OK...unpopular opinion: Jen and I weren't really blown away by Montreal. Based on what everyone told us before we left, we thought we'd fall in love with the fake France that is Montreal and potentially be bored in Quebec City. But the opposite was true. We were relatively unimpressed our first day in Montreal and totally enamored our first day in Quebec City.
It's not that Montreal is bad, per se, it's just that...well...it's basically like any other North American city, except everyone speaks French and is a lot nicer than the people we're used to on the U.S. East Coast. It really wasn't even that pretty. There were occasional buildings with interesting architecture interspersed among big concrete D.C.-looking buildings. Kind of like...Baltimore.
And while the people of Montreal did turn out to be truly lovely, our first impression wasn't great. After we had lunch and dropped our stuff off at our Airbnb the first day, we wandered down one of the main drags, the Rue St-Denis, through the Latin Quarter to the gay district, the Village, where we expected to find galleries and cute independent shops. Instead we found a street full of empty convenience stores, dive bars, and crackheads wandering around like zombies on "The Walking Dead."
To top it off, there were also roving bands of youths (::shakes fist like Schmidt::) running around with lipstick and ketchup all over their faces asking people for money. But weirdly not like money they needed -- but maybe like for some sort of scavenger hunt?
We never really solved the mystery of the ketchup people and exactly why they had ketchup and lipstick all over their faces, but in our Airbnb's neighborhood on St-Laurent near Mont Royal, we were treated to groups of McGill students living it up summer camp-style for freshman orientation. Like the ketchup people, they appeared to travel in packs loudly yelling at each other and strangers. And they called themselves the "frosh." The theme of their orientation this year was "Froshing Nemo." It was everywhere. At a movie theater. On their shirts (along with their name tags...which no self-respecting NYU freshman would have EVER put up with).
Listen. I'm really glad college is looking like it's going to be the best four years of their lives, but I hate those kids. Harkening back to freshman year Staci who had mono and a raging case of social anxiety, I just don't understand them and their happiness and enthusiasm. (Although I suppose the drinking age in NYC was never 18 like it is in Montreal.) And present day Staci hates them because after sleeping only four hours the night before Jen and I arrived in Montreal, they kept me up the next night screaming outside and using a goddamn MEGAPHONE as they hopped among the 18+ nightclubs.
Ugh. Kill me.
Luckily, what Montreal lacked in ambience, it made up for culinarily. It's EASILY one of the best food cities I've ever been to. Given the impressive concentration of hipsters we spied among Quebec's restaurants (both in Montreal and QC), Jen and I have devised a new rating system to help you plan your eating adventures should you make a food pilgrimage to either city.
Our Airbnb was about a block away from this famous Jewish deli, and we arrived in Montreal around lunchtime. Our Airbnb host was still cleaning the apartment when we arrived before the official check-in time, but he let us drop our stuff off, and since the hellscape that is LaGuardia left Jen starving, we headed straight to Schwartz's for their famous smoked meat sandwiches. It was definitely a solid way to begin our Canadian adventure, and I really loved the fries, cherry cola, and pickle that we got along with our sandwiches.
RATED THREE OUT OF FIVE MAN BUNS: It was kind of comforting/nostalgic to be in an old-school Jewish deli, and the sandwich was great, no doubt. But I wouldn't say it was anything better than you could get in Baltimore or New York (and it was definitely saturated with NYC prices). The waiters were super nice too and not hipsters at all...which I suppose should garner them extra points, but given that the points are man buns and there was nary a man bun to be found, half a point deduction (is half up, half down the next hipster man hairstyle?).
On the top floor of the very shmancy Société des Arts Technologiques building in Downtown Montreal is a swanky restaurant/bar called Foodlab. We found this one via Lonely Planet, which also says that they change the internationally influenced menu every two weeks. It was pricey, but the rooftop seating was delightful, and the food was beautiful and delicious.
RATED THREE OUT OF FIVE MAN BUNS: Super delicious cocktails, lovely outdoor seating, and gorgeous food. Maaaybe shouldn't be so expensive though.
A half a block down the street from Montreal's own Notre Dame Basilica, we visited Tommy, a coffee shop recommendation from a local. It's basically one of the cutest coffee shops I've ever been in, there was free wifi and free water (everywhere, so no having to ask busy baristas for water), almond milk, tons of seating, pastries...basically everything you could want in a coffee shop -- in sharp contrast to Myriade, a clusterfuck of another coffee shop we visited that had no wiffy, no water, no almond milk, very little seating, and a handful of stale-looking croissants and scones.
RATED FOUR OUT OF FIVE MAN BUNS: This place even had actual man buns and was like...soooo artisanal, man.
Chez Claudette has a fancy-sounding name, but it's basically just a diner. A diner with a BAJILLION kinds of poutine -- and frankly the best poutine (in my opinion) that Jen and I had our entire time in Canada. We ordered the classic -- fries, gravy, and cheese curds -- as well as our waiter's recommendation, an off-menu delight with barbecue pulled pork. If you're iffy on the concept of poutine, I understand, but visit Chez Claudette and you will be converted.
RATED FIVE OUT OF FIVE MAN BUNS: Cheap, chill, and fucking delicious.
Holy fucking shit. If you haven't heard of Joe Beef, let me get you up to date: It's THE place to go in Montreal. Anthony Bourdain visited Joe Beef and filmed his Montreal episode with the restaurant's chef/owners (and you know how we feel about Bourdain recs), other chefs eat there, and basically everyone we talked to who had been to Montreal highly recommended it. But the thing is, despite Jen's overzealous planning, we never make restaurant reservations way ahead of time. This has always worked out just fine for us, but you need to make reservations months in advance to get into Joe Beef, and we ultimately got it in our heads that we really wanted to go. So one evening around 5, I called to see if they take any walk-ins at all. The girl I spoke to said they didn't, but that sometimes they had cancellations, and if they did, we could snap one of those up. So I asked if they had room for two that evening, and I guess it was fate, because we got a spot, and even though we were 25 minutes early, they seated us right away.
You would think that a place so internationally known would be snobby, but the girl on the phone was just as excited as I was to tell me they had a cancellation. And our waiter translated the entire French menu for us (which is only available on a chalkboard on the wall). The whole place was amazingly chill and casual with awesome music and a cozy atmosphere. And best of all, the food lived up to the hype. Jen had scallops in corn soup, I had bone marrow with sea urchin and a dill chimichurri, and we split lobster spaghetti and a blueberry tartlette. Honestly, I think it came close to dethroning my Tokyo sushi as best meal I've ever eaten.
RATED FIVE HUNDRED OUT OF FIVE MAN BUNS: Worth every penny. The food was so good that when Jen spotted one of the guys from Arcade Fire, I was too absorbed in the buttery blueberry tartlette to look up.
I liked L'Express for its Parisian feel with the checkered floors and the French menu. I also like that you get a large amount of bread and a giant jar of gherkins to snack on before your meal. This is another place that Lonely Planet claims is reservation-essential, but Jen and I got in on a Friday night without one, and the host was super nice about it too.
RATED THREE OUT OF FIVE MAN BUNS: Not bad, but I guess it pales in comparison to the meal at Joe Beef the night before.
Before we left, I was alerted to the fact that bagels were a thing in Montreal, something about which I had no idea. But Jen and a couple others told me that Montreal bagels aren't the bagels this Jewish girl is used to. Rather, they're thinner, chewier, and sweeter. Since I am typically of the opinion that mo' bread, mo' better, I was skeptical of this "thin" bagel talk. But St-Viateur changed my mind. I tried my favorite flavor, sesame, and was totally sold. It was so fresh and delicious it didn't need anything on it, nor did it need to be toasted. A couple blocks away is its competitor, Fairmount Bagels, and naturally we took one for the team, dear readers, and tried theirs too. If you choose one or the other, go with St-Viateur; theirs were fresher and chewier.
RATED FOUR OUT OF FIVE MAN BUNS: Deduction only because apparently a lox sandwich WAS an option somewhere, but Jen and I didn't see where, and missed out on that golden opportunity.
This is another old-school diner and Bourdain recommendation. I love a good diner breakfast, and Beauty's delivered, fueling us for the four-hour (disgustingly Amtrak-like) train ride from Montreal to Quebec City. Good coffee, great service, huge breakfast. Plus, instead of toast with every meal, you get a whole Montreal bagel. Win.
RATED FIVE OUT OF FIVE MAN BUNS: Breakfast all day, errday.
Uggh, guys, I'm hungry.