Efficient transportation, cultural diversity, butcher shops, cheesemongers, bakeries, and an authentic food scene—to me, is what makes a city a desirable city. We just returned from a glorious five days in Montreal and I can't remember the last time a place has left such an impression on me like that. Last year we 'almost' made it to Montreal but domestic gems like Chicago and San Francisco won out.
I'm so glad we finally made Canada happen this year, July as you would imagine is the magic month for Montreal. It's warm, sunny and there are about a million things to do every night of the week during the summer—jazz festivals, comedy festivals, firework displays, food truck gatherings, you name it. Did we take advantage of any of it? No. Instead we chose lazy alarmless mornings with no other agenda besides taking the metro to a great spot for lunch. Then a walk to find a cocktail. Then a train back to the hotel to freshen up and then a walk back out to have dinner. You get the picture.
We stayed at the Hotel St. Paul, located in the Old Port area of Montreal. When we're not in the mood to do the Airbnb thing, we're big fans of Design Hotels and have had great experiences at the Ion in Iceland and the Raas in India. Hotel St. Paul was another winner, highly recommend it.
But let's cut to the chase, this is an eating city. They take their food seriously here and they don't mess around. You will eat foods that swim in the thickest of gravies, forest animals of all kinds, probably a horse and loads of gluten (filed under: amazing bread. everywhere). You will eat heavy because it's Canada and nothing will keep you warmer in winter than a few extra layers of your own body fat. Let's talk about the places we ate and what you shouldn't miss:
Olive and Gourmando
Conveniently located right down the block from the St. Paul Hotel, it would be a mistake not to stop in for the flakiest, most perfect croissant you can find outside of France. All of the pastries are irresistible and the coffee is terrific, they serve Pilot, a Toronto based roaster.
We walked into this place around 9:30pm, I wasn't aware of it but we liked the vibe and the menu looked promising. We grabbed two stools at the bar and ended up kicking off our first night with an incredible meal. We started with oysters and a savory tart of burrata and roasted tomatoes, which can best be described as tasting like a very fancy, high-end pizza. Loved it. We then split their special of the night—smoked meat piled high among fresh corn and morel mushrooms, our bartender told us that this has been one of the most fruitful morel seasons in a long time. We saw them turning up on menus all over the city, so it's safe to say they are having their moment. Unassuming as it's located in the Old Port (where restaurants can be touristy and not very good), Barroco is an exception. Not only does it serve beautiful seasonal dishes but their cocktails are equally matched in quality. As it got later, I noticed more and more industry folks coming in for a post-shift dinner and a stiff drink. We were in the right place.
A Montreal staple since 1928, yes there will be a long line to get it but it moves quickly. There's a menu on the wall but you won't need it. Just get the smoked meat sandwich, obligatory side of fries and an order of pickles. Oh and don't forget the Cott's Cherry soda.
A lively little bistro with a frequently changing menu of local specialties, homemade charcuteries and a nice wine list. We had a really wonderful grilled octopus here with the sweetest little peas. I'm 99% positive there was another appetizer and also a main but we don't quite remember. We went for a late dinner, after several drinks at Big in Japan (you'll read later below), so trust me, we liked it. A lot. We were just a little too buzzed to remember.
Le Club Chasse et Pêche
For a really special night out, oh say like celebrating a birthday which we did, this is your best choice. You'll enter through what looks to be the door of a person's apartment but once inside, feels like you've found your way into a private, underground dinner club. Black walls in dimly lit intimate rooms set the tone for a long evening of seduction by food. The menu isn't big and it doesn't need to be. The approach to each dish is simple and elegant, all delivering the most extraordinary levels of flavor. We started with the octopus, a nice choice, but it was the braised piglet risotto with foie gras shavings that I will never forget. Steam piped from the bowls as they were set before us. The shavings—frozen—vanished as we quickly stirred them in. We watched them slowly melt into pools of buttery fat, swathing pieces of tender shredded pork with each scoop at end of our forks. I saved my pork cracklings for the end. For our mains, I went with the surf n' turf, known as the Chasse et Pêche and Paul was lured in by the Hot and Solid Meal, (yep, the actual name of the dish). Five generous slices of some kind of wondrous filet laid across a thick puree of porcini mushrooms. It was a phenomenal dinner.
We had no intention of dining here but had a night without a plan. It was rainy and muggy and we didn't want to venture out too far. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and Le Bremner (which I really hoped to get to and also owned by the Garde Manger team), was closed. Garde Manger has been around a long time but it's still one of the most sought after reservations in the city. I wasn't sure if we'd even be able to get in but Montreal has a new, pretty cool app called DINR that allows you to easily find last-minute open seats at hard to snag restaurants. The place is known for its lobster poutine and so...of course we got it. It was a gut-busting opener but we plowed through it like champs. A giant knuckle of lobster saddled over crispy fries fused together by cheese curds didn't stand a chance near me. But the one thing that really blew us away (and there is no photo evidence), was the venison tartare. It was a special that night and our waitress was pretty jazzed about it. Tiny cubes of merlot colored meat scattered on a long plate, sitting in a tart mustardy sauce with crisp crackers to help us shovel it in. We polished it off in about 2 minutes.
I liked this spot. Sitting on the corner, smack dab in the middle of a quiet neighborhood, this is a quintessential brunch place. From the line of folks waiting to get in, you can tell that it's an important institution to the city locals. The food is excellent. This was a birthday brunch for PJones, known pancake addict, and well, he got 'em. We split an order of home fries which (to my surprise and pleasure) were more like patatas bravas and I had the huevos rancheros. I'm not really into black beans but our waitress talked me into it. One simple tortilla at the base, layered with a smattering of black beans and two poached eggs sitting between slices of avocado. It has a light shaving of cheese and it was just what we needed on a Sunday morning. They've got great cocktails too.
Just a few blocks from the St. Paul Hotel, this spot had a very L.A. feel to it. From the black umbrellas on the front terrace contrasting with the bright green ivy crawling over the building to the seemingly lighter style menu of fresh contemporary cuisine. We really only popped in for an afternoon glass of rosé but we ordered a little snack too. A cold, crisp salad, something our bodies desperately craved and a petite lobster roll to split. A++ for the brioche roll it was built upon and the fried pickle that accompanied it.
But then there's the drinking part of this trip, right? Here are a few places to tie one on:
Big in Japan
This place is everything a cocktail bar should be. Classy but not stuffy, it's well designed, it's dark, their playlist is strictly old jazz and blues but most importantly, they know how to make a proper drink. I wish we could've gone back one more time. This bar is great.
Montreal's first cocktail bar to bottle and sell their own natural, small batch syrups—The Lab prides itself on performance (warning: bartenders get super into bottle tricks), service and quality. Tucked away on a quiet street corner directly across from a really beautiful park, I was impressed with the extensive offerings. The boards on the wall are all the latest cocktails developed by the staff and so they do change but you're also given a very thick menu with many other standbys. Bonus: if you love spicy things like me, they keep a board dedicated to cocktails with heat.
XO Restaurant at the St. James Hotel
The bar inside the restaurant is a lovely destination for an early, pre-dinner cocktail. The St. James Hotel is grand and the spirit of opulence carries through to the XO. It feels right to sip on a classic, a martini or a flute of bubbles. And like any good luxurious hotel bar, they serve a complimentary snack of chips and pretzels.
Terrasse Place D'Armes
We arrived on the sunniest day, not a cloud in the sky and ready for a drink. We found the rooftop terrace at Place D'Armes and settled in for a few hours. We had a good Hendrick's and tonic and watched the city rush from 8 floors up.
Situated in the Old Port, the terrace at the top of the Nelligan hotel almost feels like a secret. There are so many tourists in this area yet, no one seemed to notice it was up there. There's a terrific sangria with white grapes and lychee, perfect to have in hand while gazing at the skyline.
This casual local chain, has a great thing going for it with its friendly neighborhood bar vibe. The food menu is reasonably priced and makes it ideal for brunch or a low key dinner. We had a snack of baked brie served with a really nice sweet beet jam to go with our cocktails. The best drink we had was something called The British Invasion, made of ginger syrup, rhubarb bitters, fresh lime and gin.
Sort of near Joe Beef, this market is chock full of butchers, food stands, bakeries and produce. You can easily plan to eat lunch there and spend a few hours.
This market is located in the Little Italy district. There are literally rows and rows of fruit and vegetable vendors and one main food hall area where you'll find everything from ice cream and middle-eastern sweets to that sexy duck poutine at the top of page. The duck poutine stall is at the very end of the food hall nearest the street and is named Les Volailles et Gibiers.
It's worth noting that we found the people of Montreal to be really friendly...strangers, cab drivers, servers—everyone seemed so happy to offer advice on where to go and things we shouldn't miss in their city. It was also very easy to get around. While you'll definitely want to walk to counter all the eating you'll do, you can find cabs on most streets sitting idle, Uber is available and Metro stations (impeccably spotless metro stations I might add) are peppered all over the city.