When I descended upon Montreal, a city drenched in French culture, I knew I’d better get my walking shoes on. Food is an inseparable part of travel in general, but some cultures get after it harder than others. While you’ll get a lot of the great French traditions in Montreal (croissants and pastries, for example), the city is known for three specific foods that might surprise you: Bagels, smoked meat, and poutine.
Battle of the Bagels: What makes Montreal bagels unique is that they are always cooked on a wood-fired oven, differing from those that come out of New York in that they are smaller (thinner) and sweeter. Two companies compete to be considered the head honcho in town, Fairmount Bagels and St. Viateur Bagel, both named after the streets on which they reside (they are a short walk from each other) in the Mile End neighborhood.
I decided I wanted to try both while I was there (how could I not?). My verdict is that they are very different, really only having the shape in common. When compared, St. Viateur had a crispier crust, fluffier middle, and was noticeably sweeter, while the Fairmount bagel was more dense and hearty. Both were tasty in their own way, and my advice would be to try both when you’re in town with some smoked salmon and cream cheese on top.
Mile End was one of my favorite neighborhoods, an artsy side of town that is known for its Anglophone culture, independent music scene (the band Arcade Fire started there), restaurants, and cafes. The past few years have seen an influx of wealth to the neighborhood, and it now combines high-end houses with large lawns with a tightly packed “downtown” area. When you visit Montreal, consider heading over for breakfast (bagels), a coffee (I really recommend Cafe Olimpico), and cap it off with a French pastry from Première Moisson.
Smoked Meat: It’s about as simple as it gets at Schwartz’s Deli – smoked meat and mustard on rye bread – but it’s arguably the most iconic establishment in Montreal. Now partly owned by Celine Dion, locals and tourists both flock to this casual, no frills deli (although you’ll still pay over $6 a sandwich). While the tourists can make it crowded, it is by no means a “tourist trap.”
Full fat, half fat, or lean are the options. I originally ordered full fat, then pulled back to half fat when my friend described the former as containing “really large chunks of fat,” aka big globs of jelly-like texture, of which I am not a fan. The half fat still was plenty fatty and the meat, to use a cliched term, melts in your mouth (I don’t really know how else to put it). It’s very tender and, surprisingly, not as filling as you would think.
FYI if you are short on time and there is a lineup at Schwartz’s, head across the street to the Main Deli Steak House. I didn’t have time to try it, but my sources tell me it’s also delicious (just different) and popular with locals as an alternative to Schwartz’s.
Poutine: There’s a lot of fuss made over poutine – a Quebec staple – but don’t confuse or make this dish into something it’s not: It’s junk and drunk food, most deliciously enjoyed between two and five in the morning by college kids and young professionals.
All right, that’s a bit of a stereotype, but it’s pretty true (I rest my case on the fact that the local McDonald’s offers a mass-produced version of poutine). The traditional version is a french fry base with squeaky cheese and gravy on top, although places now offer it with additional and alternative toppings (I’ve seen Foie Gras poutine, which is ridiculous). A good place to get your feet wet is La Banquise, where the menu has over twenty varieties.
It’s a very popular place so expect a lineup, especially after the bars let out.
Additional Restaurant Recommendation: When I described Holder Restaurant in Old Montreal as a good place for a first date, I apparently revealed just as much about myself as I did the restaurant (my friends laughed at me). The place is very communal with closely-placed tables, high ceilings, tall windows, a young vibe, and tons of chatter. I wouldn’t say it was loud – just noisy (they admit this themselves on the website).
I call it a great first date place because it offers food of every variety, good beer and wine options, and an atmosphere that promotes conversation. Going to town on a glass of dessert wine and a cheese plate after the meal might not bear the best breath for those crossing their fingers for a first kiss, but hey – if they like you enough, they’ll get over it, you know?