As a gift to ourselves for our 12th anniversary we decided to spend a long weekend — coinciding with the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend — in Montreal. We go to Montreal on average about once a year, always trying to do new things. This trip we decided that other than staying at our favourite hotel, we would explore parts of the city we hadn’t seen before, and try new restaurants as well.
Knowing we couldn’t check in to our hotel until around noon, we tried to time our drive Thursday morning to arrive around lunch time. The drive up was quick, with almost no traffic, so we still arrived earlier than anticipated. We decided to drive directly to one of the places suggested by our friend Nick K for lunch, and then to check in. We parked the car, and walked the few blocks to the restaurant, Bouillon Bilk.
This place has one of the most stark decors I have ever seen. Nothing on the all-white walls. Tables dressed with white cloth and white napkins. The only colours in the place were the dark suits nearly every patron was wearing. The waitress was very nice, but she had a little difficulty translating certain things on the menu which we couldn’t figure out on our own. Unlike many places we have eaten before there was no menu in English. We appeared to have arrived at the end of the lunch rush, so despite a packed house when we arrived, the food came out quickly and the restaurant emptied slowly. Sarah had a lovely parsnip soup, and I had what I called a deconstructed Reuben sandwich without the thousand island dressing or Swiss cheese. The plate included a veal sausage, a pork link, and some smoked meat, with a delicious sauerkraut that was significantly less tangy than any I had previously. We shared a Big Ben Porter from Brasseurs du Monde. When we exited the restaurant it was raining and the wind had picked up significantly. We made our way to the car, and then to the hotel which was only a few blocks away.
We checked in to our room, unpacked quickly, and used the WiFi to plan our afternoon. We decided to go to the Musée McCord, which was about a mile down the road on Rue Sherbrooke. For some reason I had forgotten to bring any sort of coat, but luckily Sarah had remembered to bring the windbreaker/raincoat we share.
We arrived at the museum with about 2 hours to wander before they closed. There was a brief queue at the entrance, and we used that time to decide to pay to see the exhibition Music – Quebec: From Charlebois to Arcade Fire, which ended up being quite informative. We were given an audio tour kit with headphones, and made our way through the exhibit, which was set up so that one could listen to excerpts or full songs, as well as video. There was also plenty of information to be read. The exhibit was scheduled to close on Monday, which may have also explained the number of people.
Once we were done with the Music exhibit we took in two of the permanent collections the museum had to offer. First we viewed Montreal – Points of View, and then Wearing our Identity – The First Peoples Collection. The former showed a bit about how the landscape of the city had changed over the centuries, and the latter had some very interesting articles of clothing from the native people.
After the museum we made our way back to the hotel to regroup. The original plan had been to go to the Bontanical Gardens that evening; however, we decided to postpone that another day due to the weather. We did decide to keep our dinner reservation though, so after cleaning ourselves up a bit we started out for the restaurant.
The last few trips to Canada we had paid the outrageous fees that AT&T required to roam, but we checked before we left and our new provider Cricket Wireless said they didn’t offer roaming in Canada (despite being a subsidiary of AT&T and using their network), so we decided to download an app that had maps that didn’t require connectivity. Every once in a while we stop and check the map, only to find we had passed our turn. We eventually found the restaurant, and were only a few minutes late, so we were able to be seated.
I don’t recall now who suggested Maison Publique or if they had actually visited the restaurant, but based on the connection with Derek Dammann and Jaime Oliver we decided to give it a go. [Edit: Jason Merrill, the head chef at Worthy Burger and Worthy Kitchen suggested the place!] My first suggestion for anyone wishing to go to this place, is to study the menu on the website before you leave and have your order ready. Not because the kitchen is slow — it is tapas style, so dishes come out as they are ready — but because there are no menus, English or French.
The waiter, Felix, who is more of a maître d, greeted us and asked us for our drink orders. I asked if there was a menu and he pointed to the wall of hand-written items on the wall in the other room. While Sarah washed her hands I went to check out the menu and noticed it was in French, and it wasn’t easily decipherable. I felt bad for the two women sitting below the menu as group after group of people hovered over their table staring at the menu.
Thinking I might try a drink instead, I walked to the bar — the place has a neighbourhood English pub feel to it — only to notice the taps coming out of the wall were not labeled. Back at the table I informed Sarah of my dilemma, and she too attempted to decipher the menu. Still in the dark as to choices when she returned, she asked Felix to recommend a pale ale, and he suggested a local gypsy brewer, Ghost Farm, which he said was “nice and hoppy.” We decided to ask Felix for food suggestions as well, and eventually settled on the pork flank (belly) with lentils, and the venison chop, which was not on the menu, and a Caesar’s salad. All the dishes were excellent, but the venison was amazing. Rare, it melted in one’s mouth. We enjoyed our meal, and the warnings about the way the food and drink options are displayed is not intended as a criticism, but a heads-up to those who may wish to go there.
After our meal we spent some time chatting about beer and Vermont with Felix before starting our walk home. It had been a long day, and despite spending half of it in the car, when we made it back to the hotel we found out that we had walked nearly eight miles. Back at the hotel I did some Internet research to start planning the next day’s activities.
In the morning we had the continental breakfast the hotel provides, and then made our way to Old Montreal. Surprisingly to me the historic district was someplace we had not visited in all of our trips. In fact, I can’t say I was even aware of it until this past summer when I watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover, where he made fun of the people in period dress.
We were there before many of the shops had opened and the artists that set up shop in Place Jacques-Cartier. We wandered around for a bit, and spent some time chatting with one of the artists. Having only had a light breakfast of yogurt, fruit, and pan au chocolate, we were getting a bit hungry, and the plans were to try an old favourite, Le Réservoir. Before setting off we stopped off for a coffee to warm us up, only to find that the mocha latte Sarah had ordered tasted like Swiss Miss. To make it up to her, we stopped by one of the Juliette et Chocolats on the way to the brewpub, where Sarah enjoyed an amazing hot chocolate.
We have had difficulty in the past with timing our visits to Le Réservoir, so we checked their website before we left the hotel in the morning. The website indicated that they were open on Fridays from noon to 3 a.m. so we felt comfortable making the long walk. Naturally, we arrived and they were closed with nothing but a vague sign and a phone number on the door.
We opted to try a new place we had passed on the way named Burger Royal based on the menu and the number of people inside. We (I) have a tendency to over plan things, but are rarely disappointed when the plans change unexpectedly. I jokingly like to say the universe is looking out for us when such things happen. And this was no exception as we had a delicious lunch of burgers and mac-n-cheese. The only downside to this restaurant is the lack of a beer menu, but in hindsight I think it was probably for the better that I didn’t imbibe so early. Especially with the size of the burgers and sides. I think I would have needed a nap had I had a beer too.
After lunch we made our way around the corner to Rue Duluth to visit a few of our favourite shops. The first one, a nice little Tibetan shop was inexplicably closed with no indication whether they would be open the rest of the weekend, so we went to the little Waldorf shop named Le Grande Ourse: Jouets Pour la Vie. This shop, as have mentioned in previous travel journals for Montreal, is primarily a toy shop but also has a small collection of Quebecois yarns.
After Sarah selected a few skeins for a project, and we left to meetup with a friend who lives in Montreal. Our friend Jill was kind enough to agree to meet at a coffee shop, Café Névé, in The Plateau even though it wasn’t close to her. This is a tiny little unpretentious neighbourhood cafe that appears to be popular with the twenty-somethings. We arrived a few minutes early and it was packed with hipsters and their gadgets, but a table soon opened and we enjoyed our lattes while Jill grabbed a bite to eat.
After our catch-up we made our way back to the hotel to freshen up and grab the car for our evening adventure to the Montreal Botanical Gardens for the Gardens of Light exhibition. Having spent all day walking, and being realistic about our ability to hike all the way to the gardens and back, we decided a car trip was in order.
Many readers may recall that we have been to the botanical gardens on previous trips, and will point out that I mentioned earlier in this report that we were supposed to be trying new things, but there is so much to see and do at the Montreal Botanical Gardens that we always try to find time to visit.
We arrived at about 6.30 and had a hard time finding a place to park. Once we did there were queues at the parking kiosks. My only complaint about the Botanical Gardens is the parking price is outrageous at $12, so take the Metro if you can. There were also queues to purchase tickets. The place was packed with people and prams, and we wondered what we got into. However, despite the elbow-to-elbow crowds the exhibition of Chinese lanterns was well worth it. We meandered through the rocky paths with the rest of the visitors, and I snapped as many photos as I could. Each turn exposed some new amazing creature made of stretched material and illuminated from within. Other parts of the gardens were lit up, and some places even had trees illuminated from below with lights timed to music being broadcast from speakers in the trees.
Exhausted after another full day of walking (11 miles according to the pedometer!) we drove back to the hotel, parked the car. But we decided we weren’t so tired that a few beers weren’t in order, and headed out for a nightcap at one of our favourite brew pubs, Cheval Blanc. We consider the Cheval Blanc our “local” when we visit Montreal as it is literally 2 blocks from our hotel. As I’ve said in previous travel guide entries, the atmosphere is a cross between a 1950s diner and a Chinese Restaurant, but it works.
What didn’t work this visit was the lame DJ who took to the sound system shortly after we arrived. An older white guy with a scruffy beard and a bald head hidden under his purposely-askew baseball cap, he bobbed and weaved, and made faces. Whatever. As a radio DJ — and an older bald white guy with a scruffy beard — I too like to bounce while I play my music. What was embarrassingly bad was his proclivity for abruptly stopping songs shortly after they started. Just as we were having a laugh and enjoying a song from the the film Madagascar, he’d stop, mid-beat and start some other song. But we enjoyed our beers and bar snacks, as always. It wasn’t the DJ who chased us away, it was our long day.
We woke up refreshed Saturday morning, and had a some coffee and yogurt before walking up Boulevard Saint-Laurent to meet Nick, Jen, and I.A.K. for breakfast at their suggested spot, Läika. We had a nice stroll and arrived a few minutes early in case we needed to get on a list or something, only to find the place was open but mostly empty. When our friends arrived we grabbed a few chairs and piled them around the small, round table where we chatted and caught up while perusing the menu. I like to tell people that all the best places I have ever been to in Montreal were recommended by these lovely folks, and Läika was another winner. Sarah had crêpes and I had the eggs Benedict with prosciutto. Jen and I.A.K had to run to make I.A.K.’s yoga class, but Nick stayed and we chatted some more. After paying the checks we all walked together for a few blocks before saying our goodbyes.
We had decided before breakfast to explore more of Old Montreal. We made our way there, walking off breakfast by walking along Boulevard St Laurent. We made a brief stop for more coffee, and meandered our way to Place d’Armes square in front of Notre-Dame Basilica. The Place d’Armes was filled with tourists snapping photos and surrounded by horse-drawn carriages, the drivers of the latter calling out to anyone who even looked at their horses. We continued to people watch as we finished our coffees, and watched as a newly wed couple exited the Basilica. People gawked, took photos, and cheered.
We’d had no plans to enter the church, and confirmed that when we saw the length of the queue. Instead we walked down the eastern side street, and spied a shop that specialized in Tibetan and Buddhist arts and jewelry! This was fortuitous as my mother-in-law, Nancy, had specifically asked us to buy her some earrings. She had requested them from the shop on Duluth that was closed, so we were very happy to find this place.
We continue to window shop our way through Old Montreal, eventually making our way to our destination, Château Ramezay. The Château is a wonderful little museum with rooms full of displays and exhibits covering centuries of Montreal’s history. We wandered from room to room, and read every one of the plaques. My feet were killing me from all the walking we had done, but I was enthralled by the exhibits.
Most of the displays were permanent, but the last room had an exhibit on crime and punishment in Quebec. Fascinating and terrifying. We then went downstairs where actors would normally reenact the lives of the people who would have lived and worked in the house. After poking our heads into the gift shop, we took some time to take in the gardens in back. There was a small fee to tour the inside of the house, but the gardens are free, and looked like a great place to relax, read, or have lunch.
As I mentioned before, my feet were sore, and we were both a bit tired, so we made our way back to the hotel, to rest up and decide on our plans for the evening. On our way back we noticed at least two brew pubs of interest, and decided we would try at least one of them for our evening nightcap.
Back at the hotel, we lazed around on the bed. Sarah started knitting but soon gave in to the desire to nap. I continued to research places to eat. We eventually decided that the tapas place we passed on our way back from Maison Publique on Thursday was of interest. The website I had found was only in French, but with the help of Sarah — and Google Translate — we were able to figure out many of the dishes on the menu, and that they had a 5-dish special that was quite reasonable.
The restaurant’s name is Barraca, and in addition to being a tapas restaurant, they are also a “Rhumerie.” We arrived a bit early for the Saturday night dinner crowd. We took our time with the menu as we decided on the five dishes we would want.
The menus were a challenge to read, and not just because they were only in French. The restaurant is quite dark in an ambient way, but the menu design is what the main issue was. Lots of small, black lettering on a beige background. As it was, I needed to use the flashlight on my phone to read it. The waitress was helpful with the words we couldn’t decipher, and we eventually decided on our drinks and tapas choices. Sarah is more of a fan of liquor than I and chose the national drink of Brazil, the caipirinha. I opted for a glass of wine as a change.
As is often the case when I am hungry and go to a tapas place, my eyes were bigger than my stomach. I thought five dishes wouldn’t be enough, but they ended up being just right. And they were all perfectly prepared and delicious. We really enjoyed our visit to Tapeo a few years ago. The atmosphere was wonderful, the service was great. But for the money, and convenience — Barraca is much closer to our hotel than Tapeo — I think I would recommend Barraca to friends. Plus, Barraca feels more like one’s neighbourhood place. Cozy. Tapeo feels a bit posh. I felt under dressed when we went.
Sated, we left and wandered down Rue Mont Royal. The street was bustling with activity, and people were in good spirits. The buses running their routes flashed “Go Canadiens!” across their marquees, reminding all that hockey season was back. The weather was only slightly brisk, but we were warm from the meal and the drink. We decided to try out one of the brew pubs we had spied earlier, and made our way to Le Saint Bock based on its extensive beer selection, and specific brew suggestions from Scott Russell.
By this hour of a Saturday night, Montreal’s night life was in full swing. The streets were packed with groups of people looking for fun. Younger people spilled out onto the sidewalks in front of bars and clubs to smoke cigarettes. We made our way into Le Saint Bock, and saw a small line just inside the door. The music and the chatter was loud but someone greeted us right away. We gestured that we were two, and he peered around the crowded space. We expected a wait, but he waived us on. However, the space he had in mind would have required us to climb over a group of other people and would have had us stuck in a corner. We very quickly decided that perhaps Le Saint Bock would have to wait for another trip. We thanked the man, and left.
Luckily our other choice, L’Amere a Boire, was only a block away. We walked up the hill, and saw a crowd of people. We thought we were in for the same issue, but it ended up the outside crowd was at an establishment next door. L’Amere a Boire has a more modern decor, and is split up into a few levels. One enters at a level with lots of little tables, and nooks. The bar is down one level below that, and then a staircase rises up beyond the bar to another level. There were stairs going up from that level too, which we thought lead to a rooftop level, but we didn’t investigate. All of the seats were taken with the exception of a raised two-top right by the door.
Sarah held the seats while I investigated the beer menu. Luckily the local free wifi was available, and with a quick search I was able to translate the words I needed to make my decision. I chose an “LNH” — which stands for Lager Noire Houblonée — a delicious black lager that tastes similar to a dry, nutty stout for myself, and an American pale ale called “Fin De Siècle” (end of the century?) for Sarah. We also tried their house cask ale, “Amère à Boire” and their oatmeal stout named “Muesli.” We enjoyed the beers and the bar staff was very nice. We also liked the glassware so much, we inquired into purchasing one. When we learned they were only CAN$6 each we opted to buy two. Probably a good thing as they have become our favourite drinking glasses at home. Full of good beer and cheer we walked the few blocks back to the hotel, and called it a night.
I started this article mentioning that this trip we endeavored to try places and things in Montreal that we hadn’t before. For the most part we did, and oddly enough the times we tried to go to some of our old standbys — such as Le Reservoir or the Tibetan shop — our plans were foiled. But Sundays in Montreal, for us, are all about tradition. And today being our twelfth anniversary, we embraced the tradition.
We packed up our stuff and checked out of our hotel around 9 a.m. and made our way to our favourite intersection: Boulevard Saint-Laurent & Avenue Fairmount, in the Mile End neighbourhood of the city. Being early on a Sunday the streets were nearly empty when we parked the car.
Still early for the start of brunch at Lawrence, we walked across the street to Dépanneur AS. Over the years we have spent time in a many corner stores looking for our favourite Québécois brews, and Dépanneur AS is our go-to shop. This little store has a great selection of local and regional beers, including a wide selection of Dieu du Ciel! offerings. The dépanneur is run by a sweet little old lady, but she knows very little about beer, and speaks nearly no English. Thankfully another gentleman (her son?) is on hand to help answer any questions, and offer suggestions. We spent nearly 30 minutes combing through the selection before lugging boxes of beers to the car, and joining the small queue forming in front of Lawrence.
We have been to Lawrence three or four times by now, but only for brunch. We love the food, the service and the bright, light-filled dining area. Based on the quality of food, we plan to go for dinner next time. However, this time we were here for brunch, and we indulged ourselves in delicious beignes and coffee, sausage sandwiches, and a full English breakfast.
The beignes sparked a conversion between us and a young couple next to us. I saw the woman spying our sweets and asked if she wanted one. She thanked me and politely refused, but she was intrigued enough to ask the waitress to bring her a mixed order. Before we began speaking we had heard them switching seamlessly between French and English. They playfully teased one another in the queue and continued to laugh and poke fun of each other while they dined. After we spoke they were curious how we Americans ended up in this Mile End restaurant, and we told them the short version of our traditions and that we were celebrating our anniversary.
While at Maison Publique on Thursday, we were told by Felix that one of the co-brewers from Ghost Farm was involved with Lawrence, so we inquired. It ends up the main brewer was not there but his partner was, and he took the time to chat with us about beer in Quebec and Vermont.
We left Lawrence with smiles on our faces, but ready to make our way home. We had at least one more traditional stop, a small boulangerie called Guillaume. On our last few trips it had been a few doors down from Lawrence, but that store front was dark. While at the dépanneur we asked and were told it had moved a short distance down St-Laurent, so we walked. There was a short queue made up of people and dogs, and it moved quickly. While Sarah ordered various sweet and savory breads and treats, I made friends with an English bulldog and a one-eyed Jack Russell terrier.
Our quarry in hand, we made our way back to the car and began the tradition of negotiating our way our of Montreal. Something we — or more accurately I — have always had trouble doing. After a brief stop at a Petro-Canada in an attempt to find a SIM for an iPhone for a future trip, we set off.
To make a very long story short, we moved very slowly in city traffic, made one wrong turn while trying to get on the freeway. We thought we missed a turn off of 33 only to find out we had inadvertently taken a short cut. And we sat in traffic for over an hour at the border only to to be practically waived through once we saw a customs agent. We stopped at Vermont BBQ at our exit on I-89, and arrived home to a happy dog and a wonderful anniversary present from Sarah’s mother. Sarah, Nancy and I enjoyed our BBQ and talked about our incredible trip. We have already marked our calendar to visit again in June 2015 for Mondial de la bière.