As Quebec City gears up to celebrate its 400th birthday next year, Matt Lee and Ted Lee discover that the party is already well under way.
At dusk on a glowering February day, we trudged up the snowbound sidewalk of Rue St.-Louis, a street of limestone town houses just inside the walls of Quebec City. The icy footpath was so narrow that we had to walk single file, eyes glued to the ground. As we neared the Porte St.-Louis, an arched opening in the massive 18th-century stone fortifications that surround the city, we stopped short: entombed in the ice was a trove of discarded Polaroid photographs, some ripped in half.
We pulled one loose: two girls and a guy, huddled in the back of a truck, looking like they were laughing at a shared joke. They were young, their faces illuminated yellow by the last rays of sun, their knitted hats drawn tightly over their ears, their down coats held close about their chests. Their mirth may have been beer-fueled, but they were having the time of their lives in midwinter. The warmth contained within the four edges of the photo melted us. We had to join the fun.
We marched on to our destination, L’Astral, a restaurant on the 29th floor of a skyscraper just outside the city walls, to watch the sun set and to find something more potent than beer. We ordered shots of Fine Séve, a fiery, caramel-tinged Québécois eau-de-vie distilled from maple syrup, and asked the waiter if he knew anyone in the photo: "Vous connaissez ces gens-lá?
Without a moment’s hesitation, he reached for a pair of reading glasses in his vest pocket. He regarded the snapshot intently, then gave it back.
"Sorry," he said, "I don’t."
It may seem foolish to expect to find strangers in a crowd of 530,000, but in Quebec City in February, that possibility doesn’t seem so remote. There’s an intimacy to the town—the walls that contain it and the bitter chill tend to draw people together. Though we’d only been here for two days, we’d already hailed the same cabdriver twice.
Raised in a palmettoed Southern town where school gets canceled at the first flurry, we’d always been wary of winter. We hoped that Quebec City would teach us to embrace the season’s rawness—not only to enjoy it, but to love it with conviction, as the surfer loves the leading edge of a hurricane.
And we suspected Québécois food and drink would be our wave in. Settled by French fur-traders 400 years ago, the city has never lost its Gallic heritage. We’d heard there was a casual, distinctly quotidian quality to its food life—excellent bread baked around every corner, shelves of local cheeses in neighborhood markets.
As we sipped our Fine Séve—without a doubt the classiest expression of the maple tree—we watched the lights of the city sparkle to life while cross-country skiers on the Plains of Abraham (site of the 1759 battle in which the British defeated the French settlers) moved lazily through the lamplit park, casting shadows on the snow.
From our perch, we could see across the rooftops of the Old Town, Vieux-Québec, much of which lies inside the massive city walls, to the St. Lawrence River beyond them. The vertiginous cliffs that divide Vieux-Québec into an Upper and Lower Town accentuate the angularity of the architecture, all gabled roofs and soaring turrets. As we slowly made our way to dinner in the Lower Town, we passed stone-and-timber cottages set into the flanks of impossibly steep, curving streets, giving the whole place a sort of Cubist humor.
These mad-hatter streetscapes are what earned Quebec City its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, and they reminded us of the town’s sheer power as a tourist attraction. We wondered whether its French character, and particularly its cuisine, would be genuine—or something trotted out for the sake of visitors like us.
So we were grateful to find not a single patron speaking English at Café Le St.-Malo, a restaurant of eight tables with a roaring fire in the hearth, tchotchkes on the mantel, and a friendly proprietress. A single chef worked an open kitchen, turning out dreamy cuisine grandmère: a rich mussel soup seasoned with saffron and nutmeg, and a pleasantly gamy rabbit with sauce moutarde, which we washed down with a lavender-scented Cahors. All the while, it seemed as if we were a few thousand miles across the Atlantic, on a harbor in Brittany.
When we left the restaurant, snow was falling in fat, clumpy flakes. Outside the window of our hotel room, an enormous yellow Caterpillar front-end loader in the parking lot of the Musée de la Civilisation scooped snow into its bucket and added it to a wall of the stuff that rose two stories high at one edge of the lot. Muffled by the hotel’s soundproof windows, the thud of the plow against the pavement and the beepbeepbeep when it shifted into reverse seemed more like a lullaby than an intrusion.
Though we hadn’t planned it, our trip coincided with Quebec City’s Winter Carnival, and upon arriving we found the streets of the Upper Town filled with revelers sounding raspy Bronx cheers on long plastic trumpets. Others carried plastic walking sticks that doubled as flasks for Caribou, a concoction of port spiked with brandy or vodka (and, so the rumor goes, caribou blood). We watched a glassy-eyed woman amble out into the middle of an intersection and point her trumpet skyward, honking, while her companion called after her: "Come on Josée, we need to track down your kids."
In fact, the carnival is a children’s paradise and includes an impressive soap-box derby past City Hall down a sloping avenue lined with hay bales. The town itself becomes a setting for a fairy tale: stores make ice sculptures to adorn their entrances, taverns build outdoor bars entirely of ice. But by far the most fabled component of the festivities is the canoe race on the St. Lawrence River. On the morning of the race, the water appeared to be a fast-moving mass of slush, and we were curious as to how a canoe might move through it. Down by the river, we learned how: the oarsmen hop out and push the canoe over the crust of ice. Even so, many teams seemed to be losing ground to the river’s current. The wind was whipping our faces numb—and we weren’t even wet.
We retreated from the crowds at the waterfront to a wonderland for decidedly more adult pursuits—the nearby antiques district of the Lower Town. At De Retour, a Midcentury Modern store that had recently opened, proprietor Pierre Jolicoeur had just received a mint-condition 1953 Danish Finnjuhl dining set, but he was more excited about his current refinishing project: a vintage desk set by Reff, a local designer and office-furniture manufacturer touted as the Knoll of Canada.
At Boutique aux Mémoires, an antiques store with a strong Québécois collection, Matt was smitten by a large oval painting of the city’s skyline, done from a vantage point much like the one we first saw at L’Astral, by Madeleine Laliberte, an artist who was once the shopkeeper’s neighbor. The painting’s pale, unfashionable mid-century blues, hennas, and mauves captured the city’s twilight mood. Louis Bolduc, the owner, has lived his entire life in Quebec City and had stories to tell about many of the works for sale, from flatware to porcelain. He seemed to know everyone in his hometown, too, so after we chose some city views from the vintage postcard rack, we showed him our Polaroid of the three mysterious revelers. "Non, désolé," he replied. "Je ne les connais pas."
Spending an hour browsing Bolduc’s shop is like being in a compellingly personal museum. Just a few blocks away, the Musée de la Civilisation, which dominates the profile of the riverfront in the Lower Town, is a museum with a rather more expansive vision. Its permanent exhibition—fresh, but achingly thorough—tells the story of the founding of Quebec by French merchants and kings in the 16th and 17th centuries. The British conquered the region during the Seven Years’ War, from 1756 to 1763, but French laws—and culture—remained in force, and many of the artifacts here explore the uneasy coexistence between the francophone Quebecers and the British crown. Not an overcoat button or lunch box escapes the lively scrutiny of the museum’s curators.
The building itself, an austere, slate-clad edifice designed by Moshe Safdie in 1998, is lightened up by whimsically jagged glass dormers that march across the roofline. It seems to echo, in considerably more modern tones, the features of the Auberge St.-Antoine, across the street.
The painstakingly restored 19th-century façade of the St.-Antoine belies the smart, up-to-the-minute boutique hotel that one finds within, complete with Frette linens, couture-clad concierges, and a bumping lobby soundtrack. But the property’s history is literally inscribed in its walls. Shards of blue delft, the stoppers of ancient glass vials, every sort of flatware and ceramics—all of it found during the renovation—are displayed throughout the hotel, in illuminated vitrines in the corridors.
When we checked into the St.-Antoine, the sleek, stylized stone fireplaces in the lounge were ablaze. In front of them, children played backgammon and did puzzles, while their parents, chic-looking art-director types, lounged on velour pillow-strewn sofas napping or drinking wine. We showed the chatty bartender our photo of the revelers—nope, no recognition there—and he recommended we try an aperitif from Hemmingford, Quebec, called Neige, which, he explained, was a cidre de glace: cider fermented from juice pressed out of apples that have frozen on the tree. It was honeyed and viscous like its close cousin, ice wine, but with the aroma of Calvados—an intense, appetizing sweet-tart apple flavor. It was classic Quebec: something warm squeezed from the ice.
He gave us a copy of Clique, a guide to hip restaurants in town, but we were so comfortable we didn’t want to leave. So we made a reservation at the hotel’s restaurant, Panache, a barnlike room with massive, handhewn beams and a rustic, tailored chic, that turned out to be the sleeper of the trip. Here, our meal began with Pickle Point oysters from Prince Edward Island, served with dollops of a Québécois caviar called Abitibi on top. Duck foie gras was accompanied by a zingy chutney of apple and cranberry and a smoky reduction of honey wine. Partridge breast came with bacon-studded cabbage. More game courses followed—tender venison rib, and hare with a side of yellow beets perfectly cooked en cocotte. At every point, a knowledgeable, discreet wine steward offered wine-pairing suggestions, which we were delighted to accept (the wines available in Canada are often unfamiliar to Americans, even enthusiasts like us).
At a handful of ambitious Quebec City restaurants we’d encountered Spanish new-wave pretension, not to mention jarring pairings like oysters in strawberry foam. But at Panache, François Blais offered a truly Québécois interpretation of seasonal food and a pared-down, let-the-ingredients-speak-for-themselves simplicity.
The next morning, we hailed a cab to take us across town to Les Halles les Quartier, a small food hall on the Avenue Cartier, for a progressive Québécois cheese-and-baguette tasting. Earlier in the trip we’d noticed two artisanal bakeries on the block and an astoundingly comprehensive traiteur (charcuterie and cheese vendor). From a boulangerie artisanale we bought a loaf that was milky-mild and a little sweet, and from Eric Borderon, another that offered a pleasing sourness. At Aux Petits Delices, we bought four raw-milk cheeses and sat down to a midwinter dream breakfast, mixing and matching the breads with Quebec’s best curds.
For people who love cheese, Quebec is absolute heaven: there are more than 300 different varieties, and its cheese makers tend to be mavericks. One, Luc Boivin, submerged 1,700 pounds of cheese in the nearby Saquenay fjord in 2004, hoping it would age there in an appealing way (in fact, once it sank, the cheese was never found again). Of those we sampled at Les Halles les Quartier, our favorite was the Kenogami from Fromagerie Lehmann, which had an appealing reddish exterior, chewy rind, and soft center with notes of mushroom and hazelnuts. Pied de Vent, a raw-milk cheese that ran a close second, had a craggier exterior, with a melting center and an intriguing, olive-like sour saltiness.
As we walked back past the Plains of Abraham, the wind whipped so briskly, we thought it might lift us off our feet and over the cliffs, so we were only slightly dejected to find that because of the gale the cross-country ski trails were closed. At the Discovery Pavilion, a friendly clerk advised us to switch course and head for the Place d’Youville, where we rented ice skates and managed a wobbly turn on the rink without breaking our necks. Palais Montcalm, Quebec City’s most important theater, was directly across the street, and we tried to imagine what ice-skating in Times Square would be like.
Thus far in our trip, we’d eagerly, even piously, sought out the town’s Francophilic culinary highlights. But on our last night in Quebec City, we got a sushi craving and made a reservation at Yuzu Sushi Bar—a sleek modern room with puffy orange chairs that would have been at home in the business-class lounge of an exclusive Swiss airline. We ignored the sober sashimi and instead ordered up two flights of oyster shooters, intricately composed with different powders, juices, and liquors. One of the best of the small plates we tried was most improbably made up of oysters, puréed foie gras, port caramel, and shallots. We devoured a tasting of Tasmanian trout with condiments such as rose-scented yogurt and red-pepper ice cream. Sometimes a blizzard of colors and flavors (washed down with cold sake) is the best remedy for deepening winter blues.
After we left Yuzu we went in search of the perfect nightcap, walking toward the river through the Quartier St.-Roch’s darkened streets, silent but for the whoosh of the occasional taxi. We came to a district of low-rise industrial buildings and figured we were lost until we heard the revelry and saw the sign for La Barberie, a cooperative brewery we’d heard about from a helpful bartender. Set in the shadow of a highway overpass, the bar was packed with brewery employees and their friends and exuded the festive, jovial air of a wrap party for a large musical production. When the barista arrived with the Carousel Gallopin’ we’d ordered (a tasting rack of six of the brewery’s best that included a wheat beer infused with lime and raspberries and a red ale made with honey), we proffered the photo of our elusive trio and asked if she knew any of them.
"Not him," she said, "And not her. But this one"—she pointed to the woman in the middle—"looks familiar. I think she’s been here before."
So we left the photo with the bartender, quite certain it would find its way home.
Matt Lee and Ted Lee are Travel + Leisure contributing editors.
WHEN TO GO
Nobody embraces winter with more brio than Canadians, and traveling to Quebec City during the snowy off-peak season has distinct advantages: we found hotels with reasonable rates and slipped easily into coveted 8 p.m. restaurant reservations.
Quebec City is 1 1/2 hours by plane from either Boston or Newark on most American carriers. Air Canada flights, linking major U.S. cities through Toronto and Montreal, are more frequent but also tend to be slightly more expensive.
WHERE TO STAY
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac
This turreted landmark dominates all views of the Upper Town; her highly trafficked interiors could use some freshening up. 1 Rue des Carrières; 418/692-3861; www.fairmont.com; doubles from $217.
A hotel that’s new and urban yet has a soulful sense of place. 8 Rue St.-Antoine (Lower Town); 418/692-2211; www.saint-antoine.com; doubles from $120.
Hôtel Dominion 1912
A sober elegance suffuses this Lower Town boutique hotel. 126 Rue St.-Pierre; 418/692-2224; www.hoteldominion.com; doubles from $150.
WHERE TO EAT
Aux Petits Délices
The staff at this traiteur in a food hall near the Plains of Abraham will expertly guide you through its extensive selection of cured meats, confits, and raw-milk cheeses. 1191 Ave. Cartier; 418/522-5154.
Young professionals from the Quartier St.-Roch gather at this busy bistro over rabbit rillettes and beef tartare. 620 Rue St.-Joseph E.; 418/522-5501; dinner for two $40.
Eric Borderon Artisan Boulanger Pâtissier
A bakery-kiosk whose baguettes and pains au chocolat will remind you of your last trip to Paris. 1191 Ave. Cartier; 418/521-5757.
Le Café St.-Malo
Rustic, real French food served in the living room of the Breton grandmother you never had, but wish you did. 75 Rue St.-Paul (Lower Town); 418/692-2004; dinner for two $40.
Brasserie classics with contemporary flourishes are the forte of this Lower Town bistro. 73 Rue du Sault-au-Matelot; 418/692-1299; dinner for two $70.
One of the top boulangeries artisanales in Vieux-Québec. 375 Rue St.-Jean; 418/522-7246.
In a soaring 1822 warehouse with massive cherrywood beams, François Blais offers the ne plus ultra in seasonal Québécois cuisine. Auberge St.-Antoine; 10 Rue St.-Antoine (Lower Town); 418/692-1022; dinner for two $105.
Yuzu Sushi Bar
Fusion sushi served in an over-the-top room with a young, nightclubby air. 438 Rue du Parvis, Quartier St.-Roch; 418/521-7253; dinner for two $52.
WHERE TO GO OUT
After cross-country skiing, warm up over a Fine Séve at this rotating restaurant with unparalleled vistas. 1225 Cours du Général de Montcalm; 418/647-2222.
The bar at this worker-owned-and-operated brewery is packed with friendly locals keen on dispensing advice about touring the region. 310 Rue St.-Roch; 418/522-4373.
A cavernous live-music lounge that turns intimate when the cover band starts rocking and patrons begin to dance between tables. 441 Rue du Parvis, Quartier St.-Roch; 418/524-2777.
WHERE TO SHOP
Boutique aux Mémoires
Packed to the rafters with Québécois paintings, china, and objets. 105 Rue St.-Paul; 418/692-2180.
This Midcentury Modern furniture shop focuses on Danish, American, and Canadian designers. 273 Rue St.-Paul; 418/692-5501.
WHAT TO DO
Musée de la Civilisation à Québec
Moshe Safdie’s angular modern building puts on appealing exhibitions for the short-attention-span set, such as "In Peru with Tintin." 85 Rue Dalhousie; 418/643-2158.
Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec
A must-see for its strong representation of Quebec’s most famous contemporary artist, Jean–Paul Riopelle. Parc des Champs de Bataille; 418/643-2150.
Patinoire de la Place d’Youville
Compact skating rink set in a busy square. Place d’Youville; 418/641-6256; free.
Yuzu Sushi Bar
Yuzu is the sushi bar for well-dressed Saint-Roch district locals. Situated on a pedestrian-only cobbled street filled with restos, bars, and clubs, Yuzu's simple brick exterior opens up to a dining room with metallic walls, red lighting, and black seating. The menu is a fusion of Japanese sushi and hot dish classics with New France ingredients; for example, try the crab croquettes with a sweet and sour sauce or salmon tartare with yuzu foam. The late lunch menu includes poutine (hand-cut fries with gravy and cheese curds), mini Kobe beef burgers, and a tartare of Japanese duck.
Aux Petits Délices
Le Café St.-Malo
Le Café St.-Malo, a French bistro with a simple blue-and-white painted exterior, inhabits the ground floor of a gray brick building built in 1850. The 40-seat dining room is made warm and welcoming by exposed brick walls, low painted ceilings, and a fireplace. Rustic, authentic (and affordable) French classics fill the menu, such as mussels, steak frites, cassoulet, boudin noir (blood sausage), and onion soup. The wine list includes mostly French varietals, and the desserts—especially the gâteau chocolat—are not to be missed.
Dine on pouding chômeur (caramel pudding) and enjoy views of the St. Lawrence River, Gaspé Peninsula, Île D’Orleans, and the ramparts of Vieux-Québec from atop the highest point in historic Upper Town: L'Astral, a revolving restaurant that sits like a crown above the 30-floor Hôtel Loews Le Concorde. While the view changes every 90 minutes, Chef Jean-Claude Crouzet’s menu only changes seasonally to include Québécois dishes made with ingredients from local sources, such as lamb from Bérac's farm and cheese from Saint-Raymond-de-Portneuf. À la carte breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus are available daily, while Sunday brunch features a New French buffet.
Since its 2004 debut, Panache has distinguished itself as one Québec’s top restaurants. With its exposed wood beams, weathered stone walls and restored pine floors, this converted 19th century warehouse is a preservationist’s dream. Juxtaposing these rustic elements are such modern touches as plush armchairs, designer crystal and white linens. Before Panache, Executive Chef François Blais enjoyed stints at La Pinsonnière and Laurie Rachaël. Along the way, he developed his own take on Québécois cookery, emphasizing fresh local ingredients, tradition and innovation. Blais’ gusto shines through in his pan-roasted Bérac Farm lamb with pepper mint-infused jus and glazed beets, but be advised: their commitment to seasonal produce means the menu rotates frequently.