THE PERFECT ESCAPE: MONTREAL
The old cliche is that Montreal is like a quick trip to Paris. So much for old cliches. No one in Montreal will correct your French. The architecture, apart from the cobblestone theatrics of Old Montreal, is a tag sale of skyscraper, student and serious design. And while it may be the second largest French-speaking city in the world, it is an energetic one-off, a hybrid where 20 percent of the locals are Anglophones and the other 20 percent are busy speaking Lebanese, Syrian or Creole. If you’re looking for a French museum piece, travel north to Quebec City.
“Montreal is a bit of Brussels and Barcelona, with an attitude like Copenhagen’s,” says fashion designer and native Montrealer Philippe Dubuc. “It is a small, concentrated city, the cultural metropolis of Canada. There ‘s almost too much creative talent here for the population.”
With one foot in Europe and one in North America, this city that was founded by the French and conquered by the English has long performed a cultural pas de deux. In Montreal, you can shop for French and Quebec fashions, eat foie gras and frites, and do some serious clubbing until the sun rises over the St Lawrence River, which surrounds this island city. Flirting, not hockey, is the city’s major sport. (Photo credit: Tourisme Montreal, Stephan Poulin)
“Montreal is about all kinds of layers,” says local star architect Gilles Saucier of the firm Saucier + Perrotte, whose design for Philippe Dubuc’s boutique on Rue Saint-Denis just won the grand prize from Creativite Montreal, the city’s design board. “It’s about multi-culturalism and multi-layered everything.”
You can see those layers, in brick and stone dating back to the 17th century, in Old Montreal. The city’s four universities, including McGill, infuse it with a youthful verve. The indie music scene is thriving, thanks to local bands like Arcade Fire. And it has home-grown film stars like Marc-Andre Grodin, who starred in C.R.A.Z.Y., a gay coming of age movie set in Montreal.
“If you get bored in Montreal, then something is wrong,” says the film’s Montreal-born director, Jean-Marc Vallee.
(Photo credit: Canadian Tourism Commission, Pierre St-Jacques)
Another local, singer Rufus Wainwright, has singled out the city as an incubator of contemporary Bohemia. Indeed, a stroll through the cafes in the Plateau neighborhood or along the rainbow flag-strewn St Catherine Street, which runs through the Gay Village, prove him right. And Montreal ‘s undervalued real estate helps: think New York or San Francisco in the late 1970’s. Cheap apartments and lofts are readily available for students, artists and those who put creativity ahead of the race to accumulate wealth. People hang out in cafes, they stay up very late, and even if they’re involved in commerce, a business lunch without wine is unthinkable.
Montreal is home to a third of the province of Quebec’s population, a city long divided by French and English speakers. It was also home to the late and charismatic Prime Minster, Pierre Trudeau, and still later, a flashpoint for Quebec separatists. But today, Montreal is enjoying much-delayed economic growth. And you’ll still hear Expo 67 spoken of with pride, the world’s fair of 40 years ago that transformed Montreal from a village to a city.
The best evidence that Montreal is alive, energetic, and delightfully mixed up is in the Plateau neighborhood along Rue Saint Laurent. Montrealers call this street “The Main,” and it has traditionally separated the French and English districts of the city. In the space of a few blocks, you can find multimedia entrepreneur Daniel Langlois’s Ex Centris, a state of the art film center, where the heads of the ticket takers are projected onto video screens. The raucous Schwartz’s Deli, where “tout le monde” lines up for smoked meat sandwiches. And the Globe, which Montreal fashion designer Andy The-Anh says “is my favorite late night place to go.” And all of this is punctuated by Slovenian butcher shops, antique shops and a cornucopia of shoe stores.
“Montreal is not a spectacular city,” states Marie-Josee Lacroix, the city’s official design commissioner, who not only established an annual design competition but helped the city earn a UNESCO City of Design designation. “But it’s a city where design rules at the very small scale level. You have to walk and then you will make discoveries. You can’t find any neighborhood where gentrification has erased the past completely.”
The eclecticism of Montreal is clearly evident in it food. Ground zero for Montreal dining is Toque, the sublime lair of Norman Laprise, the city’s most famous chef. The restaurant is a modernist jewel overlooking Place Jean-Paul Riopelle and the candy-colored glass walls of the convention center. An amuse bouche like a Nova Scotia scallop shooter with cranberry juice and apple foam intercepts your taste buds like a missile.
“It is not uncommon to spend three and half or four hours over dinner in Montreal,” says Laprise. That’s easily done in this room where tables are set far apart, the pink-shirted waiters dote, and the glow from the globe lights is flattering.
In vivid contrast is Au Pied de Cochon, a madhouse overseen by chef Martin Picard, a protege of Laprise. In this temple to foie gras served in trencherman’s portions, the open kitchen appears to be staffed by a grunge band and Montreal’s chicest set vie to eat food that is politically incorrect and in your face. It is Quebec on steroids.
“Sure, it will cost you far less to eat well here than in New York or Paris,” admits Picard. “But people come to Montreal because of the uniqueness of the European style hospitality.”
In the Gay Village, La Loie, with its neo-Deco hand blown lamps done by Lampi Lampa studio, offers an intensely creative menu that borders on the eccentric in a space that looks like a neighborhood Parisian restaurant. Imagine foie gras, manicotti stuffed with Riopelle cheese and a homemade marshmallow in fig sauce on the same plate and you have some idea. There’s no sign on the door of Le Club Chasse et Peche (432 Saint-Claude), a cavern-like faux hunting lodge designed by Bruno Braen. But when you enter, you’ll find one of the buzziest places in town, thanks to an inventive menu of lasagna of braised quail and cheddar, bison shredded like pulled pork, and a tart of pine nuts and caramel.Lemeac (1045 Rue Laurier) is where Gilles Saucier or Andy The-Anh come for comfort, which means smoked herring and truffle oil salmon tartare, duck leg confit or Asian shrimp salad. An extensive French wine list and Quebec cheeses in a clean, modern bistro that stays open until midnight in the hip Outremont neighborhood.
Everyone heads to L’Express, a boisterous Paris-style bistro right down to the harried, aproned waiters bearing plates of marrow and bottles of Burgundy. The background music is a racket of clanging knives, forks, glasses and voices. You’re in the 6th arrondisment for the evening and sitting at the bar is a great option.
But Berlin is what comes to mind at Cluny Art Bar, a combination restaurant and performance space in a reclaimed industrial area known as Multimedia City, adjacent to old Montreal. The former Darling Foundry has charred 20 foot plus ceilings, factory stools for seating, and recycled bowling alley floor for tables. “It’s great for lunch,” says director Vallee.
Montreal doesn’t wow, but its neighborhoods reward the curious explorer. Begin by wandering through the French flavored hipster havens of the Plateau, Mile End and Outremont. Move on to the cobblestone streets and centuries old building in Old Montreal, which house restaurants, bars, boutique hotels and design shops. And downtown is a marvelous mix of skyscrapers and commerce that includes the expansive McGill University campus. Connect the dots with the Metro, designed by a Parisian, and later the inspiration for Washington DC’s subway.
What not to miss? The Atwater Market (138 Atwater), one of four major markets in the city, a photogenic assemblage of produce, cheeses, cidre du glace (ice cider) and flowers that’s open daily. Inside is the Premiere Moisson bakery, which serves a flaky pain au chocolate and a proper caf‚ au lait. Check out the truffle selection at Genevieve Grandbois, and sample Victor et Berthold, one of the 150 Quebec cheeses at Fromagerie Atwater. Near the Atwater Market, Joe Beef (2491 Rue Notre Dame Ouest) is a nondescript storefront where Chef David McMillan serves Buffalo frogs legs, steak Diane, and a newfound take on a Fig Newton for desert. The crowd includes film directors, serious foodies, and those who’ve just trolled the nearby trove of antique stores
Go to the Canadian Center for Architecture (1920 Rue Baile), the brainchild of architect and Seagram heir Phyllis Lambert, who can also be credited for saving much of the city from developers. Ongoing exhibitions and one of the best architecture bookstores in North America in a harmonious post-modern building that Lambert co-designed.
Habitat 67 (2600, avenue Pierre-Dupuy) was designed by architect Moshe Safdie’s for Expo 67. It’s an apartment complex that looks like a collection of children’s building blocks that have been assembled helter skelter. The 40-year-old complex has not only aged beautifully but is one of the chicest addresses in the city. You can’t go inside, but there’s a lot to admire from without.
In warm weather, rent a bike from Montreal on Wheels (27, rue de la Commune Est, 877-866-0633) and go along the bike-path next to the Lachine Canal, where industrial lofts are fast converting to residences.
Take a taxi up Mont Royal, designed in part by Frederick Law Olmstead, for the best views over the city. Then head out to Isle St Helene, where you’ll discover the Biosphere, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome built for Expo 67. Head back to Montreal proper to stroll among the exotics at the Montreal Botanical Gardens. If you can only visit one of the city’s hundred of churches, make it the Basilique de Notre-Dame, a riot of wood carving, gold leaf and stained glass. The fact that it faces the Bank of Montreal tells you as much as you need to know about the historical French-English perspective on life.
The shopping is usually pedestrian in the Underground City, but the miles of tunnels that interlace the city are a work of genius in a climate where winter must be embraced for nearly half the year.
The Belgo Building is a former fur factory that’s just a block from the Musee D’Art Contemporain downtown. With it’s worn wooden floors and dimly lit hallways, it’s more Soho 1980 than Chelsea 2007. But here are Montreal’s cutting edge galleries, such as Galerie Therese Dion, who primarily shows Quebec talent. Dion affirms that “there are lots of good artists in this city.”
And at the industrial hem of the tony Westmount neighborhood, you’ll find the many-windowed Parisian Laundry. The work of Kiki Smith and other internationally known artists hangs in a space where sheets for the city’s grandest hotels were once laundered.
Montreal’s cocktail hour is dubbed “5 a 7” (cinq a sept), the revered hours for drinks with friends. At Baldwin Barmacie (115 Laurier Ouest), the drinks come in recycled syrup bottles and the neo-Jetson’s setting draws a 30-something mixed crowd. But the real surprise is the W Hotel, which bursts out of the predictable to offer the long, red-lit bar of Le Plateau Bar as well as Bartini, a six seat, glass-enclosed private bar. There’s also Aszu ( 212 Rue Notre Dame Ouest), a wine bar with 50 wines by the glass in a sleek version of a French cave. The Pullman Bar (3424 Parc Avenue) offers high design from Bruno Braen at the edge of McGill Ghetto.
When sleep beckons, Montreal is blessed with a bumper crop of design-forward hotels that have opened in the last five years. The Hotel Le St James, a former bank, exudes a luxe temperament that includes marble floors, chandeliers and often someone’s late model Bentley purring at the front door. The clutter-free Hotel St Paul epitomizes all that is best in clean, minimalist design, with rooms that are temples of cool in Old Montreal. But The Gault, owned by Daniel Langlois and designed by Y2, raises the bar. High-ceilinged rooms come with Bertoia chairs, soaking tubs, and walls of white oak, while the spacious lobby feels like a stage and doubles as a cafe. A wood ramp leads to a library devoted to art and design books, with a cashmere-covered sectional sofa and a fireplace to ward off the city’s chill.
“The Gault is the perfect example of heritage and modernity, “says Marie Josee Lacroix, “a good example of what Montreal does best”
In this richly textured, multi-layered, and delightfully eccentric city, you could easily spend weeks without ever exhausting its riches. After decades of feuding over language and culture, the city has finally found its creative groove.
“Montreal is not only eclectic,” says fashion designer Dubuc. “It is still a best-kept secret.”
For more information, visit Tourisme Montreal.