, to market
No foodie should miss a visit to any one of the city’s five farmers markets, particularly the Jean-Talon, in the northeast part of the city, or Atwater, in the southwest. Go when you are hungry and eat your way through as you shop for artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, crusty baguettes and buttery croissants that rival the best in France. And, of course, there’s maple syrup, in all its incarnations.
Brunch like a local
Montrealers take weekend brunching seriously. Le Cartet, in Old Montreal, doubles as a gourmet grocery shop and a casually chic restaurant, known for gorgeous brunch plates such as their Brunch Santé complete with eggs, yogurt, granola, fresh fruit and cheese.
For a brunch filled with out-of-the-world delicious pastries, Maison Christian Faure, situated in a beautifully restored 300-year-old building, also in Old Montreal, is the place to go. In a city where good patisseries are not scarce, this one is my favourite. When in Rome … be prepared to line up.
Take a food tour
If a guided tour is your preferred way to get a taste of a city, Local Montreal Food Tours offers exceptional two-to three-hour-tours of the Mile End and Old Montreal. Walk a little, eat a little — or a lot — while learning about the cultural side of the city and its social diversity (localmontrealfoodtours.com). If a private tour appeals more, certified guide, Thom Seivewright is your man. Half-English, half-French, he is fond of saying he is so typically Montreal that his blood type is maple syrup. Find him at livinglikealocal.com.
The value of local certification
Aliments de Québec is a not-for-profit organization that promotes the provincial agri-food industry by encouraging Quebecers to eat locally.
According to Pascal Thériault, an agriculture economist in McGill’s farm management and technology program, “Aliments de Québec is well known and well respected by producers, processors, restauranteurs and consumers.”
An Aliments du Québec label identifies any product made entirely from ingredients sourced in Quebec or composed of a minimum of 85 per cent of main ingredients from Quebec, with all processing and packaging done in the province.
“Aliments préparés au Québec” labels refer to any product processed and packaged entirely in Quebec, made from Quebec and/or imported ingredients. When the main ingredients are available in the province in sufficient quantities, they must be used.
Today, 1,350-member companies with more that 22,000 products carry the verification, utilizing a process established by Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and provincial law.
The Aliments du Québec au menu program recognizes restaurants that promote Quebec products on their menus. Restaurants displaying the Aliments du Québec au menu logo on their door indicate the establishment’s commitment to serve local.
30 program was developed with the support of the Association Restauration Québec (ARQ).
And don’t forget
- Enjoy tea in the garden of the Ritz Carlton in summer
- Sip a martini any time at Hotel Nelligan in Old Montreal
- Sample biodynamic wine at Cul-Sec, Cave et Cantine
- Scale Mt. Royal for city views
- Jay walk, just because the locals do
- Be timid to try your French, even a little bit