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Quebec’s Saint-Roch district draws hip crowd

Once left behind by mall development and shopping habits, Nuovo Saint-Roch now attracts young, hip, artsy, foodie types with its shops and restaurants.

PAMELA WRIGHT FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Once left behind by mall development and shopping habits, Nuovo Saint-Roch now attracts young, hip, artsy, foodie types with its shops and restaurants.

QUEBEC — There was a time when we wouldn’t think of traveling beyond this city’s historic walls to the gritty Saint-Roch neighborhood in Lower Town. One of the oldest boroughs in the provincial capital was a haven for the down-and-out, a jumble of worn buildings, littered streets and forgotten gardens. Not any more. After a major facelift, this fast-emerging fringe neighborhood, just a 15- to 20-minute walk from Old Quebec, has become one of the liveliest places in the city. Since 2000, some 380 million Canadian dollars have been invested into sprucing up the area, and an influx of young hipsters, artists, new shops, restaurants, and cutting edge companies has taken up residence.

“People are seeing the potential of the area. They can see that something’s happening,” says Marie-Pierre Tremblay, a local resident. This summer, Tremblay will lead a brand-new guided tour in Saint-Roch representing Quebec Food Tour. “Young people are moving in; restaurants and shops are opening. It’s still a rebel kind of neighborhood but passionate young people are pushing it forward.”

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The on-the-edge district has had many lives and transformations. Established during the French regime, Saint-Roch was once a hard-working industrial part of town. Later, it became a shopping mecca, where Quebec families came to shop the big department stores that lined rue Saint-Joseph. But when modern shopping malls began to pop up, most of the department stores closed or moved away, leading to the neighborhood’s decline. In 1970, to compete with the big malls, officials elected to turn Saint-Roch’s main promenade into a covered mall. Bad idea: The entire area became desolate and run-down; the covered mall shelter for the homeless.

Today, the cover has been removed; rue Saint-Joseph is open again, now lined with locally owned shops, one-of-a-kind boutiques, trendy restaurants, boulangeries and patisseries. There’s even a cupcake shop, chocolatier, a charcutier, and two breweries. Locals refer to the renaissance neighborhood as Nuovo Saint-Roch. “It’s breathing again,” says Tremblay, “and we like it.” We like that it’s not yet too chic; the neighborhood maintains a lure of authenticity, where locals still outnumber the tourists.

STAY HERE: The stylish Le Vincent boutique hotel (295 rue Saint-Vallier Est, 418-523-5000, www.hotellevin
cent.com; $149-$279 including full breakfast), housed in a renovated century-old building, mixes historic elements, like brick walls, with contemporary decor. The three-story, van Gogh-inspired hotel (a replica of the artist’s “The Starry Night” hangs on the wall and is mimicked in the lobby floor mural) has 10 unique rooms, with modern baths, flat-screen TVs, and luxe linens.

GRAB A BITE: “Tourists are starting to find us,” says Mathieu Brisson, chef-owner of Le Clocher Penché (203 rue Saint-Joseph Est, 418-640-0597, www
.clocherpenche.ca; entrees $21-$27). No wonder: This unpretentious and always buzzing hot spot, housed in an old bank building with tall ceilings and rich woods, offers a creative bistro menu. Most items are locally sourced and homemade, and the menu changes often, but expect dishes like black currant marinated halibut, salmon tartare, and roasted local piglet. Make a reservation to get into the tiny Patente et Machin (82 rue Saint-Joseph Ouest, 581-981-3999; entrees hover in $21-$24 range), with a handful of tables and a small bar overlooking the equally tiny kitchen. The popular, laid-back bistro is known for its made-from-scratch cuisine. The blackboard menu changes daily featuring dishes like roasted chicken bathed in a rich stock, grilled seasoned pork chops, and poached calamari. There’s a smart wine list too. Trendy Versa (432 rue du Parvis, 418-523-9995, www.versares
taurant.com, 3- to 4-course prix fixe $35-$55) claims to have the only oyster bar in Quebec. The $1 and $2 oyster specials are popular, as are main dishes like the golden beet carpaccio with goat cheese, the black pudding roast, and the rich seafood risotto made with lobster bisque and Parmesan. For a quick bite, check out Phil Smoked Meat (275, rue St-Vallier Est, 418-523-4545, www.philsmokedmeat
.com, $8.25-$13.95); the thin-crust, house-smoked meat pizza smeared with four melted cheeses is memorable. The line you see snaking out of the old Post Office building? Everything on the menu at Le Bureau de Poste (296 rue Saint-Joseph Est, 418-914-6161, www.lebureaudeposte.com) is under five dollars, drawing a youthful, pinched-budget crowd.

BROWSE THE SHOPS: Take a stroll down bustling rue Saint-Joseph and Charest Boulevard, lined with boutiques, like Flirt (525 rue Saint-Joseph, 418-529-5221, www.lingerieflirt.com), featuring European designer lingerie and swimwear; the renowned menswear designer Philippe Dubuc (537 rue Saint-Joseph, 418-614-5761, www.dubucstyle.com); colorful John Fluevog (539 rue Saint-Joseph, 581-981-4809, www.fluevog.com) with a huge selection of shoes; and Benjo (550 Blvd. Charest Est, 418-640-0001, www.benjo.ca), considered the best toy store in the city. Signatures Quebecois, located in the basement of Saint-Roch Church (560 rue Saint-Joseph, 418-648-9976, www.signaturesquebe
coises.com), features more than 20 local designers.

TAKE A LOOK: The Gothic and Romanesque Revival style Church of Saint-Roch (590 rue Saint-Joseph Est, 418-524-3577, www.saint-roch.qc.ca), built between 1914-23, is the largest in Quebec and the centerpiece of the revitalized Saint-Roch neighborhood. Around the corner you’ll find the refurbished Jardin de Saint-Roch; the leafy oasis with a waterfall, gardens, and sculptures is a popular hangout and venue for a variety of special events and festivals.

GOTTA HAVE ART: Have dinner and catch a live performance at the edgy and contemporary Le Cercle (228 rue Saint-Joseph Est, 418-948-8648, www
.le-cercle.ca), a combo restaurant, bar, and performing art and live music venue. On the same block are the historic Imperial and Le Petit Imperial theaters (252 rue Saint-Joseph, 418-523-2227, www.imperialdequebec
.com), showcasing a variety of regional and international acts.

FAVORITE WATERING HOLES: If you want to hoist a pint with some of Saint-Roch’s old-timers, grab a seat at the longstanding and scruffy Taverne Jos. Dion (65 rue Saint-Joseph Ouest, 418-525-0710). The local hangout is one of the oldest taverns in the province and still has some of the original chairs and lamps from the 1930s. If classic martinis and sophisticated ambience is more your style, check out Boudoir (441 rue du Parvis, 418-524-2777, www.boudoirlounge.com); the classy, high- ceilinged, wood-floored restaurant and lounge is a magnet for well-dressed professionals and the young hipster crowd, and the adjacent club has a lively late night music and dance scene.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.
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