What is it that makes Montréal such a fascinating city for travellers? At first glance, it doesn’t have the iconic attractions that sum up a city in the traveller’s mind - to love this city, you need to explore its diverse neighbourhoods.
The Downtown area is filled with upmarket shopping malls and modern glass and steel buildings, including impressive modernist structures. Not far away, on the St Lawrence River, you'll find the strikingly different Old Montréal district. With its narrow streets, old low-rise buildings and flowerboxes on windowsills, this could be anywhere in Europe. And adjoining the broad spread of residential Le Plateau, distinctive enclaves such as Mile End are wonderfully walkable, filled with intriguing small shops and attractive low-rise architecture in tree-lined back streets.
Crucially, travelling gourmands will be delighted by the fantastic cafes, bars and restaurants in each of these areas. Sit, sip, taste, and before long you'll feel the vibe of the city, that subtle mix of cultures that makes it so vibrant and irresistible. Here are some places to start your gourmet tour of Montréal.
You might not expect a way-cool burger joint in a francophone city, but M:Brgr is a smooth alternative to international fast-food chains. Its interior features blonde wood panelling, sleek black tables with curvy white chairs, and a long black bar served by nonchalant bartenders. You can build your own burger from a set of ingredients, or choose popular menu items such as the pulled pork burger. If money (and perhaps good taste) are no object, you can spring for the $39 foie gras burger stuffed with Kobe beef, foie gras, truffle carpaccio and truffle aioli.
If you fancy something more reflective of Montréal’s French roots, Brasserie T (brasserie-t.com) is a good compromise between price and quality. A more affordable offshoot of the accomplished Toqué! restaurant, this eatery near the excellent Contemporary Art Museum serves simple food done well, including tartares, charcuteries and old standards such as the crème caramel. In a long modern building with big windows, it’s a good place to grab a bite before catching some art or entertainment.
Dining can also be combined with entertainment at the Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill. This long-running live music venue is actually downstairs in a building on a pretty row of stone-fronted nightclubs. It’s a relaxed, good-humoured space, with exposed brick walls, candlelit tables and menus hidden inside old jazz record covers. The food list runs from fancy to filling, including Cajun burgers, tapas, and grilled steaks. The more exotic end of the menu includes such delights as jambalaya, comprising salmon, mahi mahi fish, tiger prawns and vegetables on rice.
Place Jacques Cartier in the tourist-thronged heart of Old Montréal is the embodiment of the city’s complex history. Though the square is named after the explorer who claimed Québec for France, it boasts a distinctive statue of the British hero of the Napoleonic Wars, Admiral Horatio Nelson. Ironically, the nearby Jardin Nelson (www.jardinnelson.com) restaurant is named after a 19th-century rebel against British rule, Wolfred Nelson. Its graceful 1812 premises are surrounded by a garden dotted with tables, a beautiful place to take a break from sightseeing. Its crepes are worth trying, especially the ever-so-Canadian 'Nelson' (with sweet apple stuffing, cinnamon, bacon, cheese and maple syrup).
Old Montréal also contains the former financial district, its streets lined by solid stone ex-banks which are now hotels and restaurants. One of the latter is Holder, a big busy bistro with classic décor – timber floors, big mirrors, stylish lampshades and vases of flowers. The best place to sit is at the long bar, where you can order decent-sized servings of classic dishes with a modern touch, including steaks, beef bourguignon and lamb shepherd’s pie.
Further along Rue McGill, Le Cartet is about as modern a space as you’ll find in Old Montréal. Though it’s inside a grand old building, the interior of this lively daytime eatery is filled with no-nonsense contemporary décor, including bare concrete pillars and naked light bulbs suspended on thick cords. Its café-style food is a mix of simple and traditional, with delicacies like salmon tartare, duck confit and a vegetarian sandwich featuring goat’s brie, pine nuts and pesto.
At the northwest end of Le Plateau, the small district of Mile End evolved in the 20th century from a migrant community to a live music hub, and more recently has spawned a trendy cafe scene. Olimpico is a symbol of this change. Once an old-fashioned Italian migrant cafe, its interior is still lined with sports memorabilia. The bearded baristas, however, are right up to date, as is the young clientele perched on long wooden benches in the attractive street-corner garden. If you’re a black coffee drinker, order a café allongé (the Québécois name for what Australians call a long black).
Proving that the industrial look is in, Café Sardine (www.facebook.com/cafesardine) sports scuffed floorboards, exposed yellowish light bulbs and a knotty timber-topped bar. There are sandwiches to be had during the day, but the standout items are the homemade doughnuts, with flavours such as sugar and cardamom, chocolate orange, and menthe bourbon. At breakfast there’s an unusual doughnut ball on the menu, containing a soft-poached duck egg.
Finally, there’s the knock-down, drag-out food fight of the century. In one corner, St Viateur Bagel has newly-baked bagels cascading out of its oven into a long wooden chute; in the other corner, Fairmount Bagel is often stacked high with trays of their own freshly created bagels, creating a narrow passage for customers. Both these atmospheric bakeries have been around for decades, a remnant of the once-Jewish identity of Mile End. There’s a fierce though friendly rivalry between the two 24-hour bagel makers, and Montréalers each have their favourite. Which is the best? You decide.
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