It can be tough to leave the fairy-tale world of Old Québec, a perfectly preserved colonial town neatly packaged inside 400yr-old fortified walls. The World Heritage site pleases the eye at every turn, from the fanciful turrets of Le Chateau Frontenac to Lower Town’s ultra-luxe boutique hotels to the vast army of historical, religious, and politically weighty edifices that have stood sentinel for centuries.
However, Old Québec, a neighbourhood located along the eastern edge of Québec City, has been plagued for decades by overzealous tourism, resulting in a brazen contingent of overpriced and underwhelming restaurants on the main streets. For a more authentic Québec City eating experience, scale those ubiquitous walls, hit reset and follow the locals to less-touristy neighbourhoods, home to some of the city’s hottest restaurants.
You can spend whole days absorbing the laid-back, pleasure-heavy lifestyle for which French culture is renowned. The neighbourhood of Faubourg Saint-Jean, just minutes on foot from Old Québec, is the most accessible. Further afield is Avenue Cartier, where a cosmopolitan mixture of restaurants and cafés attracts a younger crowd. Discerning Québécois stick to artsy Nuovo St-Roch, where bistros are taking a modern approach to traditional French favourites.
If you have only got time for one meal in Québec City, make sure it is at Le Billig (526 Rue St-Jean; 418-524-8341), a crêperie like none other. Taking buckwheat as a canvas, the popular Roscoff dish unites ham, asparagus, Swiss cheese, apple and béchamel sauce in a culinary masterpiece. Locals and savvy tourists alike appreciate the ever-fresh, high-quality ingredients, such as duck confit and onion marmalade, or perfect sweet marriages like Chantilly cream and salty butter-caramel sauce.
Sophisticated brunch is done right at the cavern-like neighbourhood institution, Le Hobbit, which in its nearly 170 years of existence has housed a pharmacy, a boutique, a hardware store, and a theatre. From the simple multigrain toast slathered in pâté, to the more substantial omelette stuffed with shredded duck and apple, to the decadent eggs Benedict L’Authentique loaded with Québec cheese and ham and slathered in their much-acclaimed house béarnaise sauce, every meal comes with a requisite dose of caffeine: either an espresso allongé or café au lait.
Follow Rue St-Jean south from Faubourg Saint-Jean to hit colourful Avenue Cartier, where specialty grocery stores and boutiques shoulder ethnic restaurants, modern eateries and European cafés -- all with attractive facades and patios that spill over into the street.
The mantra at Sushi Taxi, the rapidly expanding, Québécois chain of hip sushi spots, is mange-moi cru (eat me raw), which is good advice: the most popular dish, Guac-Amore, takes raw salmon and bathes it in a tasty concoction of salsa, yoghurt and guacamole. Their 'cleverly twisted nigiris' are unique interpretations that take raw fish and rest it atop something crispy, like a frittata or an almond crust, as opposed to the traditional Japanese fish-and-rice combination. It is weird, fun and beloved by locals in the know.
The city is abuzz with brand-new Bistro B, a showpiece of local and innovative culinary trends. Wine lists come via iPads, and the menu, which changes daily to incorporate seasonal and regional ingredients, is scrawled on chalkboards in French. Come here for locally sourced specialties like red-deer tartare and foie gras prepared au torchon (wrapped in a cloth, then boiled, drained and sliced, delicately seasoned and served cold.)
No longer plain-old 'St-Roch', with its working-class roots and formerly decrepit appearance, this neighbourhood -- greatly gentrified thanks to a 380-million-Canadian dollar renovation of the main drag, St-Joseph Street – has now earned the moniker Nuovo St-Roch and has evolved into a gathering place for artists, designers and other creative types.
It is only a 15-minute walk here from Old Québec or Faubourg Saint-Jean. The jumble of one-way streets can confuse even the most seasoned navigator, and a wander through the side streets -- particularly Rues d’Aiguillon, Richelieu and St-Olivier -- affords a rare opportunity to view the neighbourhood’s cluttered, characteristically French row houses crowned with colourful mansard roofs.
For a crash-course in Québécois nouveau cuisine, the menu at bright and breezy Café du Clocher Penché is a must, and it is a far less expensive than dining in Old Québec. This classy restaurant is polished but unpretentious, as is the simple, refined fare. The boudin noir (blood sausage) is nicely balanced with tart apple chutney; a salmon tartare is marinated in grapefruit juice and served alongside beet and fennel salad and pesto crostini; and beef from a local farm is served with horseradish sauce and pearl barley.
The amount of choice in this neighbourhood can be overwhelming. The candlelit art-bar hybrid Le Cercle offers a little of everything in their tapas-style menu, but if you really cannot decide, then order La Mania and leave it to the chefs to decide for you. Jazzed-up French favourites include Le Bourguignon -- beef braised in Burgundy wine, accompanied by herb tagiatelle and rapini -- and the ballotine -- in which the poultry (whatever’s local and seasonal) is boned, stuffed with spelt risotto, radish and dried tomatoes, and then tied in the shape of a bundle. Their squash ravioli revamp makes great use of local Vlimeux cheese, a semi-soft, maple-wood-smoked variety made from raw sheep’s milk.