Montrealers love food, says food-loving Anne-Marie Pellerin. Cuisine just sounds better with a French accent – easy to find in Montreal, a city that boasts the second largest francophone population in the world, after Paris.
Pellerin is a 32-year-old tour guide in the home of bagels, poutine, Cirque de Soleil and the late Leonard Cohen, a city that mandates 240 hours of guide training and perfect bilingualism, before anyone can get a licence to tour visitors around. Despite the city’s quality control obsession, there’s nothing elitist about Montreal’s food scene. It’s surprisingly grounded, affordable, down to earth and prolific, with the highest number of restaurants and bars per capita in North America – part of the charm of the “North American metropolis with a European accent.”
Born in Chile and adopted at 6 months of age to a French Canadian family, Pellerin moved into Montreal from the outlying Laurentian mountains to attend University, and never left. “I’m a city girl,” she says. When the summer high season ends (Montreal welcomes almost 10 million visitors a year, and most of them come in the summer when the festival vibe is non-stop), and she starts to feel burnt out, she goes to NY and falls in love with Montreal all over again. “There’s just something about Montreal that’s missing elsewhere,” she says. “It’s more 24/7 than Ottawa. New York is bigger but it’s just all business. I think people here have a better balance. A better sense of the importance of the pleasure of things.”
Joie de vivre, you know?
Other notable differences that you don’t need fluency in French to pick up – there are no skyscrapers in Montreal. The downtown buildings may not exceed the height of Mont Royale, the green mountain in the heart of the city, a sacred viewscape that keeps the surprisingly open feeling of the urban heart – an island nestled between the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers.
The only city that Pellerin would rate as comparable, culturally-speaking, having travelled extensively throughout South East Asia and South and North America, is Melbourne.
That’s right. Melbourne, Australia.
So don’t be daunted by the language gap. Everyone here speaks English – although, Pellerin explains, they really appreciate it when visitors make an effort to use French, even if it’s as simple as using the city’s double-pronged greeting “Hi Bonjour.”
So here they are...
Must-Eat Experiences In Downtown Montreal
Montreal bagels, poutine and smoked meat are the holy trinity of Montreal’s gastronomy, the classics. Poutine, a cardiac-stuttering plate of French fries, ladled in gravy, and doused in cheese curds, originated as a 3am post-big-night-out tradition, a hangover-prevention tactic, that since became an icon and surprisingly delicious street food offered in “chip wagons” across the province. But Pellerin urges people to sample beyond the classics, in almost any ethnic direction. Montreal is such a cultural melting pot – the 3rd most spoken language after French and English is Arabic, and the 4 million-strong population includes 120 distinct ethnic communities, so there’s no signature cuisine. It’s all good, says Pellerin. And largely inexpensive – Montreal is one of the most affordable cities.
Coffee at Crew. Check your emails and update your facebook at one of the original co-working spaces in the main hall of the old Royal Bank tower, Crew Collectif and Cafe. When the bank relocated from old Montreal to a new location, the great Victorian era space with its stained glass windows and 15-metre ceilings, once the tallest landmark in the British Empire, and often used as a movie set, was ingeniously repurposed by film types into a creative hub and cafe. Now, old teller wickets are available as work spaces, the wi-fi is free, the coffee is great, glass-walled offices can be rented out for meetings and the vibe is low-key and productive.
The Marche Jean-Talon, in Little Italy, Montreal’s farmers market since 1933, had to reinvent itself in the 1970s when supermarkets began opening – and so it did, big-time, introducing underground parking and an open air roof. Now it is thriving as the largest open air market in North America, with 150 food vendors, mostly offering fresh produce, grown in Quebec. It attracts 2 million visitors a year, and most Montrealers make it a regular stop for their fresh produce. Recently the market added a large refrigerator for producers to contribute their overflow and excess produce, instead of it going into the dumpsters and attracting rats or dumpster divers. The overflow now is officially redirected to the needy.
- Try the sea asparagus (salty crunchy mini branch like ocean vegetables also called sea beans, or salicorn) that pair perfectly with beer. Better than a packet of chips.
- Opt for the smaller wild blueberries (bleuets sauvages), over the fat domestic ones for a tangy sweetness that far surpasses store bought or conventionally farmed berries.
- Meat-eaters must check out the nitrate-free aged charcuterie
Picnic in the park. Mont Royale and the Jean Talon market are the two most visited attractions in Montreal, followed by the Musee de Beaux Arts and Au Sommet observatory with its 360-degree lookout, which offers a great way to get your bearings. As proof of Montreal’s claim to a superior joie de vivre, you can drink in the city’s public parks, unlike anywhere else in Canada or the US, as long as you have food with you. So stock up on artisan cheese from the market – it’s pretty much the only kind you can find – and bread (or bagels and smoked salmon!), grab a bottle of wine, and “piqnique” like a boss.
Through the downtown streets, planter boxes grow tomatoes, parsley and nasturtiums. “This city cares about food,” says Pellerin. “Help yourself.” The company she founded out of guide school with a friend, Spade & Palacio, offers non-touristy bike, food and mural tours of Montreal, a chance to get beyond the beaten track of tourist must-sees – a great way to expose your palate to a uniquely made-in-Montreal food adventure.