The Best of Montreal
Crossing the border to a Montreal with revived French connections is as sweet as pain au chocolat
Inside: Life underground, hidden tables, and more of Montreal's hidden corners.
In a restored 19th-century bank in Old Montreal, designers are delivering the last Louis XVI chests to Hôtel Le St.-James, the most exclusive of nine new boutique hotels around the city. A block away, along a fast-emerging gallery-and-shopping row, Lysanne Pepin arranges a pair of "high-vintage" wildcat-fur slippers—recycled fur is all the rage, she says—in her store window. Undoubtedly, style rules in startlingly hip new Montreal. With talk of Quebec's secession from Canada now fading, the city is soaring with revived French connections (there are 15 fromage shops) and a burgeoning art and film scene (the expanding Cité du Multimédia is home to dozens of media and film companies). Add to the cosmopolitan air a generous exchange rate and close proximity to the Northeastern states, and crossing the border to play Paris starlet is as sweet as pain au chocolat.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
Life in Old Montreal (also known as Vieux-Montréal) glides unhurriedly among ornate 18th- and 19th-century buildings (including the Notre Dame Basilica); restored warehouses are home to stylish shops, trendy hotels, and nearly 30 art galleries. It's hard to imagine, considering that in the 1960's the 78-square-block neighborhood by the St. Lawrence River was little more than a backwater blight. Now it's the part of town most saturated with visitors—avoid the crowded blocks around Place Jacques-Cartier, where street performers compete for tourist dollars, and stroll narrow Rue St.-Paul, admiring its iron balconies, brilliant awnings, and lyrical stone-and-brick façades.
The vibrant business district, with its granite office blocks and fashionable apartment buildings, is a cinch to navigate: street signs are abundant and most of the people you'll meet speak English. You can walk virtually anywhere, anytime, past magnificent shops along Rue Sherbrooke (this part of it is Montreal's Fifth Avenue), where Versace rubs shoulders with Chagall and Picasso (at the Galerie Claude-Lafitte). Sherbrooke is also the main artery of the Golden Square Mile, where Montreal's most famous museums are located. Rue Crescent just south of Sherbrooke is thronged with tourists and unsavory American icons such as the Hard Rock Café, but press on below Rue Ste.-Catherine to find the couture and ready-to-wear goods of Dénommé Vincent, Gordon Iaconetti, and other Quebec designers. On the easternmost edge of downtown, past Rue St.-Hubert, hipsters parade down neon-lit sidewalks while awaiting vacant tables at the fantastic new restaurant, Area.
PLATEAU MONT ROYAL
Nearly overnight, Le Plateau has become the place to shop, wander, club-hop, and scene-watch. Boulevard St.-Laurent, a longtime immigrant settling ground, is a vibrant mix of Jewish delis, Portuguese rotisseries, and Eastern European cafés that slowly gives way to SoHo-style bistros and nightclubs farther north. Drift east to Rue St.-Denis and check out the women sauntering in chamois skirts, beaded suede pants, and swingy halter tops. Many of the fashions are fresh from the rue—Jean Airoldi, Linda Morisset, and Kaliyana, among others, all have outposts on St.-Denis. The styles turn funkier along Avenue du Mont-Royal, which is reminiscent of a tourist-free, French-accented Haight-Ashbury.
PARC DU MONT ROYAL AREA
Tiny Mont Royal is more of a hill, but don't say that to Montrealers, who hold their mountain close to their hearts, flocking there year-round to participate in everything from sunbathing to horse-drawn-sleigh riding. A 495-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (his only one outside the United States) blankets the mount, and two universities sprawl along its sides. To the southwest of the hill, in exclusive Westmount, Tudor and Scottish manor houses have heated driveways and celebrated summer residents. (Robert De Niro is rumored to be one.) To the northeast, the scene is happily less homogenized. Around Rue Jean-Talon, Indian and Asian communities thrive. At the spectacular Jean Talon market, women in saris roam stalls of flowers, fungi, and fish.
JOIE DE CUISINE
Boris Bistro 465 Rue McGill; 514/848-9575; lunch for two $28. At lunchtime in warm weather, Old Montreal's business elite linger in the sun-streaked stone courtyard, savoring crimson sangria and blanquette of veal under big canvas umbrellas.
Area 1429 Rue Amherst; 514/890-6691; dinner for two $88. Lovers of French food swoon over Area's "intelligent fusion"—such as seared foie gras with Xérès-poached apricots—served in a cerebral space of billowing white curtains and leather booths.
Chorus 3434 Rue St.-Denis; 514/841-8080; dinner for two $40. After a day at the St.-Denis design studios (hint: wear your Jean Airoldi leather pants), fashion vigilantes duck into Chorus for sleek cuisine like organic yellow-beet mille-feuille with herbed vinaigrette and mustard sprouts. The rooms are alluring, with little Deco lamps, thick white linens, and blueberry walls dressed with mirrors of many sizes.
Le Blanc 3435 Blvd. St.-Laurent; 514/288-9909; dinner for two $23. Amid St.-Laurent's hot club-and-café scene, members of the spry young cocktail crowd slip into crushed-red-velvet booths and join in Beautiful People—gazing and late-night grazing (on "black and blue" ostrich tartare).
Toqué! 3842 Rue St.-Denis; 514/499-2084; dinner for two $93. Eight years old and more celebrated than ever. This is where Montrealers come to splurge on modern Québécois cuisine such as roasted Nova Scotia half lobster with bacon and leeks. Chef Normand Laprise's nightly "mystery menu" (allow at least four hours) is heavenly, served in a saffron-and-cranberry-colored room with cushioning armchairs and a lamp-lit maple bar.
L'Express 3927 Rue St. Denis; 514/845-5333; dinner for two $44. The black-and-white-tile floors are freshly polished, and the tables are crowded with bourgeois-chic diners savoring chef Joël Chapoulie's sumptuous duck and chicken rillettes and steak tartare. Little wonder that after two decades, it's still Montreal's favorite bistro.
St.-Viateur Bagel & Café 1127 Ave. Mont-Royal E.; 514/528-6361; breakfast for two $13. You've had New York's bagel—now try Montreal's crisper, more delicate version. The dough is boiled in honey-flavored water and baked over a wood fire in brick ovens. On Saturday mornings, fashionable families, sophisticated urbanites, and glam college kids stream in for bagels lavished with Pacific smoked salmon.
HOTELS AND INNS
St.-Paul Hotel 355 Rue McGill; 866/380-2202 or 514/388-2222; www.hotelstpaul.com; doubles from $125. In Montreal, no one does chic better than the 10-month-old St.-Paul. The lobby sizzles with a freestanding sculpture of fire-lit "ice" and a bar called Cube (the trendy Bar Cru is one flight up). The 120 guest rooms seduce you with ambient light, ponyskin chairs, and geometric- shaped furniture.
L'Hôtel XIXe Siècle 262 Rue St.-Jacques; 877/ 553-0019 or 514/985-0019; www.hotelxixsiecle.com; doubles from $88. Opened less than a year ago, this hotel retains vestiges of its former life as a 19th-century bank— from the French Empire ceiling friezes in the entrance hall to the ornate iron staircase in the lobby bar. The 59 rooms opt for warmth over high style: the walls are deep blue, garnet, and ocher; bedspreads are decorated with fleurs-de-lis; and bathrooms have marble window seats.
Hôtel Le Germain 2050 Rue Mansfield; 877/ 333-2050 or 514/849-2050; www.hotelgermain.com; doubles from $131. The fireplace and wall of flowing water in the Germain's lobby create an effect that's both striking and calming, as Montreal designers Alain Lemay and Viateur Michaud meant it to be. Ditto the 101 guest rooms, fashioned as lofts, with mahogany furniture, Mission-style headboards, and glass panels separating bedroom from bath.
Château Versailles 1659 Rue Sherbrooke W.; 800/223-5652 or 514/933-8111; www.versailleshotels.com; doubles from $83. Hotelier Vikram Chatwal (of New York's The Time hotel) has rejuvenated the two town houses that make up the Versailles: fabrics with arabesques; plum and tangerine walls; and Matisse-inspired paintings decorate the 65 guest rooms. Ask for the one with the Victorian fireplace.
Auberge du Vieux Port 97 Rue de la Commune E., Vieux-Montréal; 888/660-7678 or 514/876-0081; www.aubergeduvieuxport.com; doubles from $91, including breakfast, and afternoon wine and cheese. Below the casement windows in the 27 guest rooms, flutists play and artists sketch landscapes along the St. Lawrence River. Inside the 1882 house, there's just as much character: knotty-pine floors, English brass beds, and half-timbered ceilings.
Auberge Les Passants du San Soucy 171 Rue St.-Paul W., Vieux-Montreal; 514/842-2634, fax 514/842-2912; doubles from $72. The lobby of the 1723 auberge doubles as a gallery hung with paintings by Québécois artists. All nine blissfully quiet rooms are enhanced with terrazzo-floored sitting areas; some have oil paintings by local artists on limestone bathroom walls.
For a rich art scene, peruse the 20-odd galleries along Rue St.-Paul (between Rues Bonsecours and St.-Nicholas) in Old Montreal. Then move up to Rue St.-Denis north of Sherbrooke, where design houses carry ready-to-wear apparel. On equally fashion- friendly Rue Crescent, exquisite and eccentric couture are sold side by side. Farther south on Rue Notre-Dame, between Rue Guy and Avenue Atwater, distinctive antiques beckon. The shops on Sherbrooke west of Rue Peel are like mini-museums, sprinkled among collectors' galleries and century-old furriers.
Holt Renfrew 1300 Rue Sherbrooke W.; 514/ 842-5111. Montreal's premium department store is packed with high-end wares from Prada, Armani, Chanel, Gucci, and other international designers.
Ogilvy 1307 Rue Ste.-Catherine W.; 514/842-7711. Every day at noon, the notes of a bagpiper echo through boutiques with names like Burberry and Lily Simon, and shelves stocked with exclusive French cosmetics like Carita.
Jean Airoldi 4455 Rue St.-Denis; 514/287-6524. Quebec's favorite designer lets loose with black, knit-lace, cropped see-through dresses, and faux-fur zigzag tops in his stand-alone boutique.
Muse 4467 Rue St.-Denis; 514/848-9493. Here, Christian Chenail combines his expertise in fashion and architecture, sculpting structured work-wear in supple fabrics.
Lola & Emily 3475 Blvd. St.-Laurent; 514/ 288-7598. Opened last summer by two lifelong friends, this trendy shop mixes smart global apparel (Juicy Couture, Earl Jeans) with individual creations (reworked vintage pieces, hand-painted T-shirts) by Montreal designers.
Nadya Toto 2057 Rue de la Montagne; 514/350-9090. "Retro-nostalgia" is how the eponymous owner describes her line of jersey knits, iridescent fabrics, and asymmetrical designs, like the dress with crisscrossed leather straps.
Il n'y a Que Deux 1405 Rue Crescent; 514/843-5665. Designer Gordon Iaconetti creates made-to-fit garments, such as body-skimming chemises, for those who dare to wear less.
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
Petit Musée 1494 Rue Sherbrooke W.; 514/937-6161. Rare and gorgeous pieces—from Egyptian bronzes to medieval horse armor— are lyrically displayed on four levels of this 19th-century building.
La Chasse aux Trésors Antiques 3522 Rue Notre-Dame W.; 514/933-1533. Though they carry classic American and European dinettes, dressers, and desks, La Chasse will gladly reproduce any armoire.
Milord Antiques 1870 Rue Notre-Dame W.; 514/933-2433. In the market for an 18th-century Italian desk with Neoclassical marquetry?Pop in for a peek at the showroom, devoted to opulent European objets d'art.
Galerie d'Art Relais des Époques 234 Rue St.-Paul W.; 514/844-2133. Connoisseurs of modern Canadian art browse this gallery, where styles run the gamut from semi-figurative to Impressionist.
Espace Pepin 350 Rue St.-Paul W.; 514/844-0114. Acrylic artist Lysanne Pepin displays her own powerful still lifes and nudes—alongside vintage furs. Check out her paintings before trying on a pair of gently worn mink-collared boots.
Galerie Artitude 3932A Rue St.-Denis; 514/282-6636. Attitudes at Artitude range from contemplative to agitated, depending on the piece. Situated on Plateau Mont-Royal's designer row, the gallery displays paintings by international talent.
Galerie Claude Lafitte 1270 Rue Sherbrooke W.; 514/842-1270. With an address at the Ritz-Carlton and works by Chagall, Picasso, Miró, and other masters, Lafitte's gallery pleases even novice art-lovers.
MUSEUMS AND CONSERVATORIES
Museum of Contemporary Art 185 Rue Ste.- Catherine W.; 514/847-6226. Canada's only museum dedicated solely to contemporary art. The 10 galleries show thousands of pieces, including works by Louise Bourgeois and Robert Mapplethorpe. Coming in May: the sound installations of Janet Cardiff. Canadian Centre for Architecture 1920 Rue Baile; 514/939-7000. Designed by Peter Rose, with Phyllis Lambert as consulting architect, the CCA was built in 1989, and is one of the world's few architectural museums. It's also the most influential.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts 1379—1380 Rue Sherbrooke W.; 514/285-1600. Besides the predictable French luminaries (Cézanne, Rodin), there are collections of Canadian, American Indian, and decorative arts.
Biodôme 4777 Rue Pierre de Coubertin; 514/868-3000. The best time to visit is in winter, when you can warm up among the cacao trees and capybaras in the Tropical Forest, one of four model ecosystems within the soaring white dome.
Montreal Botanical Garden & Insectarium 4101 Rue Sherbrooke E.; 514/872-1400. At the Insectarium, mealworm lollipops await you at reception. Explore two floors of buggy displays, then shake off the heebie-jeebies by wandering through the gardens.
SEEN AND HEARD
With five exhibition halls and an impressive reputation, Place des Arts (260 Blvd. de Maisonneuve W.; 514/285-4200; www.pdarts.qc.ca) is Montreal's performing arts universe. Among the prominent troupes: the outstanding Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal (514/849-8681; www.grandsballets.qc.ca), now in its fourth decade; the nationally celebrated Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (514/842-3402; www.osm.ca), under the direction of Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit; and L'Opéra de Montréal (514/985-2222), where Québécois and European artists combine their talents on stellar productions of Tosca (this month) and Thérèse Raquin (in April).
In the early eighties, a few Montreal street performers started a stilt-walking troupe called the High Heels Club. Their small-time carnival act soon skyrocketed into the internationally famous, ebullient pageantry called Cirque du Soleil (514/722-2324; www.cirquedusoleil.com). Still headquartered in Montreal, the esteemed cirque unveils a new extravaganza of dance, clowning, and acrobatics at the Vieux-Port this April.
Beneath the surface of Montreal lies a cosmos of blinking lights and breezy corridors connecting 20 miles of subterranean life. In winter, use the Métro and your best walking boots (no coats required) to shop, restaurant-hop, catch a movie or a concert, or work out at the Y without ever going "up." Should you miss the frozen stuff, simply lace up a pair of skates and take a spin around Atrium Le 1000, "the Warmest Skating Rink in Montreal."
At La Rotonde(185 Rue Ste.-Catherine W.; 514/847-6900; lunch for two $20), a second-floor secret inside the Museum of Contemporary Art, Provençal cooking is elevated into high art. Sneak away from works by Paul-Émile Borduas and indulge in the braised duck breast with spiced framboise. From May through September, dine with a view of Henry Moore's Modernist sculpture. • Chez YoYo (4720 Rue Marquette; 514/524-4187; dinner for two $50) was once strictly for locals, but lately shrewd travelers have uncovered the snug neighborhood restaurant and its zesty cuisine bourgeoise (try the rack of lamb with fresh rosemary). • Guy & Dodo Morali (in Les Cours Mont-Royal, 1444 Rue Metcalfe; 514/842-3636; dinner for two $48) delivers the unimaginable: romantic dining in a shopping complex. Your salmon Wellington is presented on white-linen-topped tables lit with tea candles.
AN ENGAGING RETREAT
Slip down a narrow, cobblestoned street in Old Montreal, then between the heavy iron gates. From there, Gatan Trottier, a proprietor of Hostellerie Pierre du Calvet (405 Rue Bonsecours; 866/544-1725 or 514/849-3535; www.pierreducalvet.ca; doubles from $140), invites you inside the stone walls of his Breton-style house, where Ben Franklin slept in 1775. Light seeps into sprawling rooms with timbered ceilings, rows of Louis XIII chairs, and portraits of Trottier's ancestors, who purchased the 1725 house from the wealthy merchant and Canadian patriot for whom the hotel is named. (Calvet conspired with Franklin against the British during the American Revolution.) Now a nine-room B&B that relies on word of mouth, it's one of Montreal's most intriguing inns.
Ritz-Carlton Montreal 1228 Rue Sherbrooke W.; 800/363-0366 or 514/842-4212; www.ritz-carlton.com; doubles from $118. You enter the lobby of engraved mirrors and gilt-framed oils by such masters as Boudin. You give your bags to the valet, who whisks them to your suite, with its Louis XV—style furnishings and gold-leaf wallpaper. Meanwhile, you stroll through the indoor salon with potted date palms and an Italian-marble hearth, to Le Jardin du Ritz. There, beside the rosebushes and a pond with splashing ducks, steaming Earl Grey is poured into china cups. You skip the tea and order flutes of Laurent-Perrier, to toast a vintage Montreal moment.
This spring, Montreal unveils a trio of boutique hotels, one after the other.
MARCH Hôtel Gault 447—449 Rue Ste.-Hélène, Vieux-Montréal; 866/904-1616 or 514/904-1616; www.hotelgault.com; doubles from $250. Fournier Gersovitz Moss, Montreal's baron of high-tech chic, restored the façade of this 1871 building. Thirty loft-style rooms have Tibetan rugs on waxed concrete and bathrooms with square sinks and heated floors.
MAY Hôtel Nelligan 106 Rue St.-Paul W., Vieux-Montréal; 888/450-1887 or 514/842-1887; www.hotelnelligan.com; doubles from $109. Named for Canadian poet Émile Nelligan, whose verses will decorate the brick-and-stone walls of 64 rooms spread between two 1850 buildings.
JUNE Hôtel Le St.-James 355 Rue St.-Jacques, Vieux-Montréal; 514/841-3111; www.hotellestjames.com; doubles from $203. A camel-hair saddle, Georgian-era baldachins—the St.-James's ambience is more museum than hotel. It's no surprise, since the Rémillard family is pouring $11 million into the 1870 building.
Marché des Saveurs (280 Marché du Nord, at Marché Jean-Talon; 514/271-3811) is a grocery store filled with distinctive Québécois cuisine: caribou pâté with cider and apples, duck-burgers, and pots of honey infused with rose petals. At the tasting tables, you can sip vin de glace (a special dessert wine) or sample Inuit tea.
FOR THE LOVE OF CHEESE
On Saturday mornings at Fromagerie Hamel (220 Rue Jean-Talon E., at Marché Jean-Talon; 514/272-1161), Montrealers explore refrigerated cases overflowing with magnificent cheeses: snow-white squares of Gourmelin feta, fruit-scented logs of Perail, and pillows of chèvre. The mood and aromas are so stimulating, it's not uncommon to become light-headed here. Deciding on one cheese is difficult, considering that Hamel carries more than 475 varieties; those in the know ask owner Marc Picard for his current favorite. Lately, Comté is his pick. "It's more creamy than salty, and there are more nuts on the palate," he says. True enough, the first bite of this raw-milk Gruyère unleashes a smoky-sweet, nutty flavor on your taste buds. If only Americans took their fromage as seriously.