MONTREAL -- Montreal’s neighborhood-of-the-moment didn’t seem particularly appealing on a drizzly March afternoon. Although to be fair, few parts of Montreal are appealing in mid-March. It’s the time of year when the sidewalks are still coated with a layer of grit and residual patches of gray snow stubbornly refuse to disappear.
But all of that sidewalk grit and stubborn snow could be forgiven after a glass of rosé under the intricately detailed ceiling of Bar St-Denis, one of the new businesses that have sprouted in the Petite-Patrie neighborhood. This is a neighborhood where adjectives such as “au courant” and “posh” haven’t been floated as descriptors for a decade or two, but that’s changing.
Bar St-Denis is a prime example of the evolution of Petite-Patrie. The former dive bar was reinvented last year as a chic watering hole and neighborhood eatery. Two of the bar’s owners are alums of Montreal’s illustrious Au Pied de Cochon restaurant.
“This is becoming a great neighborhood for food,” said Emily Homsy, one of the owners of Bar St-Denis as the after-work crowd began filing in for cocktails. “We studied the demographics here and could see that it’s an area that’s getting a new life.”
The Petite-Patrie neighborhood isn’t exactly a secret. It’s in the middle of the city, bordering on the well-known Jean-Talon Market and overlapping with Little Italy. Petite-Patrie is best known (among locals) for the open air shopping of Plaza St-Hubert.
Here’s your history lesson: Plaza St-Hubert, a massive shopping thoroughfare that runs from Rue de Bellechasse to Jean-Talon, was the height of retail fashion in the 1950s and 1960s. Now locals come to the 400 or so stores that line the street for discounted clothes, dollar store bric-a-brac, candy, wigs, poufy prom gowns, and wedding dresses for brides who enjoy sparkling like a rhinestone disco ball on their big day.
But like the rest of Petite-Patrie, Plaza St-Hubert is also changing. The street is undergoing a $50 million makeover, which will provide much-needed updating to infrastructure, along with a complete facelift to the Plaza’s famous glass awnings. Until the old awnings came down last year, the area looked a bit like a 1980s shopping mall.
Perhaps by now the more astute among you are wondering, “What was the impetus for all of this change?” Thank you for asking. Normally a confluence of factors leads to a neighborhood’s grand return.
Not for Petite-Patrie.
It took just one spark to relight this neighborhood’s flame: The Montreal Plaza restaurant.
When Charles-Antoine Crête, a former chef at the renowned restaurant Toqué! opened Montreal Plaza in 2015, it was big news. Montreal Plaza (the name is a nod to Plaza St-Hubert) is a whimsical kind of place where scallops are served on plastic triceratops and the staff dresses up and breaks out the sparklers to help patrons celebrate occasions.
In my notebook I jotted down “Mary Poppins meets fine dining.” Even when I was having dinner there during that miserable meteorological stretch in March the place was bright and buoyant. I asked Montreal Plaza co-owner Cheryl Johnson if I could chat with Crête, and about an hour later, after he was done rounding on guests and friends, I managed to snag him. He’s like the host of a never-ending party.
“People thought I was crazy for opening here,” he said, raking his hand through his haystack of hair. “But I had a feeling that this was the place. It’s a cool neighborhood. I’m a free spirit; I didn’t want to do what was expected. That can be boring. So this is what I did.”
Crête arrived, and shortly thereafter the restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and boutiques followed. A few of these spots are in Plaza St-Hubert proper, but most have found a home on streets that branch off of St-Hubert. If I was going to brazenly declare that Petite-Patrie was having a moment, it was my job to begin eating and shopping my way through the district so I could prove the theory.
As I strolled I came across several businesses that had just opened, such as État de Choc, where chef Stéphanie Bélanger makes luxury chocolates in an immaculate kitchen at the back of the minimalist shop. I drooled over the pastries at Restaurant Saison, and stopped and smelled the coffee at Café Pista. At a boutique called Ex-Voto I snagged a T-shirt that read “Féline Dion” featuring a small picture of a cat. Absolute genius. The store is loaded with housewares and other items you never realized that you needed, but trust me, you do.
Keep walking — I suggest doing this during months that are warmer than March — and you’ll come across Alambika, which bills itself as “the trendiest cocktail store in Montreal,” and the stylish C’est Beau boutique. There’s more, but I’m not mentioning them all here because I want you to head north and discover this neighborhood for yourself. Also, by the time you get there there will likely be several new additions.
Even in Plaza St-Hubert there are new faces emerging among the prom dress stores. Ausgang Plaza, which is a hybrid of a gallery, performance space, dance club, coffee shop, and boutique has been bringing a new crowd to the area, specifically those who sport interesting haircuts and ankle pants.
“We wanted to help change the neighborhood,” said Malick Touré, director of Ausgang Plaza. “It’s a neighborhood that reflects a lot of Montreal, but some people only think of it as the wedding dress street. I think it’s more than that.”