A few weekends ago, Andy and I took a 55-minute flight from New York to Montreal to celebrate our 20th anniversary. I had never been, and we were only going for 48 hours, so we had some crucial decisions to make, especially as those decisions related to eating and drinking. There is only so much one can consume over the course of two days in one of the more serious eating cities in North America — Montreal definitely lands squarely in the category of Food Anxiety Town — and by all accounts, we felt like we did things right. Montreal is the city of poutine and smoked meat and foie gras and pig trotters and bagels and boulangeries, and temples of gluttony like Joe Beef, which meant, in addition to planning a tight restaurant itinerary, I needed to shed all pretenses of moderation and mentally prepare to eat my face off. Note before I even begin: I want to a) thank all the readers who, way back when, commented with Montreal restaurant recs and b) apologize to half of those readers for not getting to all the places you mentioned. Since presumably, you know Montreal, you know that this is not my fault. (That’s why we’re going back!) Here’s what went down.
Friday, Late Morning Our flight from New York landed ahead of schedule and we headed to our hotel, The William Gray, to check in early. It’s located in the heart of Old Montreal along the St. Lawrence river, and the plan was to spend most of that afternoon eating and exploring the neighborhood, with the ultimate goal being lunch. Even more immediate a need, though, was a latte or a good cup of coffee, one that would hopefully erase all memories of the sad cup we endured at LaGuardia a few hours earlier. (I sincerely hope good coffee has been built into the nightmare LGA renovation plan.) We found it at Maison Christian Faure on Place Royal, just off Saint Paul, and, since it was almost lunch, had to do our best to resist the pastries and sweets and artisanal marshmallows screaming our names…or maybe our kids’ names, I never know the difference anymore.
I’m not saying anything original here, but walking through Old Montreal feels like walking in Paris. It’s crazy to take a one-hour flight from home and feel like you’ve crossed an ocean. We spent a lot of time stopping and staring at storefronts like this one.
Friday Lunch We ducked into some of the boutique-y stores along Rue Saint Paul before heading to Olive et Gourmando (thanks, readers!) for lunch. This was me after they told us it would be a 30- to 40-minute wait. Notice I’m still smiling! I was starving, but it was such a beautiful fall day — we really lucked out with weather, high 50s, low 60s, bright blue sky — so I didn’t even mind. Plus, I could’ve happily killed a couple hours in lifestyle mecca Espace Pepin right across the street.
O&G was worth the wait. The energy was buzzy and cozy and you could tell instantly that the place was a real Montreal institution. We split a soba noodle salad with tofu, edamame, and greens and a grilled cheese made with raclette, gouda, and caramelized onion. We also ordered two glasses of Muscadet — you know you’re old when a glass of wine in the middle of the day feels like about the most rebellious thing you can do.
Friday, Late Afternoon There was more wandering along the river and through Old Montreal, and then a cocktail at The Coldroom before dinner. It was a 30-second walk from our hotel and was one of those places that had no sign outside. You had to be buzzed in, then be led down an industrial staircase to the low-ceilinged bar area. It was packed. When we sat down at the bar, the overalled, tattooed bartender gave us a free shot of something to hold us over — a citrusy beer concoction. “It might be a wait,” she told us, but we’ve never seen a bartender work so hard and so fast and we could’ve watched her all day. I went with this above, the Lavender Bees Knees, made with gin, lavender, honey and lemon. It went down easy.
Friday dinner was at Foxy, the culinary highlight of the trip, maybe one of the culinary highlights of my year. If Montreal is a city that’s made for winter, this is the restaurant that is made for a winter city. Warm and inviting with a roaring wood-fire oven in the back room, it’s exactly how I’d eat every night in cold weather if I could. Almost everything is cooked in the wood-fire oven — pizzas, smoked meats and fish, flatbreads. This is a terrible photo, but it was imperative that I document the dish that I want to remember forever: A oven-baked feta with concord grapes, almonds, and currants served with warm, puffy flatbread. If ordering that was the smartest thing we did at Foxy, the second smartest thing we did was reserving two seats at the bar so we could have access to our excellent bartender, Daphne. Reminder: When visiting a new city, always ask your bartender or server for their favorite local places. Foxy was out-of-control busy — especially the bar — but before we left, Daphne handed us this sheet of paper outlining an ideal Saturday itinerary for her home town. I mean, seriously. If that’s not the best service…
These were the musts on Daphne’s dinner list: Marconi, Bouillon Bilk, and Damas. (All of which, I believe, showed up as DALS reader recs.) She said, if you go one place, go to upscale Syrian favorite Damas. “It’s special.” We tried, but reservations were impossible to come by. Advice to future travelers: Book ahead.
Saturday, Breakfast at Larry’s. We decided to go for a short run from our neighborhood to Mile End, and reward our efforts with breakfast at Larry’s, about 2.5 miles away. When I was helping out in the Bon Appetit offices a few months ago, I edited a travel story about Montreal where the hilarious Tyler Kord described Larry’s as the kind of place that you’d have to wait for hours to get into if it was in Brooklyn or Silver Lake. Even super early on a Saturday there were college-age kids on laptops and one reading a literary journal at a table by the window. The coffee was strong, the menu was simple, and though I felt guilty about not eating a bagel in the land of bagels (they didn’t sell any) I recovered as soon as my Pikalet arrived. It was like a mini corn pancake that the server recommended pairing with smoked salmon and also syrup. Good grief. No regrets on my end. (Note: Larry’s is also open for lunch and dinner and the bar looked intimate and fun; highly recommend trying that out.)
Saturday, Late Morning Even though the Parc du Mont-Royal was a quick walk from Larry’s, we Ubered back to the hotel to shower (remember, we were in our running clothes; not the smartest planning) only to head right back to the same neighborhood (Mile End, Plateau, the Park) to start our exploring. We worried that the end of October was going to be too late to get the full fall foliage effect, but the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park was golden and glorious. In the winter, you can snowshoe and tube and and ice skate in the park, but we were happy people-watching…
…and hiking the hilly trails to various peaks that offered beautiful views of the city. What I also remember about this activity: Staring at our phones waiting for Phoebe to text us an update from her cross-country meet. You can take the parents out of their routine…
Naturally, after expending all that energy, we needed a mid-morning latte. We found it at Café Névé, one of Daphne’s picks in the Little Portugal area of Le Plateau. They are apparently well-known for their ginormous fresh-baked cookies, too, but we knew we had to save our stomach real estate for…
Lunch at Schwartz’s The oldest Jewish deli in Montreal, famous for their smoked meat sandwiches, was on literally every Montreal Recommendation list we came across. To the point where we wondered if it was going to be too touristy. I’m glad we ignored that voice of doubt and endured the legendary line anyway. Check out the sky by the way.
During our 48 hours in Montreal, we didn’t have poutine, we didn’t have foie gras at Au Pied du Cochon, we didn’t go to Joe Beef, arguably the most well-known temple of meat-and-sausage-and-bacon fueled gluttony in the city. But we did have the smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s, so I think we can still hold our heads high. The servers reminded me of the servers at Katz’s in New York, surly and rushed, and the only kind you really want at a place like this. We ordered one sandwich to share, but I knew almost instantly the waiter was going to ignore that request and bring two. Thank goodness I was right. (What were we thinking anyway?) Their smoked meat sandwiches are essentially similar to pastrami or corned beef sandwiches, but a little more peppery and always served on Rye with yellow mustard. My father would’ve gone crazy.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking off our lunch and weaving in and out of the trendy stores on Boulevard Saint Laurent, cutting across Avenue Saint Viateur (where we finally bought a few famous bagels)…
…Hit a cool bookstore, Drawn & Quarterly on Rue St Bernard…
…ogled some design-y candles at a store, the name of which I can’t remember! (Sorry! I loved this photo so much I couldn’t help myself.)
We ended our Saint Laurent wandering with a pastry at Boulangerie Hof Kelsten for an afternoon treat. The brisket sandwich here, served with sliced apples, pickled cabbage, and Russian dressing is supposed to be mind-blowing. But we had met our smoked meat quota for the day already and plus, we had reservations only an hour or two later at…
Nora Gray When I made the reservation here, I had it in my head that this was going to be the official anniversary dinner and it delivered big on that. The lighting was amber and soft, the vibe was chic — warm-chic, not intimidating chic — and there was a very high percentage of diners wearing black. We ate house made gnocchi and beautiful beet salads with almonds and goat cheese. I wouldn’t take the kids here if they had been with me, but I guess that was the point..
Sunday Morning We needed to leave for the airport by 11:00 which meant we had just enough time to grab a coffee at Cafe Olimpico in the lobby (only an outpost; the main one is in Mile End) then hit the massive Jean-Talon market in Little Italy, about a 20-minute drive from the hotel. Our weather luck had run out and it was pouring, but we figured we’d try to snag some last-minute food gifts for the kids and all the friends who were driving our kids everywhere while we were away. We were inside a beautiful little chocolate shop when Andy got an alert from Air Canada: Due to weather, your flight has been canceled. They rebooked us for a flight that wouldn’t have gotten us home at midnight, so we sat at one of the picnic tables next to a giant display of fall apples and booked a rental car. An hour later we were in a compact economy on 87 south, barreling home to New York. It was a six-hour rainy drive, but it served mainly to remind us how great a road trip it would make next summer when we return with the kids. There’s no way that’s not happening. Especially since we never ate poutine.
Thanks, Montreal. We miss you!
P.S. For more ideas, pick up a copy of the December 2017 issue of Bon Appetit. Tyler Kord wrote a seriously entertaining story on Montreal eating and exploring.