Life was taking place behind glowing windows on this preternaturally balmy October night. On a walk in Montreal’s Little Burgundy neighborhood, the streets were quiet but inside restaurants were buzzing and the city’s jeunesse dorée were shoulder-to-stylish-shoulder at gallery openings.
If it sounds like I’m romanticizing the scene, I am. I had struck travel pay dirt: a hot new neighborhood laid at my feet, and I had a night to aimlessly explore this turf called Little Burgundy.
In my usual know-it-all fashion, I thought I had thoroughly chewed and digested the hot neighborhoods of Montreal years ago. As usual, I was wrong. I knew that the Mile End neighborhood was chockablock with the cool kids (genus Hipster). I was also aware that Old Montreal, the part of the city that was once jammed with tatty gift shops, is now very chic and grown-up. Not so long ago I came to Old Montreal with the intention of writing a story about how Old Montreal is the new Montreal. I was too lazy to write the story — please don’t tell my editor — but my theory was correct. The area is now known for its celebrity chef restaurants and art galleries.
Which brings us back to this balmy October night in Little Burgundy. Until a few weeks ago, I thought Little Burgundy was an inexpensive red wine. Nope. It was once a working class neighborhood that has blossomed into a hamlet dotted with incredible restaurants and boutiques. For the sake of ease, I’m going to group Little Burgundy with the Saint-Henri and Griffintown neighborhoods. All are in the southwest part of the city and have a rough-around-the-edges, blue-collar history.
The neighborhood volte-face began with the cleanup of the Lachine Canal. Artists scrambled for inexpensive studio space. This inevitably brought in the beginnings of gentrification and a rush of 20- and 30-somethings on the hunt for affordable housing. The scene is anchored by Atwater Market in Saint-Henri. Atwater, a mega farmer's market, is housed in a beautiful Art Deco tower. Set aside an hour or two to wander the aisles and check out the produce, much of it from farms around Quebec. I passed rows of passionate red raspberries and strawberries, but opted for locally made chocolates. We all know a man needs a little sugar to keep up his strength.
When I began my Little Burgundy evening excursion, I started with restaurants from the pioneering chefs who rode covered wagons into this new frontier and set up shop. Joe Beef opened in 2005 and received a considerable boost when celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain dropped in.
The English pub Burgundy Lion sits across the street. It’s part sports bar and part restaurant. I stayed long enough for a drink, but failed miserably when it came to discussing sports. I wanted to chat about the prosecco-scented soap I purchased earlier in the day at a boutique called Beige. The gent on the bar stool next to me wanted to talk about Canadian football. “Who do you think is going to take it?” he asked. “The Alouettes or the Redblacks?”
The Alouettes sounded like an effete, all-male a cappella act, so I said the Redblacks. Naturally the Alouettes won.
I needed a place where I felt slightly more comfortable discussing my prosecco-scented soap. The trouble was choosing. I passed Tuck Shop, Bitoque, Evvo, and the Drinkerie. All looked pretty wonderful. I stopped in at Code Ambiance, but felt woefully underdressed — and blasted my slovenly American ways!
I walked a few doors down to a steak house called Grinder. Like a latter-day Goldilocks, I declared, “This one is just right!” I settled at the bar to start on an amazing meal. Not long after, an animated couple appeared at my side, eager to talk. I love talking to new people, particularly locals, when I’m on the road. But this conversation was making me nervous. It starting getting a bit salty for my liking (I’m not talking about the food), peppered with questions that left me blushing. One of the few French phrases I know, ménage à trois, felt like it was about to be introduced into the conversation. I came up with a hasty excuse to leave, paid the check, and rushed back to my hotel. I guess prosecco-scented soap is a bit of an aphrodisiac. You’ve been warned, people.
Sufficiently frightened to go back to Little Burgundy, I met up with my friends Alexis and Julien at a Russian-themed cocktail bar called Kabinet (it’s connected to another Russian-themed bar called Datcha) the next night in Mile End. The conversation focused on Mile Ex, another of Montreal’s hottest new neighborhoods. Like Little Burgundy, I had never heard of Mile Ex. But Julien and Alexis said this once rough-hewn ’hood, which is less than a square mile squeezed between Little Italy and a highway, is also going through a resurgence. More condominiums are going in, and more restaurants are following suit. After cocktails and bowling at the charmingly divey Notre-Dame-des-Quilles (known as NDQ by locals), I drafted a Mile Ex plan for the next day.
Mile Ex is very easy to walk (or bike), so I started exploring by going to Marché Jean-Talon on the edge of Little Italy and Mile Ex. Like Atwater Market, the place is mammoth and filled with incredible produce. Again, I skipped anything remotely healthy and jumped to the poutine booth.
One of the first restaurants to open in Mile Ex was Dinette Triple Crown, which didn’t arrive intending to be a forebear of great things to come; the owners say it was pure coincidence and good timing. It’s an unpretentious place where you can order Southern comfort food. Contrast that with Mile Ex’s latest eatery, le Ballpark, which specializes in meatballs. Yes, meatballs.
For such a tiny area, there are some fantastic places here. My favorite (not that you asked) was Manitoba, which also opened this summer. “We wanted a taste of the forest in our plates, a taste of nature in our glasses,” reads the restaurant’s website. Much of the food was local and the look of the space was chic and rustic. Braver souls can sample deer heart and veal tongue. I played it safe with duck.
I encountered more friendly Montrealers at Manitoba — thank you again prosecco-scented soap — who invited me to a very illegal party at an abandoned warehouse. Generally when I hear the words “illegal” and “party,” I don’t hesitate. It was one of those glorious nights where DJs ironically played music from 1990 to 2000 while revelers danced in a crumbling space that looked like a set from “The Walking Dead.” If you’ve never experienced Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” in an abandoned Canadian warehouse, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Even as I write these words I’m feeling guilty. I want to tell people about Little Burgundy and Mile Ex, but I don’t want to ruin these places by turning them into tourist destinations. I want to greedily keep them to myself. If the masses begin descending, will there be enough meatballs left for me at le Ballpark, poutine at Marche Jean Talon, warehouse dance parties, and swingers on the prowl at Grinder? OK, I’ll make a deal: You take the swingers, I’ll keep the poutine.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.