Lesley Chesterman

Visitors to Montreal always want to try three things: bagels, smoked meat and poutine. But according to journalist and veteran restaurant critic Lesley Chesterman, there’s more to her hometown’s dining scene than its greatest hits, and she has the dining guide to prove it. From Jewish delis to locavore ice creameries and natural wine bars, these are the places that, in Chesterman’s opinion, make Montreal one of North America’s most exciting food cities.

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A Pocket of France in Canada

One of the most interesting things about Quebec is that it’s a Francophone province. You close your eyes in a restaurant in Montreal or Quebec City and everybody around you is speaking French. If they aren’t, you’re in a touristy restaurant and you should go somewhere else. The two cities are not like France either and each one has its own culture. I like places with a bit of history to them. 

An Introduction to Montreal’s Dining Scene

Montreal is a very relaxed place to eat. Somebody wearing a suit and tie would stand out here. This wasn’t the case 20 years ago. It is also an affordable place to eat well. The prices here are very reasonable compared to other big cities such as Toronto. I think that we merit our reputation for being a food-forward city. We have a wide variety of restaurants and what’s interesting is that a lot of them – even the bigger ones – are run by Quebecers rather than star chefs from elsewhere. Homegrown chefs really know our beautiful regional ingredients and use them well. Having been out a few times since COVID regulations were relaxed, things are slowly returning to normal.

Montreal’s Jewish History (and Food)

Montreal’s Francophone history is well known, but the city is also home to a rich Jewish heritage too. While New York delis have pastrami, ours have smoked meat. New York pastrami is a little bit spicier and about three times the price of Montreal smoked meat. It’s really not expensive to get a smoked meat sandwich around here. You have it with a cherry coke and French fries – the traditional way. Schwartz’s Deli is the Mecca for smoked meat in Montreal so the line to get in is very long. There’s also a little restaurant called Wilensky that was made famous by Canadian author Mordecai Richler. It’s a step back in time and doesn’t open all the time. It only serves baloney sandwiches and soda and staff won’t sell you a can of Coke: they make their own cola from scratch. 

The Difference Between Montreal Jewish and French Canadian Breakfasts

There’s a wonderful diner called Beauty’s which has been open since the 50s. Leonard Cohen used to go there all the time. It’s a very special place and you go there for the “Beauty’s Special” which is a bagel with cream cheese, smoked salmon, tomato and red onion. It’s really delicious and the diner uses the best bagels. That’s considered a Montreal Jewish breakfast (Anglophone). A French Canadian breakfast would be beans with eggs and ham and you pour maple syrup on it. They’re two different worlds.

“Montreal Bagels are the Best Bagels in the World”

Montreal bagels are the best bagels in the world. People who don’t agree have never had a Montreal bagel. While a New York bagel is more like a bun, a Montreal bagel is a cross between a bun and a pretzel: it’s a little bit firmer, a little bit chewier and a tiny bit sweet. Bakers usually put sesame and poppy seeds on it. There are two famous bagel places in town: Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel. You can find them at the airport, but they will be more expensive. My sister lives in Paris so whenever I go see her, I bring her a dozen bagels. 

The Market Report

The Jean-Talon Market is the largest market in Montreal and really great to visit, especially in the summer. In the winter, the market is brought inside which diminishes the number of stalls. I really love the Marché Atwater on the other side of town. It’s smaller but still very good. A lot of chefs have market food stands so you can eat at the centre of the market: something you can’t do at the Jean-Talon Market. 

A City Of Cheese

Quebec is home to more than 300 varieties of cheese. There are three main shops on the island of Montreal that I buy my cheese from: a great cheese shop at the Atwater market called La Fromagerie Atwater; La Fromagerie Hamel which is at both the Atwater and the Jean-Talon markets; and another wonderful cheese shop called Yannick Fromagerie. They sell everything that goes with cheese as well, such as bread and cold cuts.

Dining Out, Montreal-Style 

The 40-seat, chef-owned bistro is where everybody wants to eat in Montreal. It could be a trattoria with an Italian menu or any kind of small restaurant. We’re starting to see a lot of them open in the less glamorous parts of town where the rents are lower. If an industry friend is visiting, I would take them to Montréal Plaza. It is a quintessential Montreal restaurant and a spectacular place. The ambience is great, the wine list is amazing, the service is very, very good and the chefs are crazy-inventive in how they interpret French cuisine. There’s a very famous restaurant called Joe Beef but it’s gotten so much publicity that it’s always booked-out. I would also like to take friends to this amazing sushi restaurant called Park where the chef is actually Korean. It’s a beautiful restaurant. There’s also Foxy where everything is grilled over fire. It’s a really great restaurant run mostly by women. They make amazing cocktails and have a very good wine program. 

More Places To Drink Good Cocktails

The cocktail scene is very new to Montreal but there are some great cocktails in this city. The people behind Foxy have another place called Un Po Di Piu which is absolutely beautiful and makes delicious food. It feels a bit like an Italian bar so you can go for some great cocktails and a little antipasto. There’s a very cool place called the Atwater Cocktail Club that’s all about interesting cocktails. 

Montreal’s Best Wine Bars

If people go out for a drink here, it’s mostly wine. Wine bars have always been a big deal to Montreal and they’re part of the local culture. Some of our popular wine bars include Pullman, Buvette Chez Simone, Vinvinvin, and Rouge Gorge. Montreal is also one of the leading cities in the natural wine scene. 

Restaurants That Define Montreal Food Culture

There are two places by well-known local chef Martin Picard that would give you a real sense of Montreal dining culture. He has a very nice restaurant in the city called Au Pied de Cochon. Anthony Bourdain talked about it a lot and it’s now visited by a lot of tourists but it’s still a terrific, very original restaurant. Picard’s other place to visit is Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack. The sugar shack is a place you go to eat in the woods and all the food has maple in it. It had become an old-fashioned concept, but thanks to Picard, it’s back and people go into the country to eat in these sugar shacks which is a lot of fun. The sugar season starts in March when the maple sap starts to run and you can see how maple syrup is made and eat it caramelised off the snow. Picard’s sugar shack is a very good one and famous for its decadence. You can also visit a traditional, family-run sugar shack where you’ll often see the whole family in the kitchen. Sugar shacks are always a little bit out of the city centre but you can get to one in under an hour. A favourite of mine is the family-friendly Cabane à Sucre Bouvrette in St Jérôme which is one of the closest to the city. The same family has operated it since 1947 and serves traditional food that’s plain excellent. 

Montreal Loves its Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is a pretty big deal around here and Quebec is by far the largest maple syrup producer in the world. Every store in Montreal sells it including our bigger gas stations and pharmacies. It is omnipresent. Of course, there’s only real maple syrup. If you go to a specific store, you can even buy regional or organic maple syrups. If you have friends who make maple syrup they will usually sell or give you some. 

Two Long-Time Favourites

I absolutely love a restaurant called L’Express which is the most classical French bistro in Montreal. I’ve been going there for over 35 years. Even French people I know like it better than French restaurants in France. The atmosphere is out of a movie and the food is fantastic. There’s a very good restaurant called Toqué which is very gastronomic and holds a special place in my heart. I’ve been going to the restaurant since it opened and have been following chef Normand Laprise’s career through its many ups and occasional downs. I always like going there because he is the master of using local ingredients. There’s an artistic element to dinner and I’m always excited to see what he does. He’s been at it for 30 years, is still on the top of his game and is considered the top chef of Montreal.

Restaurants That Feel Like Home

Leméac is a very good bistro I would want to go to after a long week. It’s quite a big place but very relaxed, so you’ll see families and couples. It’s in a chic part of town, so it’s a change from the usual bohemian vibe. Nobody has their feet up on the table. There’s no chef dancing drunk on a table. Sometimes that happens here. It’s sophisticated, but in no way pretentious. The kitchen gets inventive with the bistro classics, so even if there’s steak-frites, salmon pot au feu or a goats’ cheese salad, it’ll be so well done. There are always daily specials and they used to discount the menu after 10 o’clock so people would go there late at night to have oysters and Champagne. I hope they eventually bring that back. Tuck Shop is another superb restaurant run by very nice people and is a perfect place to go and relax. It serves market-inspired cuisine in a very exciting ambience, and the people there are very nice. 

The City’s Chef To Watch

Le Mousso is an interesting restaurant run by Antonin Mousseau-Rivard who is probably the most talented chef in Montreal. His father Michel Rivard is a very famous singer, his mother is actress Katerine Mousseau, and his grandfather is painter Jean-Paul Mousseau, so the artistic flair runs in the family. Le Mousso has a new, tasting-menu-only dining format which also has a wine pairing option. Yes, it’s expensive, but it really is a gastronomic experience.

Montreal’s Italian Food Renaissance 

There are more good Italian restaurants in Montreal than before. The Italian food scene used to be too old-school, but now it’s a very big deal. There is an amazing place called Impasto that tries to revive authentic Italian cuisine while staying true to old recipes. It sounds very cliché, but there are  very good chefs in the kitchen who are refining these traditional recipes and making them restaurant-friendly. There’s another very good restaurant with an amazing wine list called Nora Gray. It serves traditional Italian food in a very sophisticated dining room that feels kind of romantic without going overboard. I recently reviewed a wonderful restaurant called Antonietta which was fantastic. 

Montreal’s Italian Food Renaissance (Cont’d)

We have a lot of great pizza, too. Elena is one of the city’s best pizza restaurants and where all the cool kids go. I love Moleskin, a groovy restaurant with wonderful pizza and excellent Italian food in general. I also love Pizzeria GEMA which is located in the heart of Little Italy, as well as Bottega, the first restaurant to serve Napolitan-style pizza in Montreal. Pizzeria 900 is another good bet with locations all around the city. 

An Address Book for Coffee in Montreal

For the best café and croissant combo, I usually head to Café Bazin in Westmount, just a bit west of the downtown core. Café Humble Lion is a favourite downtown address and hugely popular among McGill University students, as is Pikolo especially when it comes to milk drinks. Café in Gamba is another serious destination for coffee hounds, as is Café St-Henri which has locations at both the Jean-Talon Market and in St-Henri, southwest of downtown.  

The Best Ice Cream In Montreal

We have excellent ice cream in Montreal. The best place is Kem Coba which has queues down the street. I usually get the brown butter ice cream. It also makes this amazing soft-serve cheesecake ice cream which sounds odd, but it’s fantastic. At Dalla Rose, the ice cream is made by chefs so the flavours are based on what’s in season. There is a place called Crèmerie Meu Meu which is very, very good, and another very good ice cream place called Ripples that makes a triple chocolate ice cream that is amazing – it’s like a rich chocolate cake in a cone. Havre-Aux-Glaces is a wonderful ice cream stand in the Jean-Talon Market that makes ice cream using fruit from the market. It makes two or three different strawberry ice creams in summer and things like chestnut ice cream in the winter. 

The Perfect Marriage of Two Montreal Staples

Poutine is an interesting dish because it hails from [Quebec cities] Victoriaville and Drummondville, yet you find a lot of it here in Montreal. It is made with French fries, gravy and cheese curds and has become the Canadian national dish. Some people think it’s awful but I think it’s absolutely delicious. In my opinion, Montreal’s best version is served at Ma Poule Mouillée – one of the city’s best chicken rôtisseries – which combines poutine with Portuguese chicken which is another dish the city is famous for. You could share it with about seven people because it’s that rich, but it really is delicious and it’s so special in how it combines two cultures in my city.

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