Travel

Everything you positively need to know to have fun in Montreal

One in a series of stories celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.

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Microbreweries; Restaurants; Outdoors; Shopping; Poutine; Hotels; Coffee; Essential French Phrases; Attractions; Museum Exhibitions; Must-See Films; Walking Tours; Food Trucks; Festivals; Muther's Favorites; Speakeasies; Learn More

MONTREAL — “So, your parents are OK with this?”

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I eagerly nodded my head yes, and it began. I was 16 and sitting in a hair salon in Montreal as the stylist began working his magic. I was visiting the city with my church youth group, but had slipped away, without permission of course, for a little alone time. It was my first time outside of the United States, and after a few days in Montreal, I decided I needed to look more like the city’s chic denizens. That began with the right haircut.

My hair was chopped into angry spikes, streaked with dark blue dye, and then moussed to the heavens. Don’t judge. It was the 1980s.

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Not only did I love my new hair, I was in love with the city. Montreal was, and still is, both familiar and exotique (said with a heavy French accent). Even the bagels are different. It’s polished, but rough around the edges. The culinary scene is exploding, but you can find a pile of poutine or a smoked meat sandwich if you desire comfort food. My hair is no longer spiked and blue, but my love of Montreal has not faded.

On May 17, Montreal turns 375 years old.  That’s the date that Ville-Marie was established by French colonists. It’s an odd milestone to celebrate, but those familiar with the city know that celebrations are a part of daily life, particularly in the summer. One resident told me that Montreal normally has “about a million” festivals during the summer. This year she said it’s about 2 million festivals. This city of 1.7 million, and the second largest in Canada, loves to party.

I advise you to head north to celebrate as well. And, before you start pestering me for recommendations, here’s my semi-complete, and somewhat random list of must-see, must-do, and must-eat suggestions. I’ve also enlisted the help of some Montreal experts to share their favorites. Sadly, I don’t recall the name of the salon where my high school hair was dyed blue, but I do recommend trying out the very nonjudgmental shop Haircuts For Everyone. The salon began in a bike shop called Bikurious with a sign in the window offering “Lesbian Haircuts” for $15. It’s now in a new space, offering much more than lesbian haircuts.

Essential Montreal microbreweries

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MaBrasserie A massive co-op brewery in an industrial space where brewers get together to share the machinery. They have a huge tasting room with 40 local beers on tap.

Benelux An underrated veteran of the scene with a massive patio in the summer and some of the best West Coast IPAs in the city.

Brasserie Harricana What began as a brew pub is now a microbrewery. It is the prettiest beer bar in Montreal, run by women with style, and good taste in beer.

Vice & Versa Not a microbrewery, but you can find 40 beers on tap from all over Quebec. The summer patio is popular with locals.

Top five can’t-miss restaurants in the ultra-cool Little Burgundy neighborhood (and Griffintown)

Joe Beef Owners David McMillan, Frédéric Morin, and Allison Cunningham created a sensation with their imaginative cuisine. Make your reservation at least two months in advance.

Le Vin Papillon A wine bar from the Joe Beef owners, located four doors down from the flagship. No reservations accepted.

Candide A restaurant with a strict emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients.

Hvor Gastronomic restaurant with a Quebec focus. Herbs and summer vegetables are grown on a large terrace above the restaurant.

Nora Gray Three Joe Beef alumni opened this cozy, wildly popular Italian restaurant with impressive cocktails.

Top parks for soaking up sun

Parc Jeanne-Mance (at the foot of Mount-Royal) You’ll find playgrounds, two softball fields, a soccer field, a children’s pool in the summer, and outdoor skating rinks in the winter. There’s also tennis courts, picnic tables, and a beautiful art deco fountain.

Parc Lafontaine (in the Plateau) The 84-acre park has swimming pools, skating, and, most importantly, the lovely Espace Lafontaine restaurant.

Parc du Canal Lachine Picnic by the water, ride on the expansive, flat, and easy-to-navigate bike trails, kayak in the canal, or take a ride on the Petit Navire. This boat is an electrically-powered vessel that offers scenic views.

Parc Jean-Drapeau An island in itself with a huge public pool, urban beach, water slides, and a breathtaking view of the Montreal skyline.

A vendor's colorful carrots are displayed for sale at Montreal’s Jean Talon Market.

AP

A vendor's colorful carrots are displayed for sale at Montreal’s Jean Talon Market.

Top three items to buy at Atwater and Jean-Talon markets

• Cheeses from Quebec Look for Tomme du Kamouraska, Oka, le Le Bleu d’Élizabeth.

• Ice wines

• Any fruit or vegetable of the season It’s a farmer’s market, so growers come to sell their harvest of the week. Be on the lookout for the local strawberries, which are small and sweet.

Tip from Montreal expert Thom Seivewright, who
offers tours and claims that his blood type is
maple syrup:
Never buy your Montreal maple syrup in a bottle. Look for cans of syrup instead. Seivewright offers tours through his company Living Like a Local.

Top spots for the best
poutine

La Banquise A poutine lover’s dream since 1968. La Banquise is open 24 hours and serves more than 30 varieties of poutine.

Chez Claudette Open 24 hours from Thursday to Saturday, Chez Claudette doesn’t have the cache of La Banquise, but at
4 a.m. all poutine tastes wonderful.

Au Pied de Cochon The wildly popular restaurant with some of the heartiest cuisine in Québec serves over-the-top fries covered with gravy, cheese curds, and a lobe of duck liver.

Resto du Village The best (or maybe only) place to find 24-hour poutine in the gay village, Resto du Village also serves 24-hour breakfast after you’ve had your fill of fries.

Mâche Innovative poutine that pays homage to Quebec. Try the poutine with hot dogs, or the smoked meat poutine.

Top swanky boutique
hotels in Old Montreal

William Gray Hotel This recently opened gem in Old Montreal offers a lot for the old city, including a rooftop terrace, a green courtyard, a carefully curated boutique, and gorgeous rooms.

Hotel Gault One of the smallest boutique hotels in Old Montreal is often booked to capacity thanks to its prime location, imposing Haussman architecture, and the contemporary art collection.

Le Place d’Armes A modern hotel that still charms with exposed brick, hardwood floors, goose down bedding, and walk-in rain showers.

Best places to find local coffee

Dispatch Coffee What began as a cold brew delivery service has finally become a bonafide coffee shop.

Cafe Pista The business started as a pedal-powered coffee grinder and espresso machine that was brought to events and festivals during the summer. Now it’s a cafe that serves Canadian roasted coffee.

Cafe Shaughnessy Located in a well-lit and cute basement on the Claire Morissette bike path, Shaughnessy is the latest contender for best local coffee.

Essential French phrases to learn before your trip

Bonjour, comment ça va?Hello, how are you?

J’aimerais pratiquer mon français avec vous. I would like to practice my French with you.

Allô, où est la fête ce soir?Hi, where’s the party at tonight?

Est-ce que c’est un restaurant “apportez votre vin”? Is it a bring-your-own-wine restaurant?

Merci beaucoup! À bientôt!Thanks a lot, see you later!

On passe par dehors ou par le souterrain? Do we get there outside or by the underground?

Expert tip from Kyle Croutch, chef and co-owner of Le Diplomate: On a nice day head to Dinette Triple Crown in the hip Mile-Ex neighborhood. You can order a meal, and the restaurant will pack it up for you in a picnic basket with all the accessories and sauces you need. Then head across the street to leafy Martel Park and relax with your lunch. If you’ve never been to Triple Crown, start with the fried chicken, which is the best fried chicken in Montreal (sorry Rôtisserie St-Hubert). When you’re done, return the wicker basket to the restaurant.

Must-see attractions for Montreal newbies

Old Montreal and the Notre-Dame Basilica The 19th-century church should already be high on your list, and now there’s another reason to see it. The basilica is the new home of Aura, a multimillion dollar light show staged by the Montreal-based Moment Factory. The same company is responsible for a $40 million lighting project of the Jacques-Cartier Bridge. The official bridge lighting takes place May 17, Aura is currently running.

St-Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel Think of St-Viateur and Fairmont as the Joan Crawford and Bette Davis of bagel shops. They’ve been rivals for decades, and both claim to be the best. I’ll settle this argument like a gentleman and call it a tie. Montreal bagels are thinner than US bagels with a larger hole in the center.

The Montreal Fine Arts Museum This behemoth of a museum is the 18th largest in North America and despite its somewhat stuffy moniker, the Fine Arts Museum has a collection that not only includes the masters but music, film, fashion, and design as well. In November it opened an architecturally stunning new wing with innovatively staged displays of 750 pieces of art.

Marché Jean-Talon and Atwater Market These are more than mere farmer’s markets. Marché Jean-Talon (the larger of the two) and Atwater are filled with bakeries, butcher shops, casual restaurants, and, of course, enough maple products to give you cavities for life. During the summer and fall the parking lots surrounding the markets are filled with farmers and their produce.

The street art, coffee shops, bars, and thrift shops of Saint-Laurent Boulevard. A once down-trodden portion of Saint-Laurent between Sherbrooke Street and du Mont-Royal Avenue has found new life thanks to its street art scene. Every June, internationally-renown muralists come to create al fresco art and turn Saint-Laurent into an open-air museum. This year’s festival takes place June 8-18, but walk along the boulevard anytime of year and you can see these massive, professionally commissioned works of art. The murals have revitalized the street.

Expert tip from Nathalie Bondil, general director and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: In November the MMFA opened its newest building — the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace. In 2012, the couple donated 77 Old Masters paintings, the largest private art donation in Quebec. Here are Bondil’s can’t-miss works of art in the new wing: James Tissot, “October,” (1877). Otto Dix, “Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons,” 1925. Adriaen Isenbrandt, “The Adoration of the Magi,” (circa 1520). Jean-Michel Othoniel, “The Peony Knot,” 2015. Hyacinthe Rigaud, “Modello for the ‘Portrait of Louis XIV in Royal Ceremonial Robes’,” 1701.

Essential summer pop-up patio bar

AlexandraplatzYou know that the summer season has officially begun when the garage door opens on this minimalist warehouse in the Mile-Ex neighborhood. Enjoy the season with bourbon lemonade or ginger lime sake.

Expert tip from Sarah Shoucri, communications director of the Pop Montreal Festival, and self-proclaimed Montreal fashionista: Montreal has all the major international chain stores, but while you’re in the city you should take time to shop for Canadian design. Check out the feminine apparel at Betina Lou, the flirty, young designs of Eve Gravel, or the vintage-inspired jewelry of This ILK, which can be found in shops around the city.

Christopher Muther/Globe staff

Top museum exhibitions for 2017

Leonard Cohen — A Crack in Everything (Nov. 9, 2017-April 1, 2018) The tribute to the late singer (and Quebec native) at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal was conceived before his death last year and will feature commissioned work by filmmakers, visual artists and musicians including Quebec stars Ariane Moffatt, Jean Leloup, and French singer Lou Doillon.

You Say You Want a Revolution (June 17-Oct. 9) The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts stages this pop-culture driven look at the 1960s. The show was on display last fall at the Victoria & Albert in London.

Fashioning Expo 67 (through Oct. 1) The city will be filled with multiple retrospectives celebrating the 50th anniversary of Expo 67, but “Fashioning” at Musée McCord revives the sartorial adventures of the forward-looking World’s Fair.

La Balade Pour la Paix (June 5-Oct. 29) This public art walk will pay tribute to Montreal’s 375th birthday, the 50th anniversary of Expo 67, and Canada’s 150th birthday. You’ll find 67 works of sculpture and photographic instillations along Sherbrooke Street.

Essential Quebec films to watch before your trip

“C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) Jean-Marc Vallée’s coming-of-age drama about growing up gay in Catholic Quebec launched the director’s career. He went on to direct “The Young Victoria,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and most recently the HBO series “Big Little Lies.”

“Heartbeats” (2010) Montreal residents will tell you that the essential film from writer-
director-actor Xavier Dolan is the drama “Mommy,” but you get a better look at Montreal with “Heartbeats,” the story of two friends chasing the same man. Dolan is probably best known in the United States for directing Adele’s video for “Hello.” His next movie, “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” stars Jessica Chastain, Natalie Portman, Kathy Bates, and Susan Sarandon.

“Incendies” (2010) Director Denis Villeneuve’s drama about a pair of twins living in Montreal who go on a mission to find their true father and locate the brother they never knew they had was a favorite here. Villeneuve has gone on to direct 2016’s “Arrival,” and “Blade Runner 2049,” which is scheduled for release later this year.

“The Decline of the American Empire” (1986) A group of intellectuals from the Université de Montréal history department get together in the country and talk about sex. A lot of sex. Think of this as Montreal’s answer to “My Dinner With Andre,” but with endless discussions about prostitution, adultery, and STDs.

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BEST WALKING TOURS OF MONTREAL

Spade & Palacio — Beyond the Market This tour visits six (and sometimes more) restaurants and bars in the areas surrounding Marché Jean-Talon.

Local Montreal — The Montreal Brew Pub Experience Not for lightweights, or those on a diet. The Brew Pub Experience includes six craft beer tastings paired with goodies such as poutine, cheese, meats, nachos, and chocolates.

Fitz & Folwell Co. — Flavours of the Main Fitz & Folwell offers two versions of this tour (north circuit and south circuit), and both focus on the ethnic identities (and flavors) of Montreal’s neighborhoods.

Living Like a Local — Individual tours Tell Thom Seivewright of Living Like a Local your interests, and he’ll craft a Montreal tour for you and your family and friends.

BEST VANTAGE POINTS FOR PANORAMIC CITY VIEWS

• Mount-Royal Lookout

• Parc Jean-Drapeau

• Au Sommet Ville-Marie

• The Montreal Tower, La Tour du Parc Olympique

ESSENTIAL FOOD TRUCKS

Food trucks were banned in Montreal until 2013. When the ban was lifted, the food truck scene quickly ballooned, and now it’s a very large balloon. If you want to taste them all, head to the Olympic Park for the food truck festival on the first Friday of each month between June and October. It runs from 4 to 11 p.m., but I advise arriving early because many popular trucks run out of food.

Grumman 78 This is the truck that kicked off the revolution. Gaëlle Cerf, former general manager of Au Pied de Cochon, now serves Mexican-inspired food from this wildly popular truck.

DAS Truck Only in Montreal could you find a food truck that serves Bavarian-style poutine topped with schnitzel and bratwurst sausages. There’s also bacon-wrapped fried Oreos (!), and a burger topped with bacon and Nutella.

Europea Mobile Chef Jérôme Ferrer’s restaurant Europea was voted the second best in the world by Trip Advisor. Now he’s serving his high-end cuisine out of a truck at reasonable prices. Last year’s menu included lobster truffle cappuccinos, lobster rolls, maple caramel lacquered pork, and, of course, poutine.

Outdoor performances on the streets and terraces of Montreal are among the highlights of the Montreal Cirque Festival.

Rénald Laurin, courtesy of Montreal Cirque Festival

Outdoor performances on the streets and terraces of Montreal are among the highlights of the Montreal Cirque Festival.

THE ESSENTIAL FESTIVALS FOR SUMMER 2017

I’d need a few more pages to list all the city’s summer festivals, but here are a few of the best: Mural (June 8-18), Montreal Jazz Festival (June 29-July 8), Montreal Cirque Festival (July 6-16), Just For Laughs (July 12-31), Osheaga (Aug. 4-6), POP Montreal (Sept. 13-17).

CHRISTOPHER MUTHER’S MONTREAL FAVORITES

Indulge me for a moment and allow me to share some of my Montreal haunts. I’m not a local, but I visit the city enough to be considered an unofficial resident. Here are a few of the places you can often find me.

Leche Desserts You will no doubt be tempted to waste your Montreal doughnut calories at Tim Hortons. Before you order that maple glazed, I beseech you (yes, beseech!) to try the doughnuts at Leche Desserts instead. Start with the lime coconut and make your way down the menu.

Cafe Chat L’Heureux When I heard the news that Montreal would be the first city in North America with a cat cafe, I packed a bag of Meow Mix and caught a plane north. There are two cat cafes in Montreal, but Cafe Chat L’Heureux is my preferred stop. It’s a comfortable spot for lunch, and the perfect place to visit French-speaking cats. I assume they only speak French because they ignore me when I talk to them in English.

Magasin Général Lambert Gratton Earlier this month when I was meandering around the Plateau neighborhood I discovered Magasin Général Lambert Gratton. It’s a mix of vintage glassware, cards designed by Montreal artists, locally made soap (I bought maple syrup-scented soap), honey lollipops, and bags and purses. Think of it as a general store filled with items you never knew you needed.

Phonopolis Montréal/Beatnick Record Store I suspect I’ve boosted Canada’s economy thanks to my frequent trips to these record stores. Both have an extensive collection of new and used vinyl in all genres with well-informed employees.

Bouillon Bilk I was certain I had the address correct, but as I walked up and down St-Laurent there was no trace of the restaurant. Finally, I spotted the minimalist Bouillon Bilk bistro under a large 1980s sign for an electronics store advertising TVs, VCRs, and cameras. Inside, the space is beautiful. It’s pricey, but the cuisine is fresh, light, and crafted with unique ingredients.

Bar Kabinet A long, narrow bar “inspired by Imperial Russia of the 19th and early 20th centuries.” During the day it’s a coffee shop, at night it’s a bar serving delicious vodka cocktails.

Agrikol It’s a Haitian-inspired bar and restaurant owned by members of the band Arcade Fire. All you need to know is that it’s owned by members of Arcade Fire and the rum cocktails are amazing.

TOP SPEAKEASIES (BECAUSE MONTREALERS ARE OBSESSED WITH SPEAKEASIES)

Le Velvet Join the impossibly pretty crowd for electro and pop music in basement of the Auberge St. Gabriel restaurant as you order your Basil Snatch (gin, fresh basil, limonata, and sanbitter) or Payback (tequila, triple sec, kiwi, and jalapeno).

The Coldroom If you’re able to track down the entrance (at the corner of St. Vincent and St. Amable) you’ll find the this hybrid vintage-industrial speakeasy with a focus on intricate cocktails.

Le Mal Nécessaire This bar covers two of Montreal’s current trends — speakeasies and Asian-inspired bars. If you’re going to take the time to find Le Mal Nécessaire, you’ll need to order the Mai-Tai, which is served in a giant pineapple. The cocktail list consists of updated tiki classics, while the menu is small plates of Asian standards.

Maison Cloakroom Bar Maison Cloakroom is a tailor shop that makes ready-to-wear and made-to-measure suits. Upon entering you face a mirrored wall and turn right to go into the clothing store and barber shop. But after closer inspection, the mirrored wall holds a handle, which, once opened, leads into the small, marble-filled bar with room for just 25. The specialty is prohibition-era cocktails.

Henden Located under Le Bird Bar (Montreal’s newest option for fried chicken and champagne), Henden feels like a trip to Joyce DeWitt’s Moroccan summer home circa 1977.
Orange crushed velvet sofas and fabric dripping from the ceilings offer the perfect (and very petite) setting for sipping craft cocktails.

STILL HUNGRY?

Whenever I write a story about Montreal my inbox quickly fills with requests for restaurant recommendations. I’m going to save you the trouble of sending an e-mail, and share my favorites. Check websites to view menus and reservation policies. In no particular order, may I suggest: Marconi, Manitoba, Pastaga, Candide, Le Mousso, Le Fantôme, Montréal Plaza, and Tiradito.

AND FINALLY . . . 

Even a 3,500-word story (but who’s keeping count?) can’t include everything happening in Montreal this summer. But there is a website where you can find most events. The official website for Montreal’s 375th birthday is www.375mtl.com.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther. Follow him on Instagram at Chris_Muther.
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