Some great cities never build a Harbour Bridge or an Eiffel Tower, and that may be their cleverest decision: they get livelier, more curious visitors who are prepared to work a little harder for their pleasures. Montreal has monuments like the gigantesque church L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph or the ghostly sphere of Buckminster Fuller’s dome for Expo67, the most successful World Fair of the 20th century, and the mountain of Mont Royal that overlooks the city that borrowed its name – but its real attractions are elsewhere.
This is a city that knows how to maximise the joy in any situation. Eight feet of snow? Smooth the clearings in the many parks and go ice-skating. Steamy summer? Fire up the comedy festival, the jazz festival, the astonishing variety of cool beers from the city’s microbreweries and the streetside terraces of the many wine bars.
This is a city that knows how to maximise the joy in any situation
This is a city that moves easily between languages and cultures. There is the official French and the ever-encroaching English (most servers in shops will greet visitors with “Bonjour-Hi”, a friendly way to find out which language they will respond to). There is Yiddish in Outremont from the religious Jews and recent immigrants aplenty, in a society that welcomes them, along with the incredible gastronomic panoply that comes along with that, from Chinese cuisine to Greek, Mexican or Syrian.
And then there’s fusion, both off the table and on. Joe Beef is one of the world’s greatest restaurants because it takes morsels from each of the city’s many cultures, past and present – English and French, Jewish and Irish, First Nations and Afro-Caribbean – and combines them into something fantastic and new. The same could be said of the city as a whole.
2491 Notre-Dame St West
David McMillan and Fred Morin’s incredible restaurant in the Little Burgundy quarter is named for an Irish pub-owner who probably never ate a gourmet meal in his life – and that’s just the first torpedo aimed at your expectations. The food, chalked up on blackboards daily, is exquisite. Everything is fresh that can be and the girolles, foie gras and lobster daringly blend with far humbler ingredients. The atmosphere is disconcertingly informal for such a top restaurant, but the service is faultless and, while the wines are natural, there’s not a whiff of those controversial odours that some call faulty – unless that’s what you’re asking for. Prices can reach the stratosphere but it’s worth it, so book as early as you possibly can, and if you can’t get a table console yourself in Vin Papillon, their bistro option two doors down, where no reservations are taken.
Place des Arts
185 Sainte-Catherine St West
This sprawling, multi-discipline cultural complex is the largest in Canada, incorporating the Musée des Arts Contemporains (MAC), the Montreal Opera, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and several theatres; small wonder this Downtown area is now known as the Quartier des Spectacles. MAC is a particular draw, hosting funky exhibitions from its 8,000-strong collection of digital, video, photographic, sculptural and painted works as well as late-night events and performances that draw big crowds of locals and tourists: the major show on Leonard Cohen, a year after his death in 2016, was a fitting tribute to Montreal’s favourite poet-singer.
1290 Beaubien St East
Once a dark and poky bacon bar, VinVinVin is now testament to the power of good design, from its cheeky logo to local firm Ménard Dworkind’s bright tiles and fabulous lighting, inspired by the wine labels in the ice-bins of open bottles that greet you as you walk in. The place has a bar licence (not a given in Montreal, where many bars have restaurant licences, meaning eating of some kind is compulsory) so you needn’t nibble on a sharing platter if you don’t want to, and the wine list is strongly biased towards interesting Austrian and German wines – all natural, naturally.
Terrace at the Four Seasons Hotel
1440 Rue de la Montagne
Montreal’s newest, most luxurious hotel is a Four Seasons downtown, flush with a high-end department store, a beautiful spa, and a bar that has walls of Australian crystal and a barman obsessed – appropriately enough for a city under snow for half the year – with ice. In winter, get a cocktail with enormous ice cubes tailored to fit your glass (the bigger the cube, physics says, the slower it melts and dilutes your drink), or if it’s summer, head through Marcus – the superb restaurant by Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised New York star Marcus Samuelsson – to the terrace, where you can eat from the raw bar and drink from a truly superb wine list, benignly overlooked by a building-high mural of Leonard Cohen.
900, place Jean-Paul-Riopelle
Chef Normand Laprise was the first, 25 years ago, to suggest that bringing frozen products from France for top-tier dining in Montreal might not be the best way to do things. Now he is the grand old man (or rather, middle-aged man: he’s not yet 60) of la cuisine montréalaise, with an elegant restaurant that boasts a glass-walled cellar as decoration and dishes featuring lamb from Rimouski, up the Saint Lawrence river, or Quebec snow crab. Toqué! is his flagship restaurant but he also has a brasserie, and his newest place, Beau Mont in the up-and-coming Parc-Ex neighbourhood, signals that he’s still innovating: it’s just a restaurant for now, but a local producer-only épicerie is also coming soon.
20 Avenue Duluth East
One of the city’s newest bars is this bright little loft on the first floor off Saint-Laurent Boulevard, the street that traditionally divides the city into French-speaking (to the east) and Anglophone (to the west). Plants hang from the ceiling, furniture is colourful, wines all natural, organic or biodynamic, and whacky with it. For those still mourning the demise of the beautiful Art Deco Pop! Bar à Vin (or those who would be, if they’d ever had the chance to try its wines or food), this place is balm for the soul. There are oysters or risotto, smoked duck breast or an impressive array of dumplings stuffed with experimental fillings from lamb and seaweed to lobster and beef or rabbit and liver; there are cocktails and even, sometimes, DJs.
3424 Ave Du Parc
Montrealers have been gazing up at the waterfall of wine glasses that doubles as a chandelier in this bar/restaurant since 2004 and may have grown used to it; visitors never do. Take a seat on a plump, caramel-coloured leather banquette or hitch a leg over a stool at the bar; nibble on cheese and bacon gougères (gastronomic sacrilege, but of a very tasty kind), Quebec cheeses or fried calamari and salsa verde mayo, and drink interesting, mainly natural wines from all over, or niche beers, largely from Quebec. As befits a place with a wine glass chandelier, the list by the glass is seriously impressive, including orange wines, bubbles and trios: short flights, grouped for comparison.
2490 Notre-Dame Street West
This magnificent former cinema in Little Burgundy was built for the burgeoning silent film audience in 1912, and live-music accompaniments and vaudeville shows presaged its current use as a venue for local and international bands, festivals, some film screenings and the odd burlesque show. A vital part of this formerly working-class neighbourhood until the 1960s, it spent decades in the doldrums (albeit serving as backdrop in several films) before being revived in the 1990s. Today, the function may have changed somewhat but the exterior hasn’t, and the splendour and breadth of the interiors are enough to distract an audience from the stage. The neighbourhood, meanwhile, has regenerated to the extent that nearby drinking and eating, before and after the show, is as much a pleasure as the show itself.
Bar à Provisions
1268 Avenue Van Horne
Just down the street from the Provisions restaurant in Outremont is their bar, and while both are seriously good, it’s the latter that offers something more than a little different: how often do you drink well in back of a butcher’s shop? This cheery little joint has a restaurant licence, so you have to eat but that’s no hardship, especially if you like good meat. As for the wine list, it’s predominantly natural, with many wines by the glass served from a magnum, including Domaine Tempier’s legendary rosé. Most places can’t even get this Bandol domaine’s wines by the bottle, so small and sought-after are allocations, but one of the co-owners winked at us: she is related to Tempier’s centenarian owner, Lulu Peyraud, so gets special treatment.
74 Fairmount Ave West
If you want to try the working-class specialties of Montreal, you have three principal options: poutine, the Quebec dish of curds, chips and gravy, either straight or pimped with anything from coriander to foie gras; a smoked-meat sandwich, probably from Schwartz’s (the best known) but preferably from Lester’s in Outremont (the kitschiest); or a hot bagel, fresh from the wood-fired oven, at Fairmount or St Viateur. Open 24 hours, they also sell smoked salmon and cream cheese, but good luck keeping your bagels long enough to add toppings: those paper bags are open at the top for a reason.