Since our last visit to Montreal a number of years ago, the dining scene has exploded. Part of this can be traced back to the 2005 debut of Joe Beef – now part of a buzzy mini-group of three hotspots – and its perennial inclusion on the World’s Fifty Best Restaurants list. But just as surprising is the sudden boom in natural wines, which have come to dominate the lists of any respectable Montreal establishment. All this adds up to Montreal arriving on the world stage as one of the great eating and drinking cities. Here’s our opinionated list of where to eat and drink now in Montreal.
Anchoring the formerly remote “Little Burgundy” neighborhood, Joe Beef (2491 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest) now rambles over two rooms, the result of an expansion in 2011 that doubled the seating capacity. Visits by Anthony Bourdain and adulation from the international press had made it impossible to get into the one room restaurant. These days, Joe Beef runs like a finely tuned machine. Reservations are “gettable” if you plan ahead and you might be able to sneak in to snag a bar seat or two. But the real question for diners remains, aside from the hype is Joe Beef that good? The short answer is yes. The menu is hyper seasonal so the staff will ask you what would want and design your meal. Let them. Be careful though as the portions are not small and you shouldn’t miss the namesake slabs of beef.
Au Pied de Cochon (536 rue Duluth E) looks and feels like an institution. Stepping into this meat palace is a real hoot – sure they are genius at selling (and upselling) but the classic cooking is so good, you can’t go wrong. A word to the uninitiated – this is foie gras heaven and you will have the option of dining on this delicacy in myriad fashion, not the least of which is putting it on top of the many daily specials. For starters, order the deliciously rich poutine with foie gras (bring friends) and then dig into hearty dishes like the côte de cochon (pork rib). The meal won’t be for the faint of heart or high of cholesterol but is well worth it.
Hotel Herman (5171 rue Saint-Laurent) may be a relative newcomer at four years old, but already it feels like a comfortable veteran of the city’s emerging dining scene. For starters, this is no hotel but a proper grown up restaurant with a fabulous natural wine list. The owners originally thought of offering guest rooms, hence the odd-but-endearing moniker. A perch at the U-shaped bar is the way to go here, the better to quiz staff on the wines and watch the action in the kitchen. Per usual, the menu is seasonal and the wines are natural. Mushrooms, foie gras and venison will hopefully make an appearance but with cooking this honest, you can’t really go wrong.
Tocqué! (900 Place Jean-Paul Riopelle) may not be a household name to Americans but this is big deal dining at Canada’s #1 rated restaurant (according to Canada’s 100 Best). You can limit your pocketbook exposure by enjoying a leisurely lunch at this swanky downtown spot. The 2-course menu ranges from $28 – $50 CAD and gets you an app, entrée, and tea or coffee. Add on dessert for just $10 CAD and you have a steal at this top rated spot (3 courses at dinner will run you upwards of $90 CAD). The cooking is modern French – try the terrific venison or the guinea fowl if they have them. Both came with mushrooms on a recent visit but, as elsewhere, expect seasonal ingredients in abundance. Tocqué! may not be getting the same level of international buzz, but it’s well worth a stop.
When you go to Montreal, every guidebook tells you to go to L’Express (3927 Rue Saint-Denis), the old school bistro in the Plateau. This especially holds for weekend lunch where the traditional cooking means actual food rather than the ubiquitous brunch found elsewhere. Frankly we were underwhelmed so take this under advisement. The room is barely comfortable and the pace fairly frenetic. The food varied in quality – foie gras arrived tasteless while bone marrow had its comforting value. Alas, the chicken liver pate left us as cold butter served with the middling baguette. The wine list is certainly impressive and you can dig through it to find some older stuff. But in a city with so much great dining, we wouldn’t put this place on a must visit list.
A stone’s throw from Joe Beef, the group’s Le Vin Papillon (2519 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest) gleefully subverts the concept of a wine bar with a full menu of vegetable-centered dishes. The wines are, of course, all natural so let the knowledgeable guide you. You can duck into the dining room or sidle up to the long bar. Either way, reservations aren’t taken so get there early.
Fabien Maillard’s Le Lab (1351 Rachel East) offers a lengthy menu of adventurous, frequently changing cocktails. There is no key spirit here, just the spirit of adventure. The bar staff is beyond accommodating so let them know what you like to drink and they’ll find something for you. You could do worse than their version of the Vieux Carre or the house classics Bébé Dragon (rum, house ginger syrup, lemon, mango, basil) or the Jerky Lab Jack (Jack Daniels, curacao, cane sugar, bbq bitters & beef jerky).
Pullman (3424 Avenue du Parc) offers myriad opportunities for wine exploration with more than a dozen wines by the glass, all available in half-pours. Trios are another option with themes running from Canadian wines to a flight of Rieslings from around the world. Connoisseurs can skip by the glass and dig into the deep list of bottle offerings – replete with older and hard to find gems you won’t see stateside.