Travel Journal: Montreal

Much like my last Travel Journal (London), this trip was business first so there’s so much I didn’t get to see/do in Montreal. But, as with London, I could tell that this was an incredibly cool city and can’t wait to return. It’s a must for Francophiles and is small enough that you can really get a feel for the city in a short amount of time. It’s also got a great food scene.

Wenesday, July 27, 2022

I arrived in Montreal with just a bit of time to kill before our panels began so I ran out to grab lunch. I wound up going to the Time Out Market because they had a bunch of options and Time Out usually knows what’s up. Several online sources directed me toward the Le Taj stall so I headed straight there. I ordered the tandoori lamb kebab (served with rice and salad) and naan. The salad was great and the naan had the perfect amount of char. My lamb was juuust a smidge dry, but overall very tasty. I would love to go to the actual restaurant because I hear it’s great – and a Montreal institution.

NOTE: I really wanted to try Kamúy, a Haitian restaurant in the area, but they aren’t open for lunch and my dinners were accounted for. My friend visited the week before and said everything they ate there was great. Other Downtown restaurants on my list that I didn’t get to try include: Escondite Union, Tiradito, Chifa, and La Finca and Crew Collective for coffee.

I spent the rest of the afternoon working but headed out to dinner with a couple co-workers at L’Express, which is apparently kinda famous in Montreal. It’s old school French and the kind of place you’d like to go with your parents. It harkened to a different generation, yet we didn’t feel like old farts. It was here that I started to realize alcohol is surprisingly cheap in Montreal. I was shocked at how inexpensive wine was, even at the nicest of restaurants. We started with a beet salad special that came with these gorgeous mushrooms. It was an unexpected sweet and earthy combo. Sophia got the duck, Yael got the ravioli, and I got the beef tartare. Only good things from each of us. My favorite part of the meal, however, was the massive jar of cournichons they placed on each table with mustard. This is a trend I would love to see appropriated.

We took the long route to dinner, which meant I got to see the absolutely lovely architecture and parks of the Plateau/Mt. Royal neighborhood.

After dinner we went to see one of our creators perform in a JFL show. (The whole reason we were there was because my company sponsored a piece of Just For Laughs, a comedy festival.)

It was late and I was exhausted when I got back to the hotel…but I worried this would be my only opportunity to try poutine so I Uber Eats’d some to the hotel. I ordered from Montreal Pool Room, a divey spot that’s been around since 1912 and seen the late night likes of Al Capone and Leonard Cohen. It seemed ideal. I ordered a steamed hot dog (oddly “a thing” there) and poutine and ate in my pjs in bed while watching Netflix. It was great.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Before diving into work, coffee was a must. We walked to nearby Pista, which Sophia found on Google, and it was a winner. My coffee was great and everyone who ordered breakfast sandwiches really enjoyed. They also had a great alcohol selection and their own canned cold brew.

From there, we walked around the McGill campus and took work calls before heading back to our homebase. We worked from the festival for the next few hours and then I ran out for some brief exploring because I knew I needed to see some of Montreal.

I had always heard the Mile End area was cool so I took an Uber there, getting out at Lester’s. Schwartz’s is probably the most famous smoked meat spot, but the lines can be insane and Lester’s also has a great reputation (and is in a great location). I ordered a smoked meat sandwich that was simple and amazing.

Apparently, Montreal has an incredibly rich Jewish history and this neighborhood is the locus of deli, rugulach, and bagels. I stopped by Cheskie’s (which is on the same street as Lester’s) for some baked goods.

I continued down Bernard Street to Drawn & Quarterly, a bookstore specializing in graphic novels. I picked up one about Leonard Cohen, Montreal’s native son (and a proud Jew who sang one of our wedding songs!) and then headed across the street to their second store devoted entirely to children’s books. The selection was fantastic so I picked up a couple books in French for Finn.

It started pouring while I was in the bookstore and eventually I just had to get soaked. I walked to St. Laurent Blvd., another of the neighborhood’s main streets to pop in and out of vintage shops. I couldn’t help but notice all the cute restaurants and stores in this neighborhood. Honestly, I kinda fell in love with it. [NOTE: I’ve included more Mile End spots I didn’t make it to at the bottom of this post.]

Before heading back to the hotel I wanted to grab a quick snack. Drogheria Fine and Kem Coba are right next to each other, but I only had enough time/belly room for one. Drogheria Fine sells amazing $5 gnocchi in a takeout container from a window. It looked incredible…but also so much food. I decided Kem Coba was my better bet and got a small scoop of ice cream which comes in rotating, inventive flavors like beurre salé and pandan (the two I tried).

Since I was a full drowned rat, I did a quick change back at the hotel before heading to a networking event and then dinner with our full crew. We went to Holder, a European brasserie that’s an Old Montreal standby. I really enjoyed my salmon tartare and they poured a great martini, but I have to admit the service was…rough. We were a large group (nine people) of predominantly English speakers and our waitress was a French-speaking trainee on her first day who insisted on practicing her English. Orders were messed up left and right and it took forever. We ended up missing the comedy show we intended to see and went to another one instead. It was decidely more chill but still fun – it was nice to see some of the off-JFL shows.

When I got back to the hotel, I showered and ate my Cheskie’s goodies in bed. There are few things better than eating in a hotel bed with clean, wet hair, especially if a fluffy bathrobe and trash tv are involved. Also, these baked goods were incredible. There’s rugalach and then there’s this extra large, croissant sized rugalach. I got the cinnamon versions and yum. But the real star was the chocolate babka straw thing. Wow.

Friday, July 29, 2022

I made sure to wake up a bit early to go back to Mile End before work kicked off because this would be my one opportunity to try the famed Montreal bagels. This style of bagel is entirely different than what you’d find anywhere else. They’re thinner, sweeter, denser, and with a more defined crust. Like Pat’s and Gino’s [cheesesteaks] in Philly, two shops have duked it out for decades. Fairmount and St. Viateur are both open 24 hours and located just a few blocks from each other. I had to see for myself who reigned supreme.

Yael was up for the adventure so we hopped in an Uber and went to Fairmount first. I grabbed a caraway bagel and a sesame matzah. We made a pitstop at Cafe Olimpico, a very cute and very Italian coffee shop, for some caffeine before grabbing our next bagels at St. Viateur. There, I got a rosmary sea salt and an apple. I wouldn’t normally go for apple, but it had just come out and I had to try a warm one. Final review: St. Viateur for the bagel, Fairmount for the matzah (which is more like a flatbread cracker). Overall these Montreal bagels were really good – I like that there was a crust to really bite into and because they’re a bit sweeter and thinner, they don’t even need toppings (though toppings are always welcome).

Then it was back to the festival for work before a client lunch at Dandy. There, I ordered the pesto pasta and shared a massive fried chicken sandwich with the table. This café seems breezy (I’d say sleek but bright) but had some fun items on the menu. It comes from the chef at Olive & Gourmando, a place that was consistently recommended.

I left straight from the restaurant to catch my flight, telling myself I MUST make it back to this cool cool city.

Montreal Details
  • Accommodations:
    • We were staying at the Doubletree in Downtown Montreal because it was the home base for our event. It’s not trendy, but the rooms were large and there’s a pool/fitness center. This is definitely the central business district, but it’s also the home of McGill University, and we all know that where there are college kids, there’s a good time. Unlike other business districts, there are some good bars and restaurants in this area. It’s also walking distance to Old Montreal so stay in this area if you can use some points and then venture to other neighborhoods during the day.
    • If you want to stay in Old Montreal, Auberge du Vieux-Port looks ideal – my number one pick.
    • There was so much to see and do in Mile End that I would totally recommend staying in that area/Plateau. Parc Avenue Lofts is the only hotel in the immediate area (though it seems amazing), but there also seem to be some really great Airbnbs.
  • Food & Drink:
    • French Food: Since you may have gone to Montreal looking for a cheaper, easier trip to Paris, make sure to eat classic French dishes like steak frites and tartare.
    • Poutine: True poutine is unique to Canada – Montreal, in particular. The cheese curds actually squeak here in a way they never do in my neck of the woods. Poutineville and Patati Patata are local faves.
    • Bagels: A Montreal style bagel is unique and you need to cast your vote for the best. In addition to St. Viateur and Fairmount, Bagel Etc. Is supposed to be great.
    • Smoked Meat: Another Montreal specialty. You think NYC has the market cornered on deli, but Montreal could give it a run for its money.
    • Steamies: Steamed hot dogs are a thing and I’m not entirely sure why.
  • Activities:
    • Old Montreal: It kills me that we went to dinner and lunch at the edge of Old Montreal (and were staying walking distance) but I didn’t get to stroll the area at all. The photos of this neighborhood look dreamy and everyone says it’s like going back in time, like a quaint cobblestone Paris in our own backyard. This is also where Notre-Dame Basilica is – the centerpiece of religion in Canada and a purely gorgeous Gothic cathedral with insane stained glass.
    • Botanical Gardens: There are themed gardens here, which just sounds like fun. It seems like a perfect escape from the city.
    • Mile End: This area is chock full of hip restaurants and funky boutiques. Other attractions in the area include: Van Horne Skatepark (not just for skaters), Marché des Possibles (an open air market May-Sept), and Jeans Jeans Jeans. I hit up one incredible bookstore, but there are a couple more to check out around here: S.W. Welch and Librarie du Square both look great.
    • Jean-Talon Market: A massive indoor/outdoor market with tons of stalls selling everything from cheese to cookbooks.
    • Hiking: Canada seems to be what they’re about when they say “the great outdoors” (Banff is on my list of places to go) and there is some great exploring to be done if you don’t mind going out of the city. Check out this list of best hikes in Quebec.
    • Street Art: There was so much incredible street art everywhere we looked. Every building was covered with the most impressive murals. You could just walk around and admiring the art for an afternoon.
  • Tips:
    • We didn’t get to really hit up the bar scene, but a few recommendations include The Wiggle Room (burlesque), Bar George, and The Coldroom.
    • This is a foodie’s heaven. Bring your appetite.
    • It’s a very walkable city, but there’s also the metro and Uber if you need it.
    • I didn’t even realize it (I know, I’m dumb), but Montreal is an island. Take advantage with waterfront activities if you go in the summer.