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Eating Well in Montreal

by Andrea Zanin

Montreal is famous for its food scene. We boast thousands of restaurants in Montreal that serve a huge variety of fresh, high-quality food, and even our high-end restos are reasonably priced compared to other cities. But how did our unique food culture develop?

In 1642, French settlers, led by Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve with the help of Jeanne Mance, founded Ville Marie in the area now known as the Old Port of Montreal. The colony came under British rule in 1760. In the first half of the 19th century, waves of immigrants arrived from England , Scotland and Ireland , and Montreal enjoyed a brief stint as the capital of Canada . By 1870, our port city was a thriving centre for culture and industry, and this has continued ever since.

It’s hard to pinpoint when restaurants started to take their place as an integral part of Montreal culture. But some of the highlights are easy to trace, particularly since some of our most well loved places have been around for 80 years or more.

Montreal delicatessens got their start when Ben and Franny Kravitz opened Ben’s Delicatessen in 1908; it moved to its current retro-style digs on the corner of Maisonneuve and Metcalfe in the 1950s. In 1919, Isadore Shlafman opened Montreal ’s first bagel bakery, which moved from Saint-Laurent Boulevard to Fairmount Street in 1949. Today, Isadore’s grandchildren still make their famous bagels in the traditional wood stove at Fairmount Bagels in that same spot. In 1927, Myer Dunn founded Dunn’s Famous Restaurant, a Montreal institution known for sandwiches stacked high with smoked meat. His grandson Elliot Kligman still runs the place.

Though the city of Montreal certainly felt the Great Depression in 1929, legal drinking and a scintillating nightlife made Montreal a destination of choice throughout the American Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. (Quebec’s version of the Prohibition lasted just a year, from 1918 to 1919!) Montreal nightclubs enjoyed their heyday from 1925 to 1955, and restaurants played an integral part of the scene along with vaudeville acts and jazz music.

1933 saw the inauguration of two public markets, Atwater and Jean-Talon, which among others are still thriving today. Everyday shoppers and restaurant chefs alike surf there for fresh produce and treats du terroir, including Quebec ’s wide variety of specialty cheeses. Montrealers have come to expect our restaurants to serve only the freshest food; Alouette Steakhouse (1176 Ste-Catherine West, Montreal), for example, has been thriving since 1948 on its reputation for succulent steaks and delicious seafood.

In 1967, Montreal hosted Expo 67, a major world cultural fair that saw 50 million people flood the city over six months. This of course gave an enormous boost to the city’s restaurant industry, and some of the resulting establishments are still going strong today—among others, Alexandre et fils (1454 Peel, Montreal), a French restaurant created by Alain Creton, who became a chef at 19 and still greets customers at the door today.

Some of Montreal’s best food can be found in the small, single-location restaurants that line the Main and pepper the Plateau, not to mention nestling in every conceivable nook and cranny of every neighbourhood in the city.

Montreal has seen many influxes of immigrants over the past century, from Jewish war survivors in the 1940s and 50s to Chinese, African, Caribbean, Lebanese, Greek, Italian and Portuguese populations at various other times, to name just a few. Today, you can hear dozens of languages spoken on the streets, and the city is full of cultural institutions, bookstores, specialty food shops—and of course, restaurants—that both reflect and cater to the resulting cultural diversity. Enjoy delicious Greek on Prince Arthur Street , Italian in the North (such as Roberto’s on Bélanger), Japanese on the Plateau, Mexican in the Old Port , and Ethiopian and Afghani downtown, just for starters. The variety is mind-boggling—from steaming 99-cent pizza at street-corner dives to funky vegan eateries (check out Café Blue Monday in Verdun) to five-star dining at the Casino.

French cuisine is of course easy to find too, from lovely crêperies in the Old Port and Mile End (try Une Crêpe?) to delicious chocolateries all over the city to gourmet spots downtown (check out Le Paris at 1812 Ste-Catherine West, Montreal). The European tradition of open-air terrasses during the warmer months is alive and well, and some say that our current trendy gourmet coffee culture found its beginnings here also—not hard to believe given our huge number of artsy cafés and bistros.

Today’s Montreal restaurant scene is second only to New York City in number of restaurants per capita in North America . With a rich history and a flourishing present, our Montreal restaurant scene is well worth discovering for yourself!

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