MONTREAL—Summers in Montreal have a feverish intensity to them.
It’s as if all the fun that could be had year-round is squeezed into the space of a few warmth-blessed months.
My first visit to Montreal was over 10 years ago when I decided, on a contrarian whim, to spend spring break somewhere different. It was February and frigid. I shopped the boutiques lining the 20 miles of underground tunnels, and caught a Habs game. My memories remained of gray and snow, and I never went back—until last month. And what a glorious difference: in summer, carpe diem rules.
“Montreal is a schizophrenic city: dark and fairly gloomy in the winter and ecstatic in the summer,” wrote filmmaker Jean-François Lesage in an email interview. “Montrealers have to survive a very harsh winter lasting almost six months of the year. So come summer, people go crazy.
“They start shedding off their clothes, sunbathing in the park, and walking down the streets of the city half naked. The bar and cafe terraces fill up. People party all the time and everybody falls in love, or wants to be.”
In city parks, the hillsides, rocks, and grass turn into reclaimed furniture, turning public spaces into outdoor living rooms.
Then there’s the Mountain or La Montagne, as Mount Royal Park (Parc du Mont Royal) is known. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also worked on Manhattan’s Central Park.
Mount Royal is the setting of Lesage’s latest documentary, “Un Amour d’Éte,” (A Summer Love), for which he eavesdropped on and documented conversations about love in the park.
“I discovered a very beautiful landscape of people,” he said, “mostly young people, because I was shooting my film after dark when the park is normally closed. There is a great cultural and linguistic diversity on the mountain that reflects what I love about my city.”
Much of the travel literature about Montreal presents a binary city: old and new, English and French.
But Montreal is also very multicultural. “People [on the tours] generally flip out over how Montreal is so multicultural and how we embrace that difference that makes us so unique, yet so ‘Montreal’ at the same time,” said Danny Pavlopoulos, the co-founder of Spade & Palacio Tours.
Pavlopoulos himself is an example. “I’m half-Greek and half-Peruvian and 100 percent Montreal,” he said.
After working at other tour operators, he decided to create his own tour company, through which he felt he could show visitors what was authentic and real about Montreal.
I took his Beyond the Market tour, which takes visitors to Little Italy’s Jean-Talon market, which is beloved by locals and tourists alike. There are prepared foods, such as foraged fare (marinated wild ramps at Les Jardins Sauvages), incredible sausage (figatelli from Les Cochon Tout Ronds), and one of the best mango sorbets I’d ever had, from Havre-aux-Glaces.
Pavlopoulos was a fantastic guide: passionate about the city, funny, knowledgeable, and with an impeccable sense of pacing. We ate or drank throughout the afternoon, but it was neither too much nor too little.
After Jean-Talon, the tour also brought us through the surrounding streets. On one block, a huge Vietnamese video store sat across the street from a Latino grocery store.
I don’t want to give away all the locations we visited on his tour, but aside from the market, I hadn’t seen these places on any must-do travel lists. They were real finds, by virtue of the quality of the food. At one restaurant, we picked up a wicker basket and headed to the local park to unpack a picnic blanket, Mason jar glasses, and bona fide utensils and plates, for eating scrumptious fried chicken, hush puppies, and a number of homemade hot sauces.
I asked if we needed to leave a deposit, as an assurance that we’d would return our picnic gear, but my question hung in the air for a while. The thought of someone not returning the wicker basket was inconceivable to them. “Nothing,” somebody said finally. “You don’t have to leave anything.”
In the park, on a Saturday midafternoon, I spotted at least half a dozen red and white checkered picnic cloths—some on the ground, some at the park tables. Drinking is permitted in the parks. “It’s the one beer, one sandwich rule, which has become more of a bottle of rum, one Snickers rule,” said Pavlopoulos.
It’s Always the Season for Poutine
Walking around in various neighborhoods, I started seeing poutine shops on nearly every block.
There is never an offseason for poutine and the creative adornments for the basic fries, gravy, and cheese curds seem endless. But if you want to be really decadent (because why stop, when you’re already putting gravy on fries?), try the foie gras version from Au Pied de Cochon (which translates to pig’s foot).
Through all that glorious cheese-and-gravy mess, it starts to be impossible to tell where the foie gras chunks melt into the savory brown gravy. To those not used to it, the cheese curds seem unusual, with their squeaky bouncy texture. And freshly cooked fries are the perfect canvas for it all.
You could go to the restaurant, where you can pick from a whole section of the menu devoted to foie gras (“Chicken Nuggets with Fg,” “Fg & Boudin Checkerboard,” and the “Fg Hamburger” are some of the items).
Better yet, head to Olympic Park, where on Friday evenings in warm weather, more than 50 food trucks—most from Montreal—congregate. You can get the foi gras poutine at Au Pied de Cochon’s food truck, and many other fine options await.
On my visit, one of the best eats I had, aside from the poutine, was an Asparagus Caesar from Landry & Filles, which you can easily spot by its white-on-blue stag logo.
The asparagus was addictive, lightly dressed with an umami-rich dressing. The folks behind the truck also own a restaurant, Landry & Filles, where as of last week chef Marc Landry was serving asparagus as a carpaccio with summer honey and sesame seeds. He’s also been experimenting with a Pacojet, an appliance that purées frozen foods without the need to thaw them first. As a result, you’ll spot purple corn ice cream on the menu.
The crepes soufflées from La Cabane à Crêpes, a food truck that’s been designed to look like a rustic log cabin, were also excellent. These little golden, delectable crepes are cooked in oil and covered with either powdered sugar or drizzled with maple syrup.
And of course, there are so many poutines it’s hard to keep track of them all—ribs poutine from Le Smoking BBQ, Mexican poutine from Mi Corazon, bacon poutine from Bacon Truck.
There was even a truck, La Boîte à Fromages, that I smelled before I saw it. It served raclette, that pungent cheese that can radiate an aroma of stinky feet. (This is not an insult, just a fact.) Apparently Montrealers didn’t think a thing of enjoying this cold weather dish of melted cheese over potatoes in the heat of summer.
The food truck event is also probably the only place where I’ve seen a Relais & Châteaux chef with his own food truck. Chef Jerome Ferrer’s Europea Mobile is the little sibling-on-wheels to his acclaimed restaurant Europea.
Many chefs on Montreal’s dining scene have embraced a casual vibe.
“Gone are the days of white tablecloths,” Pavlopoulos said. “Here we don’t go to the restaurant to be seen, we go to enjoy our experience and our food, and the quality of the produce. The skills of our young chefs make it so easy.”
At Etre Avec Toi (shortened to E.A.T and meaning “to be with you”), located at the W Hotel, for example, table side service is provided. Enthusiastic and impeccable staff prepare before your eyes anything from Jackie Robinson cocktails to decadent mounds of meringues with housemade sorbets, drizzled with chocolate sauce and caramel sauces. But the ambiance is far from stuffy and or even formal; street art adorns the walls and DJ-designed soundtracks are played.
With commercial rents going up, young entrepreneurs have taken to less expensive neighborhoods like Mile-Ex, where you might stroll around residential streets and be surprised to stumble on some culinary gems.
On Rue Saint Zotique O, garage doors open to reveal some of the city’s best iced coffee at Dispatch Coffee, where the vibe is low-key and hipster. Next door is the celebrated Restaurant Manitoba, whose chefs are serving New Canadian fare. You’ll find there smoked bone marrow with puffed Manitoba rice, corn powder and herb salad; Deer Steak with sautéed greens; boar and chicken liver pâté with wild berries and black walnuts.
Pavlopoulos can tell the summer has arrived, “when the Bixi bikes get installed and when we see businesses working on their temporary patios. When Alexandraplatz Bar opens, we say to ourselves, ‘This is gonna be a five-month hangover!'”
The trip was arranged by Tourism Québec in cooperation with Tourisme Montréal.
Montreal’s Summer Festivals
Here’s just a sampling of festivals this summer:
Festival International de Jazz features jazz at 1,000 concerts at 15 indoor and 10 outdoor venues (June 29–July 9).
L’International des Feux Loto-Québec is an international fireworks competition (July 2, 6, 9, 16, 20, 23, 27, and 30)
Montréal Complètement Cirque (Montreal Cirque Festival) highlights the circus arts (July 7–17).
Just for Laughs is the world’s largest comedy event, with over 2,000 shows, including more than 1,200 free ones (July 16–31).
Zoofest features emerging comedians, artists, and musicians (July 7–30).
Festival International Nuits d’Afrique features music from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. It includes 500 artists from over 30 countries (July 12–24, 2016).
Haiti on Fire! is dedicated to the arts and culture of Haiti (July 25–31).
Montreal First Peoples Festival highlights Amerindian and Inuit cultures (Aug. 3–10).
Montreal’s Italian Week Festival celebrates the culture, art, and gastronomy of Italy (Aug. 5–14).
OSM Classical Spree Couche-Tard (Aug. 10–13) features indoors and outdoor concerts by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.
Montreal World Film Festival features films from over 80 countries (Aug. 25-Sept. 5).
Festival Yul Eat celebrates the local cuisine of Montreal (Sept. 3–5).