This winter, consider a culinary and cosmopolitan weekend in chilly Montreal
Great food, great style, and possibly the world’s best bagels are reason enough to head north this season.
IT’S FRIGID OUTSIDE, even in the sun, and we’re shivering as we wait patiently in line . . . for bagels. But not just any bagels. Montreal bagels.
There’s barely room to move as we inch through the doorway and into the yeasty storefront of Fairmount Bagel, where the line weaves around loaded bakery carts like an odd theme-park attraction.
Why are we doing this? Well, in my opinion, there are just three styles of bagels: New York, Montreal, and the bland bread rings everyone else is peddling. Montreal-style bagels are boiled with honey, giving them a touch of sweetness and a crunchier crust, and then baked in a wood-fired oven. The result is a far superior bagel that’s well worth an international road trip.
But bagels aren’t the only reason we’re in Montreal for the long Presidents’ Day weekend, when it’s typically 10 to 15 degrees colder than in Boston. We’re also here because these folks don’t let the cold or snow get in the way of a good time.
Too many Bostonians either go into hiding after New Year’s — hibernating like hungover bears until spring training or Saint Patrick’s Day rouses them from slumber — or leave town altogether for sunny southern climes. But I’ll confess: I kind of like winter. OK, I didn’t like last winter, but the point is, I’m not some delicate flower who flees to Florida every February. My wife and I embrace the cold.
That’s why lively Montreal has become our go-to getaway in winter: It’s a culinary and cosmopolitan cure for the season’s spirit-breaking bleakness.
THE DRIVE FROM BOSTON is just over five hours, but the trip feels like an adventure abroad. The locals speak French, the style is tres chic, and the architecture is eclectic. In the Notre-Dame Basilica, there’s even an awe-inspiring centuries-old cathedral to gawk at.
If you look at a map of Montreal, much of the excitement happens in kind of a backward L shape — like a hockey stick, if you will — running northeast from Little Burgundy (don’t miss the year-round Atwater Market), through downtown (Rue Saint-Catherine is where you’ll see the roving packs of American college kids and bachelor parties), into beautiful Vieux Montreal (the old city). From there, things turn northwest, flanking Rue Saint-Denis through the Latin Quarter and Plateau du Mont Royal (imagine a bohemian Back Bay).
The puck cradled by that proverbial hockey stick is the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Parc du Mont-Royal, where in winter you’ll find a toboggan run, snow tubing, ice skating, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing all within the city limits. Equipment rentals ($5-$18) are available at the Beaver Lake Pavilion with a photo ID.
We’re staying at Auberge Le 9 et Demi on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, a modest boutique hotel in the Plateau. When we arrive, we’re greeted not by the owner but by a note — instructing us to pick up our keys from the quirky little coffee shop next door.
The barista is expecting us and hands over our room keys with a smile. We traipse up the stairs of the narrow walk-up, past the kitchen and common area, to our Spartan but cheerful room. It has a nice view of the street below, and at under $100 a night, it’s dirt cheap for such a prime location.
But whatever the bargain, not every traveler can handle a shared bathroom (nor thin walls in a romantic city). Of course, there are hotels of every stripe available — many offer 50 percent off your second night during winter — and Montreal is also Canada’s most popular Airbnb destination, if you prefer a vacation rental. Plus, there are dozens of appealing bed-and-breakfasts, too.
On a previous trip, we stayed at Auberge Les Bons Matins, a higher-end B & B downtown, steps from the Metro and the Bell Centre (where the Bruins play the Canadiens on December 9). While the neighborhood felt a bit deserted at night, our room was one of the most luxurious we’ve ever stayed in, with a working fireplace, four-poster bed, and gigantic whirlpool tub. And if you dread the awkward pre-coffee conversations of communal B & B breakfasts like I do, fear not: Morning at Les Bons Matins felt and functioned more like a hip full-service restaurant — and a really good one at that, offering savory and sweet breakfast standards such as eggs Benedict and French toast, drenched in pure maple syrup, of course.
ONE REASON I LOVE visiting Montreal is that it’s a very forgiving tourist destination: You can walk around aimlessly and still have an incredible time. It’s that rare city where it’s hard to find a bad meal; here, even cheap pub fare or 2 a.m. takeout can surprise you.
We eat dinner at Les Deux Gamins, a romantic French restaurant and wine bar on the pedestrian-only Prince Arthur East — a picturesque stretch to stroll off some caloric indulgences. Inside, there’s a cozy fireplace, and giant windowed garage doors offer a floor-to-ceiling view of the snowy street outside. As the waiter delivers a steamy bowl of French onion soup, he casually drops off a buttery baguette, perfectly crusty. When I tell him I haven’t tasted one this good since a trip to Paris, he shrugs as if to say: “What? It’s just our bread.”
Later that night, after bouncing between a couple of the city’s excellent brew pubs, we’re ready to gorge on Montreal’s cheap and plentiful poutine. This humble French Canadian specialty of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds can be found at inflated prices on a few Boston menus — and to be sure, you can get a fancy poutine in Montreal; one of the most celebrated is the $24 foie gras poutine at Au Pied de Cochon. But real poutine is a gooey, savory starch bomb best enjoyed after a long night at the bars, and my late-night poutine from one of the many generic takeout joints dotting the street is appallingly good for just five bucks.
On Saint-Laurent the next day, we roam the nearby streets, ducking into inviting coffee shops and cute boutiques to warm up — and load up, on inexpensive European fashions. Lately, the American dollar is as strong as it’s been in years, currently worth about $1.32 Canadian, which means almost everything here comes at a 25 to 30 percent discount compared with just two years ago.
As night falls, the walking and cold air have stirred our appetites again. On Rue Saint-Denis, we stumble across L’Express — a Montreal institution, it turns out, jammed on this Sunday evening despite no visible sign on the door — and get the last available table. The egalitarian bustle in this black-and-white bistro makes us feel like we’re inside a Parisian postcard.
On our way home from yet another incredible meal, we stop by the long-running Sunday bluegrass night at Barfly, a grimy dive bar on Saint-Laurent. The music doesn’t get going until after 11 p.m., but before long it accelerates into a full-on frenzy of banjo, fiddle, guitar, upright bass, and sweet harmonies. The beer and bluegrass go down so easily that my wife stops paying attention to her purse. Only later do we discover that someone stole most of her Canadian cash. But her wallet and passport survive — in Canada, even the pickpockets are considerate — and we’ve had too much fun to let it dampen the night.
The next morning, we get a breakfast of crepes, coffee, and fresh juice at tiny, artsy Chez Jose on Avenue Duluth, tucked into a beautiful residential neighborhood of brightly painted Victorian row houses and wrought-iron railings. And that’s when I start to check out Montreal real estate listings. Every time I visit, I want to move there.
But after breakfast, I shake off the daydreams; it’s time to hit the road. Well, after one final stop.
We park on the street in Mile End, the neighborhood where two traditional bakeries — Fairmount and St.-Viateur — have dominated the Montreal bagel trade for decades. Demand is so great that both shops stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We discovered these otherworldly specimens at Fairmount, and we’ve remained loyal since. While their bagels are fairly cheap, it’s cash only. So on our way out of town, we stop to drain our pockets, spending every last Canadian coin on sesame bagels — which we’ll stuff into our freezer like greedy gluten hoarders.
On our drive back to Boston, the windows fog up with the warm, doughy scent of dozens of bagels in the back seat. We finally get out of the car in Quincy, and I’ll be damned — the 36-degree air feels . . . warm? Like it might as well be springtime here. Maybe it was the frigid Quebec temperatures or the rich, salty food, but our blood has definitely thickened. I realize that coasting through the rest of winter will be a breeze — especially with a six-week stash of bagels to get us through.
IF YOU GO
> Don’t sweat the language. About two-thirds of Montrealers count French as their native tongue, but most speak English as well.
> Bring your passport. You’ll need a valid passport to cross the border.
> Find a festival. “Try to time your visit for one of the city’s winter festivals, like Igloofest, Montreal en Lumiere, or Fete des Neiges,” says Christine Sarkis, senior editor of SmarterTravel.com.
> Fill your tank before leaving the US. Gas in New Hampshire is about 36 percent cheaper than in Canada, despite the favorable exchange rate.
WHERE TO STAY
> Auberge Le 9 et Demi
Clean but modest budget hotel located on “The Main” — the pumping heart of the Plateau — where double-occupancy rooms start at $80 Canadian. 4133 Saint-Laurent Boulevard, 514-842-4451; le9etdemi.com
> Auberge Les Bons Matins
Luxurious, charming, and cheerful bed-and-breakfast near the Bell Centre downtown, where rates start at $139. 1401 Avenue Argyle, 800-588-5280; bonsmatins.com
WHERE TO EAT
> Fairmount Bagel
> Les Deux Gamins
French restaurant and wine bar. 170 Prince Arthur East, 514-288-3389; lesdeuxgaminsmontreal.com
This French bistro, an institution after more than 30 years, evokes Paris in both its look and cuisine. 3927 Rue Saint-Denis, 514-845-5333; restaurantlexpress.com
Grimy dive bar with live music most evenings, including a long-running Sunday bluegrass night. 4062 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, 514-284-6665
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