A culinary guide to Montreal
Canada’s second-largest city has a distinctly French flavour, but whether you’re ordering bagels, poutine or fine dining cuisine, expect a thoroughly Québecois twist.
In Montreal, North America meets Europe — architecturally, culturally and gastronomically. Wedged between the St Lawrence and the Prairies Rivers, the Island of Montreal forms the city’s heart, and around the Old Port, the cobbled streets could easily pass for those of a French town. Nearby Downtown, meanwhile, has all the skyscrapers and modernity you’d expect from Canada’s second-largest metropolis.
With one of the highest numbers of restaurants per capita in North America, Montreal has earned a reputation as Canada’s culinary capital. Its dynamic dining scene has been locked down in recent months, but in normal times it runs the gamut from old-world restaurants serving French classics to modern fine dining establishments and hipster spots in districts such as Mile-Ex and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. There are patisseries, English-style pubs and magnificent produce markets, including Marché Jean-Talon, in Little Italy.
Among the city’s best loved foods are bagels and smoked meats, which arrived with Jewish and Eastern European immigrants from the 18th century onwards, and are still served in decades-old Jewish delis. Soaked in honey syrup before baking, and rolled in sesame or poppy seeds to finish, Montreal bagels are sweeter, denser and smaller than their New York cousins, with a caramelised, crunchy exterior and a tender interior. Like any good Montrealer, you’ll be expected to swear allegiance to either St-Viateur or Fairmount, the city’s two biggest bagel bakeries, whose rivalry goes back more than 60 years. They’re just a block from each other, in Mile End.
One can’t discuss eating in Montreal, however, without an honourable mention of poutine. This dish of French fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy is 100% Québecois, best eaten late at night after drinking — although it’s acceptable at other times too, either on its own or with a steamé (steamed hotdog). The best-known place for a late-night plate is 24-hour La Banquise, but there’s a poutinerie for every taste: from old-school Paul Patates to upscale Au Pied de Cochon, with its foie gras poutine.
Montreal’s already strong culinary credentials have been bolstered by several big-name chefs setting up shop. Marcus Samuelsson (of Harlem-based soul food restaurant Red Rooster) launched Marcus Restaurant and Terrace, at the Four Seasons Hotel Montreal, in 2019. It competes with the nearby Maison Boulud, run by French chef Daniel Boulud, in the Ritz-Carlton and, at the Casino de Montréal, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.
It’s not all imported talent, though. Homegrown chefs are also beloved by Montreal’s gourmands, with the likes of Emma Cardarelli, of Sud-Ouest hotspots Nora Gray and pizzeria Elena, and Marie-Fleur St-Pierre, of Villeray restaurants Tapeo and Mesón, earning awards and legions of fans.
International influences may abound, but the city’s culinary scene is much more than the sum of its parts. From experimental aperitifs made with local ingredients to midnight plates of poutine, the menu is perfectly Montréalais.
How to spend a day in Montreal
The city’s oldest district (no surprise, given the name), Old Montreal was founded by French settlers in the 17th century. Today, it’s a place of cobbled streets and pretty, historic buildings. But being so central, it’s also a hub for business, with tech innovation as easy to find as an exceptional meal.
Start in the Old Port and join the locals to walk, skate or cycle the path that stretches 1.5 miles along the St Lawrence River. Look out for the Clock Tower and, if you’re feeling energetic, climb up it for views over the city and the water.
Lunch means the area’s best steak-frites, steak tartare or bouillabaisse with a glass of French chenin blanc at Monarque. Since opening in 2018, the restaurant has already become a Montreal institution, complete with tuxedo-wearing waiters, vaulted ceilings and a long room divided into a bar, brasserie and dining room.
Walk off your meal with a spot of shopping. Despite the name, nearby Lunch à Porter isn’t a restaurant — it’s a boutique selling Japanese-inspired, eco-friendly lunch accessories, such as wooden bento boxes and tools to make your food look cuter (bear-shaped boiled egg, anyone?). Other boutiques worth visiting include Philippe Dubuc, for Quebec-designed menswear, and Galerie Images Boréales, for Inuit creations handmade from soapstone and basalt.
Next up, head to PHI Centre, a multidisciplinary art gallery with regularly changing, immersive, virtual-reality exhibits, often including works from local, award-winning VR company Felix & Paul Studios.
Pass the Notre-Dame Basilica, which resembles a smaller version of its Parisian namesake, en route to Délices Érable & Cie, for a blueberry maple sorbet. In addition to maple-based ice creams, the boutique offers free tastings of locally produced syrup, from clear to amber and dark. As the afternoon comes to a close, join the after-work crowd at Italian restaurant Un po di Più, with its list of negronis and spritzes — all of which pair perfectly with an antipasti platter. Stick around for dinner of handmade, light-as-air ricotta gnocchi with squash and crispy chicken skin.
How to spend a day in Mile-Ex and Park-Ex
Situated well north of Downtown, these former industrial areas are changing fast, with a new Université de Montréal campus bringing students, young professionals and families to the area — and plenty of places to eat are springing up as a result.
Start with a morning walk in Jarry Park, an urban oasis with bike paths, picnic areas, an outdoor pool, a lake and tennis courts. The park’s central element is the renovated IGA Stadium, the current home of the Rogers Cup tennis tournament, which you can check out even if you don’t have tickets to a match.
Grab lunch to go — a freshly fried samosa or gulab jamun from Ram Sweet Shop should tide you over before you make your way west through Little India, where old Greek snack bars sit adjacent to sari shops and West African grocers.
Take the new footbridge over the train tracks in the neighbourhood of Outremont to explore the grounds of the cutting-edge university campus on your way to dinner at Le Diplomate, which pays homage to French cafe culture. The short, seasonal, small-plates menu is all very tempting, but cross your fingers it includes celery root with green curry and peanuts, or duck with napa cabbage and sea buckthorn. Don’t miss the sourdough with sunflower butter — chef-owner Aaron Langille is a fermentation expert. There’s a great all-natural wine list, too.
Where to finish the evening is a toss-up between the art deco Taverne Atlantic and experimental cocktail bar/cocktail school Alkademie. The former has a rooftop patio, party atmosphere and a well-curated drinks list (from a royal daiquiri with violet liqueur to interesting wines, ciders and a CA$2 lager).
Alkademie, meanwhile, is set in a former car repair workshop. Open Thursday to Saturday, it has a regularly changing menu of sake, champagne and microbrews, plus cocktail-spiked snacks, such as Angostura bitters pulled pork and Luxardo marasca cherry brownies. If you arrive early enough, be sure to spend some time in cocktail ingredients and accessories boutique Alambika, set within the same building — look out for the Japanese ice saws.
The best foodhalls to visit
When more than 50 restaurants open over the course of a few months, it’s a big deal — even in a dynamic dining city like Montreal.
That’s what food halls Time Out Market, Le Central and Le Cathcart Restaurants et Biergarten did in the latter part of 2019. The former invited fine dining chefs, including Normand Laprise, of Toqué!, and Claude Pelletier, of Le Club Chasse et Pêche, to open counter-service offshoots, while the other two food halls welcomed more casual culinary operations, both well-established and brand new.
At Time Out Market, don’t miss the gourmet Haitian djon djon jamabalaya (a medley of rice, mushrooms, seafood, chicken, sausages and peppers) and griot (braised pork shoulder with plantain) from Paul Toussaint.
At Le Central, it’s a tough call between tapas at Pintxo, gluten-free crispy haddock tacos at Bonita’s, or Roman-style pizza slabs at Morso. Finally, at Le Cathcart, don’t miss Chikin’s Korean fried chicken, Italian sandwiches at Patzzi, or Japanese cuisine at Akio.
Whatever you order to eat, all of the food halls offer exceptional beers, wines, ciders and cocktails to wash it all down with. The bars and restaurants tend to be busiest at lunch and during the weekday ‘cinq à sept’, aka happy hour.
Three of Montreal's best natural wine bars
One of the city’s oldest wine bars, with what might be the longest list, Pullman has stayed up to date with natural options by the glass, bottle or tasting flight. With bottles half price on Sundays, it’s the perfect place to taste great wines at low prices. The food menu is no afterthought, from the lemon confit olives to the excellent venison tartare.
Close to the Old Port, all-day cafe Monopole is the place to go for a glass of Austrian orange wine or exceptional Bandol rosé. Best of all, it can be enjoyed with lunch dishes such as pork rillettes, or with dinner, which might include the likes of smoked mackerel served with potatoes and cheddar.
In the neighbourhood of La Petite-Patrie you’ll find Vinvinvin. One of Montreal’s newest natural wine bars, it attracts a cool crowd. The all-natural list is organised by trait, from ‘mineral’, to ‘bestsellers’ to the more abstract ‘punk’. Looking for something to soak it all up with? The quarter-loaf of bread with hazelnut and honey is a must-order.
Off-the-beaten-path places to check out
1. Pastel Rita
This might be the only place in Montreal where you can sip an espresso martini and eat a brightly coloured brassica salad while browsing locally made handbags and good-quality knives. The Mile End shop gets its cool credentials by way of co-owner Gabriel Malenfant, a member of electro-hip hop group Radio Radio.
The flame-kissed cacio e pepe pizza, ricotta-hazelnut gnocchi and coffee-crumbed risotto at Antonietta would cost much more if this place were in Downtown, but here, in a quiet part of La Petite-Patrie, the prices are very reasonable. Don’t miss the creamy burrata — essentially a pillow for olive oil-sautéed vegetables, served with house-made focaccia.
This family-owned South Indian BYOB restaurant, in Côte-des-Neiges, is worth seeking out for its extensive menu of dosas (rice-flour pancakes). Wrapped around fillings ranging from spiced potatoes to chicken curry, they come with chutneys or tomato sambhar. Also not to be missed: Bangalorean bisi bele bath (a spicy rice dish) with lentils and tamarind.
Three unmissable restaurants for fine dining
1. Le Mousso
Number 16 on Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants 2020 list, Le Mousso serves tasting menus, in which the dishes are simply named after key elements, like ‘sea urchin, hazelnut, caviar’, or ‘honey, buckwheat, peach’. And the food is as pleasing to the eye as the palate.
Acclaimed chef Normand Laprise is passionate about local produce; during your meal, expect to see producers drop off chanterelle mushrooms or biodynamic ice cider and stay for a drink at the bar. Be sure to order the confit maple duck breast.
3. Portus 360
Served on the rotating 30th floor of a former hotel in Old Montreal, the Portuguese cuisine from chef Helena Loureiro comes with a side of city views. Expect ultra-fresh ingredients in dishes such as pork and clams, and seafood rice, served in a lobster shell.
Air Canada flies to Montreal from Heathrow, and indirectly from other airports with British Airways. Virgin Atlantic and KLM jointly offer one-stop flights.
Where to stay
St Paul Hotel has room-only doubles from CA$237 (£138).
How to do it
Canadian Affair has six nights in Montreal and Quebec City from £650 per person, including flights.
Published in Issue 11 (spring 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food