Insider’s guide to Montreal
Vive la difference in Montreal’s landmark year
The first thing I notice is the pronouns. Montreal, which marks its 375th anniversary this year, is the second-largest Francophone city in the world after Paris, but where its sister city over the pond favours the formal secondperson plural “vous”, in Quebecois French, strangers will greet you with the familiar informality of “tu”. In fact, Montreal is a very “tu” kind of city.
My visit begins, fittingly, with an over-spilling container of poutine, a messy pile of fries smothered in gravy and dolloped with chewy cheese curds. The Quebecois dish is ubiquitous and can be bought as fast-food or at trendy specialist vendors such as Patati Patata, my chosen venue, where bearded hipsters discuss start-ups over the stodgy snack. The next thing I notice is the “franglais”; highlights of the hybrid lexicon include “c’est vraiment nice”, “c’est chill” and, my personal favourite, “mon chum”, which can mean “my friend” or “my boyfriend”.
As a sometime Paris resident, and a committed Francophile, my interest in Montreal was first piqued when I noticed the volume of Frenchies deciding to leave the banks of the Seine in favour of the land they once mocked for its distinctive accent and archaic ecclesiastical swearing — “calisse” and “tabarnak” are both legitimate curse words. Most recent French emigres can be found in the densely populated Plateau Mont-Royal district, the wide-ranging strip northeast of Downtown characterised by its colourful residences, criss-crossed with outdoor iron staircases, and punctuated by splashes of street art. The area is overlooked to the west by the imposing cross of Mont Royal, a vast steel construction that occupies the spot where Paul de Chomedey, the city’s French founder, first placed a crucifix in 1643. The settlement became the trading hub of “New France”, before coming under British control after the Seven Years War in the mid-18th century, and the two identities have tussled and overlapped ever since.
French was made the official language of Quebec in 1976, causing swaths of the Anglo-oriented population to leave. Industrial downturn in the 1990s was followed by a knife-edge independence referendum in 1995. But as the 20th century drew to an end, an overhaul of the economy, with a focus on technology and media, accompanied a thawing in tensions, with increasing numbers of Montreal’s young people speaking both French and English. These days greeting people in English won’t ruffle many feathers, especially not in the younger population.
It is in the Plateau district that my orientation of the city begins. I am in the capable and perfectly manicured hands of Carrie MacPherson. Originally from Saskatchewan in the Canadian Prairies and now a lifestyle blogger and guide, Carrie has been an adopted Montrealer for 17 years. We start out where any tour of this bilingual city logically should begin — on Saint Laurent Boulevard, also known as The Main, the wide seam that runs across the island bisecting its traditionally French-speaking contingent to the east and anglophone residents to the west.
These days, the road bears signs of the many immigrant populations who have come to shape its character; 60 per cent of Montrealers speak French at home, just over 20 per cent speak English, while 20 per cent speak neither. The city is home to a thriving Chinatown, as well as Portuguese, Arab, Haitian and Jewish communities.
Our first stop is the hip Mile End neighbourhood and the warm bustle of open-all-hours St-Viateur Bagel, considered one of the best spots to sample the city’s signature cuisine. According to the affable Morena family who run the place, their bagels are better than those you might find in New York. Prepared and cooked in an open kitchen, these honey-boiled treats cost less than a dollar and are delicious. The walls are covered with 60 years’ worth of press cuttings, tinged with sepia, and black and white photos of famous patrons, including local Leonard Cohen.
Once we’ve fuelled up on bagels, we’re back in Carrie’s car and heading up The Main to the Mile-Ex neighbour- hood, an up-and-coming area where former warehouses have been transformed into social hubs by young creatives priced out of the area we’ve just left.
We duck into Dispatch Coffee, a garage turned into an espresso bar and roastery that could be straight out of Brooklyn, except we are greeted with a “hello-bonjour” rather than a “hey there”. Hip credentials are prominent in our next stop, too, Depanneur Le Pick-up, a working corner shop-cum-hip diner serving gourmet burgers and sandwiches, including the classic bagel, a hamburger and even veggie pulled “pork”, made from bean curd. Finally, we swing by playfully titled beer-bar Alexandraplatz, founded by Depanneur’s co-owner Bernadette Houde. “She’s awesome,” Carrie tells me. “She was in the band called Lesbians on Ecstasy. Everyone knows her.”
In this area, it seems everyone knows everyone. Despite being Quebec province’s most populous city, Montreal’s more modest size has given it a distinctive villagey feel. But if it is a relatively petite metropolis, Montreal punches above its weight in culinary offerings and boasts the most eateries per capita in North America after New York City, which makes for a fast-moving and competitive restaurant scene.
“There is a high turnover — if a restaurant lasts more than a year, it’s doing all right,” Carrie tells me.
If a year is a good innings, then Toque!, considered by many to be the best place to eat in Quebec, is positively geriatric. Opened in 1993, its owner Normand Laprise is credited with creating a new kind of Quebecois hautecuisine, characterised by a close relationship between chef and local producer (previously, high-quality ingredients would be imported from France). The freshness is evident in the taste of pan-seared mushrooms drizzled with the most intense of smoky sauces, as well as creme brulee cheesecake accompanied by a sorbet made from blueberries that taste just-picked fresh.
After dinner, Laprise, a chatty and down-to-earth chap in a sweater and trainers, takes me on a tour of the kitchen, which he delivers with a bouncy openness. The Quebec native has single-handedly created a dining scene in his image, with Toque! alumni going on to establish hugely successful restaurants in their own right. Montreal Plaza, the creation of Laprise’s former chef de cuisine Charles-Antoine Crete, is booked most nights, while former Toque! staffer Martin Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon “sugar shack”, outside the city in rural Mirabel,
Montreal punches above its weight in culinary offerings and boasts the most eateries per capita in North America after New York City
has months-long waiting lists for its indulgent maple and pork specialities, fresh from the farm.
If the city’s gourmet standing is relatively new, its reputation for the arts is long-established. From rock band Arcade Fire to Cirque du Soleil, via the power ballads of Celine Dion, Montreal has proved itself a hotbed of creativity. The city’s cultural institutions, anchored in the ultra-modern Quartier des Spectacles district, are pulling out all the stops for the anniversary year. At the newly opened cultural centre Au Sommet Place Ville Marie in Downtown, sightseers can view the city across 360 degrees from a 180m-high, glass-walled observatory; after taking in the sunset from the viewing platform, visitors are invited to an interactive exhibit where they can generate a personalised tourist itinerary based on their interests, “collected’’ on a little electronic card.
The hi-tech approach continues into the city’s Old Montreal with Cite Memoire, a series of projections on the side of buildings telling the story of Montreal via video and sound installations. Narration is provided by a free app, which visitors can download on their phone; lovers meet to the soundtrack of Cohen’s Suzanne, while a set of loquacious beavers explain the 17th-century fur trade. I recuperate from exploring the area with a visit to Bota-Bota Spa-Sur-L’eau, a former river ferry housing a sauna, ice bath and on-deck hot tub overlooking the port.
Finally, I head to Place d’Armes, the historic heart of the city, and another monument to de Chomeday. On one side of the square sits Notre-Dame Basilica, an immense neo-gothic structure, and opposite it the sturdy grandeur of the former Bank of Montreal headquarters. Two statues — an elegantly dressed man and woman with comically upturned noses — sit on two of the plaza’s corners. The woman, who I learn via a small plaque is French, looks disdainfully at the bank, symbol of English power, while her male equivalent, who is English, gives a superior look to the church, a symbol of the influence of
French Canadians. Meanwhile, each holds a small dog, looking excitedly over at its counterpart, wanting to play, which seems a bit closer to where we’re at these days.
Jacques Cartier Bridge lights up for Montreal’s 375th anniversary, top; Place d’Armes in Old Montreal, above; Bota Bota floating spa, above right; street life in Plateau MontRoyal, right
Viewing deck at Au Sommet Place Ville Marie, left; Saint Laurent Boulevard, above