Feb 10, 2017
The Big Chill: A Weekend in Montreal
Many people say the weather is a poor topic of conversation. I agree, most of the time. But this is not true in Montreal. In Montreal, the weather is a force to reckon with. It is like the class bully, only one that is truly powerful, and against whom the entire town unifies in a common fight. That’s how it feels anyway—surmountable—when you’re properly dressed.
On a visit there not long ago, I was not. Neither was our photographer, Jane. And that is because we were coming from winter in New York City. As you know, winter in New York City sucks for its own reasons—slush swamps, biting wind, cold rain, even warm winter days, in their unpredictability, can feel like a nuisance. But the winter days in New York that are straight-up body-numbing freezing are few and far between. In Montreal—an island to the North cut by two rivers—they are standard. And so people who live there know how to take them on, and neutralize them, with this simple formula: layers, wool socks, waterproof shoes, a waterproof jacket, a hat. If you don’t know this formula before you arrive, you learn soon after.
Jane and I found out on our second day in town. We were touring a central borough of Montreal called Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, with our tour guide Anne Marie. Platueau (for short) holds two very Brooklyn-like neighborhoods—Mild End and Mile Ex—in as much as they attract creative young professionals, mixed in with family-owned businesses, and it is situated at the base of the city’s centerpiece mountain (don’t you dare call it a hill), Mont Royal.
While we walked Plateau’s quiet snow- and ice-covered streets, we began to realize just how under-dressed we were (myself because I wore tights without any socks, and Jane because she wasn’t wearing boots or waterproof shoes at all). Anne Marie, who is a co-founder at a local food-based tour company, Spade & Palacio, was in the middle of showing us two of the city’s most storied institutions (and neighborhood competitors) Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel. And so to alleviate our cold weather unpreparedness, Anne Marie suggested we go inside for a snack.
If there is one topic more discussed in Montreal than weather, it is bagels. Specifically, why Montreal bagels are better than New York bagels. It is a fraught argument to make, especially when you are talking to a couple of tourists from New York, but it is one that Montrealers do not shy away from making. Anne Marie, who was raised in French-speaking Canada, and who has lived in Montreal for 15 years, embraced it. She ushered us inside St-Viateur, established in 1957, to throw down on this point.
Montreal-style bagels arrived to the city in the early 20th century, via Jewish immigrants from Poland. Three factors distinguish them from New York City bagels: they are thinner and smaller than New York City bagels, and hand-rolled; they are boiled in water with a touch of honey and no salt; they are dipped in a bath of poppy or sesame seeds before being placed in a wood-fire oven. When we stepped inside St-Viateur, the wood-stove was blazing, and mounds of fresh-baked dough rings were piled high in bins.
“Are you ready for how we call them?” Anne Marie asked us about New York City bagels. “We call your bagels bread with a hole in it.” If you had believed the widely-held cliché that Canadians have no bite, when it comes to Montrealers and their bagels, at least, you would be wrong. Anne Marie instructed us to take little to-go containers of cream cheese and dig in. “The right way to do it is ‘rip-and-dip,’” she instructed, grabbing a section of her hot, slightly sweet bread, and plunging it into a small tub of cheese. I did the same. While I cannot say that Montreal-style bagels are the Form of Bagel, nor, like my native Montrealer friend later said, that New York bagels taste like boiled cardboard, the experience is worth it. They are not as filling as those in New York, and, as Anne Marie promised, I could feel my feet again.
Outside, waiting for a bus that would take us North to a Mile Ex and then Marché Jean Talon—a popular fresh produce mecca opened in 1933—Anne Marie suggested we rectify our unpreparedness by visiting an outdoor accessories store down the block. Unbelievable: It was as if the city knew we were coming, and was ready to take care of our ineptitude. When we stepped back outside, me with a large (faux) fur hat, and Jane with waterproof shoes, we were finally soldiers slightly better-prepared for Montreal’s streets.
This year marks the 375th anniversary of Montreal. I found the emphasis on this milestone, based on the establishment of a mission named Ville Marie, in 1642, somewhat confusing: Why not wait to celebrate 400? Why not even a half century? On the Thursday afternoon we arrived, a plain-spoken and energetic representative from Tourism Montréal, Catherine Binette, sat with us over a meal of pizzas and salad (Jane and I also drank white wine, while Binette sipped a dignified fresh juice) in the old Fur District downtown. As we munched and imbibed, Binette explained, dipping into some history, why celebrating this anniversary is actually pragmatic.
In the 1960s, Quebec experienced a “Quiet Revolution.” Schools were secularized (they’d previously been run and controlled by the church) and with this shift education standards increased, French-speaking workers fought for better working conditions, and economic policy reforms were passed. Out of this, a Francophone separatist movement grew, and in 1977, Bill 101 was passed. It made French the primary language in government, business, and culture. (It remains very much so to this day. But when it comes to eating and drinking here, you will watch servers and bartenders effortlessly slip between both languages, mixing them into a single, smooth cocktail of words.) But the French-first policy made Anglophones nervous about Montreal’s economic future, and a signifiant number of businesses fled to Toronto.
By the 90s, economic recovery had begun, and Montreal used its 350th anniversary in 1992 as an excuse to reinvest in new skyscrapers, expand the metro and highway system, grow cultural institutions, and lure international organizations to headquarter there. This year, the 375th anniversary will do the same, including an effort to attract and immerse international students within the city, to “retain [their] diverse pool of talent.” But Binette told us calmly, sipping her juice, that the main attraction for her were all the parties—more than 100 of them, planned to take place throughout 2017, many of which will happen, despite the weather, outdoors.
In particular, Binette mentioned IGLOOFEST: thousands of electronic music devotees gather under the open sky by Montreal’s Old Port throughout six weeks, until the middle of February. IGLOOFEST happens every year, but this year’s anniversary party is extended, and comes with special attractions. Plus, Binette enthused, to be outside, to feel the cold, and then to dance and drink distilled spirits with the rest of the city by your side—to celebrate Winter in Montreal together, because there is no escaping it—there is nothing else like it.
After our bus ride to Marché Jean Talon, Anne Marie toured us through the indoor market, running into friends every other second. (In this city of 1.65 Million, friendly run-ins happen on street corners and in businesses more often than not.) Unlike the rest of North America, unpasteurized cheese is allowed in Quebec, and at the market, you can find the best of it—but there is also no shortage of anything else. We ate fresh-fruit gelato, cured meats, smelled spices from around the world at one of the best spice vendors anywhere, Épices de Cru, while, fittingly, Montreal’s modern-day son and daughter (husband and wife, as it were, Win and Régine), Arcade Fire, played from speakers. (If there is a third topic talked about in Montreal as much as weather, it is this band.) Before leaving, I also bought a pair of locally-knit wool socks (one can never be too prepared).
We ended our tour at Anne Marie’s second home, a brewery down the street called Brassier Harricana. There are more than 130 micro-breweries in Quebec and counting. At Brasserie Harricana, the female owner is a basketball and hockey fanatic (as you might imagine, hockey really is on TV screens everywhere), so beer and cheese pairings are given numbers associated with sports jerseys. We sat and drank Beer 138 (in this case, the number of its patent), which was sour with rosebud and coriander notes.
“This is how we survive winter,” said Anne Marie. “Eat cheese and drink beer.” Thinking better of it, she added, “that’s how we do summer as well. You’re allowed to drink in a park if you have food. So you grab cheese, baguettes, charcuterie, and beer, and go spend the night in the park.” If I liked winter in the city, she said, I’ll never leave Montreal if I come in the summer. People go crazy, she said—in the euphoric kind of way—because they’ve existed in winter for so long.
“This is how we survive winter,” said Anne Marie.
“Eat cheese and drink beer.”
The next day, Jane and I walked around downtown Montreal before taking our sad flights back to New York. She wore her new waterproof boots. I wore my fur hat and wool socks. The first day we cowered under these conditions. That day, the air felt kind of nice. Maybe it was not in spite of the cold, but because of it, that Montrealers have so much enthusiasm for living there, in a climate that seems inhospitable to nearly everyone else: Having something to push against, together, makes you embrace the things you care about that much more.
“Yeah,” Jane agreed, as we walked to see an outstanding exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe at the Musée des Beaux Arts, and to drink one more local beer. “Being this cold reminds me that I’m alive.”
All images by Jane Bruce
QUICK GUIDE TO MONTREAL
Enjoy beers brewed on site with fresh cheese pairings, a large hearty bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, or mouth-watering salads for two inside of this beautifully-remodeled, once industrial space near Marché Jean Talon. It features pink leather chairs from the owner’s hometown, mixed in with modern, minimal wooden finishes.
95 Rue Jean-Talon Ouest, Mile Ex
Mimi La Nuit
Take a stroll down to Vieux Montréal and sidle up to the very comfortable counter for high-end bar food (grilled cheese, fried cauliflower, beef tartare, beet salad), plus cocktails, wine and beer. Chow down while watching the hockey game on TV, and feel like you’re in a European club—or a cave?—at the same time. It’s neat.
22 Rue Saint Paul E.,Old Montreal
Le Super Qualité
This postage-stamp-sized restaurant has just 18 seats, but serves delicious South Indian food. Montreal is known for Bloody Caesars rather than Marys (which use Clamato rather than tomato juice), but Le Super Qualité makes another version still: The Bloody Rasam uses a tamarind and coriander infused tomato base, and it is supposed to be the best kind of any version in town.
1211 Rue Bélanger, Little Italy
If Montreal has a present-day son and daughter (er, husband and wife) it would be Win and Régine, AKA Arcade Fire. And now, they’ve planted their roots further into the city with their new and very popular Haitian-inspired restaurant. It features fun decor, and veggie, beef, fish, and rice-heavy plates—and, of course, plenty of rum cocktails, too.
1844 Rue Amherst, Gay Village
In addition to being a cozy space for lunch with pizzas and salad, this is a reliable and relaxed go-to for coffee and fresh-pressed juices, to help boost you through the rest of your touring day.
433 Rue Mayor, Downtown
The specialty grade coffee beans roasted at Dispatch, a relative newcomer to Montreal, is so good that, when roasted in the very light style that is their trademark, extraordinary flavors comes out of them. Drink their cold brew, and don’t add milk—that would be to sully the purity of their fruity and earthy notes. The modern space is also perfect for an afternoon work session and pick-me-up.
267 Rue Saint Zotique O, Mile Ex
For cocktails, wine, beer, and spirits (and dinner and brunch, to boot), this handsome, low-lighted hangout (Sparrow wallpaper included!) is a place for a night-beginning or ending cocktail. If you’re a local, it’s also where you’ll run into all your friends (and recent Tinder dates).
5322 Boul St-Laurent, Mile End
The Musée des beaux-arts de Montreal
This museum of fine arts is Montreal’s largest, located throughout four separate pavilions, and is filled with outstanding Canadian artists who, outside of Canada, might not get their fair display time. (Like Claude Tousignant—he is fantastic!) But there are plenty of widely-known classics, too (Mapplethorpe!), and the building is a treat to be inside of.
1380 Rue Sherbrooke O, Downtown
Marché Jean Talon
This place is a paradise for the best produce of the highest quality—and filled with lots and lots of friendly and bi-lingual vendors ready to sell you their goods. It will take you hours to work your way through it, if you allow it to, and that might not be the worst idea you’ve ever had.
7070 Avenue Henri-Julien, Mile Ex
For all the best parties in honor of the city, all year long, visit the official 375 site.
MEK (Mile End Kicks)
Have we mentioned? Montreal is cold. Come here, a veritable paradise of wool socks, waterproof shoes, beanies, and large fur hats galore. If you have arrived to Montreal unprepared, you will leave here set up for life.
5403 Avenue du Park, Mile End
Frank + Oak
This combines the best of shopping, drink, and amenities in one. Frank + Oak is a high-end café (called Névé), menswear (and recently womenswear) shop, heavy on heritage style pieces, and a barber shop. So, think something along the lines of Persons of Interest in Brooklyn, the kind of concept store new to Montreal.
160 Rue Saint Viateur, Mile End
Located within easy walking distance of the metro, and quaint Old Montreal, this new hotel hosts the work of local artists, who have contributed to the guest rooms’s bright and modern décor. In the lobby, find a swing for adults (really) and an attached bar and restaurant, pleasant any time of the day. Stay here for a treat.
250 Boulevard Robert-Bourassa, Downtown
For a cheaper stay (but to see some great residential neighborhoods), consider apartments in Mile Ex, Mile End, Little Italy, Downtown, or Old Montreal.
All signage is in French, but it’s very well heated, easy to navigate, and gets you to most places you want to go, within a short walk of it, throughout the city.
The Citibike of Montreal, only in the color gray. Available in the summer only, but the best way to see the most of Montreal.
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