By DENNY LEE
Published: August 12, 2010
FRENCH or English? One of the beautiful things about Montreal is that you never know in what language you will be greeted. Which brings up a second thing: Maybe it’s the good food, the open skies or the free-spirited students who call this city their campus, but the folks of Montreal are friendly. Ask someone for directions in the Métro, part of the vast Underground City that stays toasty during the winter, and you may end up making drinks plans later. That’s not a bad thing, bien sûr. With the city’s music-charged night life, slaughterhouse-chic restaurants and post-industrial revival, it helps to have a guide.
1) GET WHEELS
Public bikes are sweeping Europe, so leave it to Montreal, “the other Paris,” to popularize the concept in North America. Some 5,000 gray-and-red Bixi bikes were deployed last spring, becoming an instant hit. Familiarize yourself with the system: it’s as easy as swiping a credit card at one of the 400 Bixi stations and going for a spin. (Go to bixi.com for details.) It’s one of the quickest ways to get around and, at 5 Canadian dollars (about the same in U.S. dollars) for 24 hours, among the cheapest. To find the nearest Bixi station, including a large one on Rue McGill with 20 docks, download one of the many iPhone apps that offer real-time updates on available bikes including Bixou Lite (free).
2) DOWNTOWN ROLL
A bike is only as good as the network it’s on. And Montreal delivers, with 310-plus miles of bike lanes that crisscross the city, about half of which are physically separated from cars. To see why Montreal was designated a Unesco City of Design in 2006, point your handlebars toward the Lachine Canal, a former industrial waterfront that has been transformed into a lush green belt. The path is dotted with architectural gems like Habitat 67 (2600, avenue Pierre-Dupuy; habitat67.com), the Brutalist-style experiment in modular housing designed by Moshe Safdie. Or pedal along Boulevard de Maisonneuve, which cuts through downtown Montreal, where a 2.1-mile path was recently named after the late Claire Morissette, a cycling activist.
3) QUÉBÉCOIS PLATES
Maybe it’s the hype, but Toqué!, once praised by critics as the city’s best restaurant, seems to have slipped. The most memorable thing about a recent dinner was the high price: 200 Canadian dollars for two, not including wine. Happily, Normand Laprise, who pioneered the use of fresh Québécois ingredients at Toqué!, opened a midpriced sister restaurant this summer, Brasserie t! (1425, rue Jeanne Mance; 514-282-0808; brasserie-t.com). Situated at the foot of the Contemporary Art Museum, the brasserie looks like a sleek cargo container. Inside, a contemporary French menu showcases unfussy dishes like grilled flank steak and cod brandade; early reviews have been favorable. Dinner for two: 60 dollars, without wine.
4) MUSICAL MILE
The music snobs may have moved on, but it’s still impossible to talk about the Mile End district without name-dropping bands like Arcade Fire and the gritty stages that gave them their start. The beloved Green Room recently closed because of a fire, but upstart bands are still jamming at Divan Orange (4234, boulevard St.-Laurent; 514-840-9090; divanorange.org). Farther east, with a bigger stage and sound, is Il Motore (179, rue Jean-Talon Ouest; ilmotore.ca). To see who’s playing, pick up either of the two free art weeklies, Hour or Mirror.
5) LIKE THE MARAIS
While Mile End is still the place to hear bands, its retail scene has cooled off. The action has shifted to Old Montreal, where historic cobblestones and high foot traffic ensures the survival of indie boutiques. For homegrown designers like Denis Gagnon and Arielle de Pinto, squeeze inside Reborn (231, rue St.-Paul Ouest; 514-499-8549; reborn.ws), a small shop with a sharp eye. Down the block is À Table Tout Le Monde (361, rue St.-Paul Ouest; 514-750-0311; atabletoutlemonde.com), an elegant store that carries exquisitely crafted ceramics and housewares. And while you’re exploring the historic district, drop into DHC Art (451, rue St.-Jean; 514-849-3742; dhc-art.org), one of the city’s leading contemporary art galleries.
6) THREE LITTLE PIGS
Blame it on the poutine and foie gras, but Montreal was early to the nose-to-tail game, with countless meat-centric restaurants around town. But how many can also claim their own organic garden out back? That’s one of the surprises at McKiernan (2485, rue Notre-Dame Ouest; 514-759-6677; mckiernanbaravin.com), the latest in a mini-empire of restaurants from the same trio behind the much-hyped Joe Beef and Liverpool House, which are next door. Another surprise? McKiernan might look like a farm-stand luncheonette, with checkered wax paper liners and tin baskets, but the food is top flight. Try the porchetta tacos, made with fresh tortillas (11 dollars).
7) CITY OF DESIGN
For the third summer in a row, the aptly named Gay Village has been closed off to traffic, creating a pedestrian mall along Rue Ste.-Catherine. But unless you want to start drinking at this hour, there’s not much to do. A more inviting strip is around the corner, along Rue Amherst, where a string of design shops, some gay-owned, have sprung up. Start at Headquarters Galerie + Boutique (No. 1649; 514-678-2923; hqgalerieboutique.com) for novelties and such, then pop into Antiquités Curiosités (No. 1769; 514-525-8772), crammed with little treasures. One of the smallest is also the nicest, Montreal Modern (No. 1851; 514-293-7903; mtlmodern.com), which feels like a midcentury modern jewel box.
8) FRENCH BITES
A neighborhood wine bar that happens to serve terrific food is one of those pleasures that make Paris, well, Paris. That’s the vibe at Buvette Chez Simone (4869, avenue du Parc; 514-750-6577; buvettechezsimone.com), an oaky bar in Mile End with sly design touches and a comfy brasserie menu. A roast chicken, served on a carving board with roasted potatoes, plus a green salad, is about 50 dollars for two. If you’re hankering for more inventive fare, bike over to Pullman (3424, avenue du Parc; 514-288-7779; pullman-mtl.com), a high-end tapas bar that serves clever plates like venison tartare, foie gras cookies, and olives with candied lemon (2 to 18 dollars each). The crowd at both restaurants skews young, fashionable and chatty.
9) ELECTRONIC ARTISTS
In another sign of Euro-flair, techno music is huge in Montreal. And one of the coolest parties is thrown by Neon (iloveneon.ca), a digital music collective that has showcased a who’s who of electronic artists like Glass Candy and Hudson Mohawke. Many events take place at Le Belmont Sur Le Boulevard (4483, boulevard St.-Laurent; 514-845-8443; lebelmont.com), an intimate club that has a pool table up front, and a pulsing sound system in the rear. For a more analog vibe, head to Velvet Speakeasy (420, rue St.-Gabriel; velvetspeakeasy.ca), a posh club that opened last October in the Old Port district.
10) EGGS TO GO
For a delightful brunch served in an old town house with communal tables, look no farther than Le Cartet (106, rue McGill; 514-871-8887). Part cafe, part grocery store, Le Cartet draws young families and professionals with hearty platters of eggs that come with figs, cheese and salad greens (about 16 dollars). On your way out, feel free to stock up on crusty baguettes, French mustards and picnic cheeses.
11) DANCING MAN
If the sun is out, join Montreal’s barefoot and pierced crowd at Piknic Électronik (piknicelectronik.com), an outdoor rave held on Île Ste.-Hélène during the summer. Bike or take the Métro to Jean-Drapeau Park, and follow the slithering beats to the Man, a giant sculpture created by Alexander Calder for the 1967 Expo. It hovers over the dance floor, like a space-age cathedral. The leafy island has other architectural ruins from the Expo. Between beats, stroll over to the Montreal Biosphere (biosphere.ec.gc.ca), the iconic geodesic dome that still evokes a utopian vision of technology. It’s also a good place to meet friends.
IF YOU GO
Multiple airlines, including Air Canada, American Airlines and Continental, fly nonstop to Montreal from New York. A recent Web search found round-trip fares starting at about $340. The scenic drive from New York takes roughly seven hours, and is an easy trip up Interstate 87.
Montreal’s newest luxury property, the 123-room Le St.-Martin Hôtel Particulier (980, boulevard de Maisonneuve Ouest; 514-843-3000; lestmartinmontreal.com), opened in June in a 17-story building downtown with an outdoor pool and fitness center. Rooms from about 225 Canadian dollars.
Le Petit Hôtel (168, rue St.-Paul Ouest; 514-940-0360; petithotelmontreal.com) opened in 2009 in a 19th-century building in Old Montreal with 24 cozy but modern rooms. Rooms start from 148 to 188 dollars, depending on season.
**************************************************************Having visited Montreal several times since 2001, my recommendations for a great visit:
Stay at Hotel Europa downtown or the Econo Lodge near Rue St. Lawrence
Eat at Mr. Steer - good food - an extensive menu, modest prices, and you can get wine and beer, too
Drink at McLean's Pub - a sports bar in an antique atmosphere. A beautiful, high bar, comfy bar stools and t.v.s all over the place. Munchies, appetizers and actual food too, should you be so inclined. Mr. Don and I spent more than a few hours arguing over our drinks at McLeans :)
Visit Chinatown, the historical museum, explore all along Rue St. Lawrence and Rue St. Catherine -- tons of quirky shops, great dash-in and dash-out delis and quick restaurants, bars, bookstores, too much to talk about, always something new and fascinating (well, at least to me).
Cafe Pi - public chess venue and art gallery extraordinaire!
Concordia University (way fun riding up and down the escalators and visiting various floors in the public buildings -- this is a vertical university, not a horizontal one). Fab library! Okay, I guess only historians like fab libraries, but Mr. Don and I found books there we couldn't find anywhere else, not even at McGill!
McGill University - great mini-museum with some incredibly rare ancient artifacts, and another fab library!
Botannical Gardens (spend an entire day there, actually - gorgeous, simply gorgeous)
Like churches? Visit the downsized replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral in the Old City, and a must see, where the crutches from all of the miraculously healed visitors over the years are displayed, St. Joseph's, up on a hill; the view from the great terrace is windy but incredible, and the squirrels are very people-tame, curious and friendly. Offer some food and they will walk right up your leg to your hand! Do not be a jerk and fake them out.