The Foodie Capital of Canada

As Montreal gears up for the International Jazz Festival, Michele Willens takes a look at the amazing architecture, art, hotels, and the utterly scrumptious food scene in the City of Saints.

Tim Draper/Getty

Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, the man behind Montreal’s Habitat ’67—an iconic building of stacked modular units—is still designing at 75. Rose-Aimee Belanger, an artist (and mother of eight) whose whimsical works of bronze women adorn the city, is still sculpting at 91. Chef Emma Risa’s restaurant—in what was once a women’s prison—continues to satisfy the hip and hungry. She is in her mid 70s.

Experience and longevity are clearly admired in Montreal, but it is simultaneously becoming a haven for younger generations who come for the food, the convenience, the friendly French hospitality (yes, you read that right), and well, just about everything but the weather. Gorgeous old buildings sit alongside more contemporary structures, and the sight and sounds of bulldozers can’t be denied. The challenge is remaining special and unique. “Montreal feels like a trip to Paris at a fraction of the distance and cost,” New York businessman Jeff Ravetz says.

Fall and early summer are the ideal times to visit, in-between the bitter winters and the humidity of the hot August nights. A record number of tourists will soon descend on the city, as Montreal’s famed International Jazz Festival runs from June 26 through July 6. During the ten days, some 3000 musical artists from 30 countries will perform. The events take place throughout the city with two thirds of them charging no admission.

The only thing more revered by the locals than jazz is hockey, which was taking center stage on my recent visit. I was instructed not to tell anyone I was from New York, since the Rangers were in the playoffs with Montreal’s home team, the Canadiens. There was literally a pall over the city when the Rangers won the first two games. But it passed, and soon folks of all ages re-emerged and resumed strolling along the Lachine Canal and filling the stalls at the two famed outdoor daily markets, the Atwater and the Jean Talon.

Third on the list of passions in Montreal is weekend brunch, almost a mandatory ritual, which you can judge by lining up at a place like Le Cartet in Old (Vieux) Montreal between 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. There is also always Schwartzes, the city’s most celebrated deli. Before you chuckle, the city is famous for its bagels…think crispy and almost scooped out. They are so popular that Black Seed Bagels has now opened in New York selling Montreal-style bagels, and the lines are long.

Food, in large part, is what is currently putting this city up there with the greats. “The biggest change in the last few years is the number of restaurants that have been opened by young, talented chefs doing their own thing,” writer Adam Gollner says. “There’s a group of excellent places like Bouillon Bilk, Lawrence, Labo Culinaire, Nora Gray, Hotel Herman—that are all run by passionate young teams, and I love the energy.”

The former food critic and author Ruth Reichl agrees that Montreal has progressed leaps and bounds since she was a boarding school student there many years ago. “I hated it then, but now it’s the coolest town,” she says. “Don’t miss the markets and go to Joe Beef.”

My own favorite eateries include Brasserie T, La Fabrique, and the reliably great L’Express, the latter two in the eclectic and edgier Plateau neighborhood. Breakfast or lunch at the ever-crowded Olive And Gourmando is a must. I confess I only made it to Da Emma for a late night cappucino, just long enough for a visit with the robust mama in the kitchen. She speaks no English, but I could taste her warmth and her pride in her homemade, old-school Roman cuisine. Her restaurant is also the place to see famous visiting fans like Leonardo Di Caprio and former president Bill Clinton.

Art, too, is everywhere in Montreal, with the best selection of contemporary galleries along Avenue St. Paul. That is where Rose Aimee Berlanger had a recent exhibit of her bronzed babes. Then there are the museums, including the world class Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. This one literally takes up four corners on Rue Sherbrooke, all navigable via underground routes. (Underground tunnels are also the way to experience the city’s expansive malls, built to avoid those chilly temperatures.)

The most impressive wing of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was designed by Moshe Safdie. Modernist in style, it has a great sloping roof and circular windows offering views of the city. Safdie has designed all over the world, but Montreal is close to his heart and put him on the map with his Habitat, which was built as a pavilion for the World Expo of 1967. Safdie, now based in Boston, still visits Montreal often and offers a cautionary note about all the construction going on.

“There have been a lot of new office buildings going up, but I haven’t seen anything particularly interesting,” he says. “I fear Toronto has the upper hand on exceptional commercial projects, but what saves Montreal is its street and cultural life.” Safdie says he’d hoped Habitat would be a “template for the world” for innovative middle-income housing, and was disappointed when decades went by with few followers. ”But now it is being duplicated in other countries so it still has impact,” he says. “And it’s become a hip place in Montreal for professors and writers.”

Must-see lists in Montreal include the Mount Royale (from whence the city got its name), a fairly steep climb up some 15 flights of stairs. Just west of downtown, and close to McGill University (the only Canadian school consistently among the top 25 in world rankings), this hill is in a gorgeous scenic park. On a clear, sunny day it is filled with multi-generations of people, and offers the best view of the city. The area is part of what is called the Golden Mile, filled with elegant living complexes and Beverly Hills and Madison Avenue-quality stores and galleries.

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There is no shortage of fine hotels in Montreal and here too, the small and cool mix with the old and stately. I chose the boutique-style Hotel Gault in the old section, but one of the highlights was a drink in the bar of the venerable and elegant St. James Hotel. We knew it doesn’t take itself too seriously when we noticed the TV screens were playing The Three Stooges.

Travelers to Montreal all have their favorite spots and memories, of course. For Los Angeles attorney Len Jacoby, who visited in September, the highlight was, “riding the bikes that have pickup and drop-offs all over. This was especially good for the Botanical Gardens which are a long way from the rest of the city.” Screenwriter Wendy Kout, who rented a loft for a month, says, “We were able to experience the transition from stark winter to green Spring, explore the diverse neighborhoods, ascend Mount Royal, and, mostly, feel welcomed by the International populace.”

All of that will be waiting for those heading to Montreal soon, as well as a Digital Arts Biennale, countless sidewalk sales, and of course, the Jazz Fest where visitors can look forward to hearing Aretha Franklin, BB King, and Leonard Cohen. Like chef Emma, architect Moshe, and artist Rose Aimee, those three musicians have been creating great art for a long time. They will be applauded by young and old alike, and that pretty much sums up Montreal.