In the depths of a Montreal winter, nothing beats the Mile End neighborhood as a setting for stiff drinks and good company. Rosie Schaap takes a seat at the bar.
"My mother calls this 'pneumonia weather,' " my friend Theresa said. We were walking on Rue Bernard Ouest in Mile End, the Montreal enclave known for its compact, flavorful bagels, progressive politics, and serious drinking establishments. Within just a few hours, the weather had shown its full range of emotions: Sleet in the morning. A glimmer of afternoon sunshine. Light snow at dusk. Something about weather like this makes one crave the community of a bar. That's why I'd joined Theresa and her girlfriend, Jasmine—both Canadians now living in New York—on an epic two-day pub crawl of Mile End, the ideal setting for an authentic Montreal winter drinking experience.
We began at Casa del Popolo. A local institution, its name translates as "the House of the People," which announces its unabashedly radical ethos. Casa, as regulars call it, is the sort of place that would have thrilled me during my activist-vegetarian youth. Even in my complacent middle age, I found it immensely homey and appealing. It’s a mom-and-pop shop of a special sort. Pop is Mauro Pezzente, the bassist for the indie band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Mom is his partner, Kiva Stimac, an artist and chef. They founded Casa 15 years ago, with no bar management experience, to give bands like Godspeed a place to play, and it grew from there.
Pezzente, who had just returned from touring in the U.S., watched as the couple’s two young sons horsed around in the bar’s side room, where bands still play almost every night. Young, good-natured punks sat at the bar drinking beer and Caesars—Canada’s version of the Bloody Mary—except that the Casa Caesar, being vegetarian and therefore made without the Clamato that usually provides the drink’s backbone, was actually just a Bloody Mary by another name.
We couldn't walk more than two blocks without running into people my friends knew: Performance artists. Poets. Teachers. It was easy to see why Mile End was Theresa and Jasmine's favorite neighbor- hood in Montreal. It's earthy, scruffy, friendly. Its sense of community is uncommonly strong.
That night, we went to La Sala Rosa, a Spanish restaurant and performance space also owned by Pezzente and Stimac, to catch a "dystopian pop opera" variation on Faust, part of the Phenomena Festival, Canada's largest spoken-word gathering. (There's always a festival going on in Montreal.) Afterward, a bewildered but cheerful bunch of us marched up Boulevard St.-Laurent to Snack n' Blues. "Exactly what it sounds like," Jasmine told me. "There are snacks. And there's a DJ who plays old records."
I had expected that we would order the snacks with our drinks, but that's not how it works here. Upon stepping into the bar—which is decorated, someone observed, like an "early-1990s dorm room," with colored lights and fading posters of old bluesmen—the first thing you see is a table arrayed with candy. Bowls of gummy bears, caramels, jelly beans, chocolate-covered nuts, and raisins glimmer like a treasure chest out of a seven-year-old's wildest dreams. There are cups for spooning whatever you'd like to take to your barstool or table. Once you've settled in, more snacks arrive, sometimes delivered by the bar's owner: bowls brimming with popcorn and Cheezies (Canadian Cheez Doodles). This can't possibly be a good idea, I thought—this manic marriage of alcohol and junk food. No, it's better than good. It's genius.
Coco, the bar's beloved DJ, stood surrounded by devotees as he played records from a booth by the pool table. His age was variously reported to me as "seventysomething," "about eighty," and "like, a hundred." I heard he was English. I heard he was Caribbean. I heard he'd once been a doo-wop star. I never learned the truth, but no matter: I was won over by Snack n' Blues's many weird charms. Somehow, even after all that sugar and three generously poured whiskey-sodas, I slept well.
Still, a hair of the dog was crucial the next morning. At Nouveau Palais, a newish restaurant on Rue Bernard, I ordered the César Déjeuner, or breakfast Caesar, in a revamped old diner—an excellent oversize model garnished with peppers, celery, tomato, and a dainty pickled quail's egg.
We walked for much of the gray afternoon until cocktail hour, when we arrived at Bar Kabinet. It's a bright, elegant little room with black-and-white tiled floors, velvet upholstery, tasseled lamps hanging above the marble bar, and Russian art on the walls. I ordered a cocktail called the Rasputin from Ricky, the friendly bartender, and received a beautifully balanced blend of bourbon, Lillet Blanc, orange liqueur, and lemon juice straight up. I also had to try his take on a Caesar, here called a Bloody Czar and built on a foundation of Russian Standard vodka and a deeply briny house-made take on Clamato. Even Jasmine, who prefers dives to cocktail bars, was charmed by the place.
We left to meet up with more of their friends—who became mine, too—for dinner at Buvette Chez Simone, where we shared platters of roast chicken and bottles of wine and talked about the coming election, and theater, and New York, and local gossip, and what we read and cared about. I felt like part of the community. Mile End has that effect on a visitor. Even in the sleet, the snow, and the rain. Even if you have to leave too soon.