Old Montreal lures visitors with narrow stone streets and luminous facades, behind which are art galleries, bars, restaurants, intimate hotels and unique boutiques.
MONTREAL — “To me, Montreal is eating, drinking and shopping,” summed up a Canadian friend before my first trip to the island city, where French is the official language but food is (unofficially) the language of love.
Priorities ordered for me, I set my top objective for my weekend stay: to get to Montreal’s hotter-than-ever restaurant Garde Manger to sample the lobster poutine, a variation on the artery-constricting Quebec staple consisting of French fries, cheese curds and gravy.
Calling a week in advance to secure a table bordered on laughable. Still, during check-in at the downtown Hotel Le Crystal, I asked the cheerful and thoroughly bilingual staff, first, if Garde Manger served lunch (no) and, second, if they could get us a table that night or next (no). “They’re fully booked,” the concierge said.
But she directed us to a common Day 1 destination — the neighborhood of Old Montreal — and a spot there for a late lunch, Modavie. From our hotel, we walked for a half-hour down Rue Sainte-Catherine. It was bustling with familiar chain stores such as Forever 21 but also the curiosity that is Simons, a Quebec City-based emporium that somehow sells both $19 tunics and $975 Herve Leger bandage dresses.
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A turn down Boulevard Saint-Laurent led through Chinatown, which along with restaurants offered diversions such as the Sexotheque video parlor. We had been told twice, by a business traveler as well as a Montrealer, that the city is famous in certain circles for its strip clubs.
Modavie’s bar brought a bite of calamari. Later, Modavie’s stage upstairs would be filled by jazz artists — music being a fourth quintessential attraction to add to my friend’s list. Indie rock band Arcade Fire, which in February won a Grammy for album of the year, calls Montreal home.
It quickly became apparent why my Canadian friend had recommended Hotel St. Paul at the gateway of Old Montreal. Room rates were higher than Le Crystal’s, which we had chosen for its indoor pool. But Old Montreal lured us again and again with its narrow stone streets and luminous facades, behind which were all manner of art galleries, bars, restaurants, intimate hotels and unique boutiques.
Gastronomic highlights included a smoked trout sandwich for lunch at the bustling bakery Olive et Gourmando, where Jake Gyllenhaal refueled during filming of “Source Code” last year.
One can steep one’s self in Montreal’s fur-trading origins in a single stop at Chateau Ramezay, the 18th-century mansion of French governors. Celine Dion fans can behold the church where she wed, Notre-Dame Basilica, which has light shows almost nightly.
A wife risks overtaxing her spouse’s patience at the Images Boreales Galerie d’Art Inuit, where serpentine sculptures of dancing polar bears represent Inuits’ hopes for the afterlife. To be reincarnated as the beast at the top of the Arctic food chain would be a danceable moment indeed.
There are many in Montreal. At tiny Garde Manger in Old Montreal, I planted myself in the dark-as-midnight entry early one Friday evening, watching the first seating of diners enjoy sprawling seafood platters and their own scheduling prowess. Instilling little hope for the second seating, the general manager charitably brought a glass of wine.
Before I could admit that my husband was the wiser to opt out of this gamble, in walked a frequent customer who was meeting a fellow foodie.
With characteristic Montreal conviviality, they switched to English and made room for me at the end of the bar.
Soon enough I was downing oysters and lobster poutine and being educated on the late-night downtown institution that is Schwartz’s deli. Its smoked meats have lured Angelina Jolie and the Rolling Stones and inspired a book and musical.
On Garde Manger’s soundtrack, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams somehow jibed with the White Stripes. The volume rose as the night progressed, and a table of men behind us stood suddenly and broke into dance. Then they sat back down to eat and drink more.