"It's only two hours away!" you exclaim. We all have (if you're in Ottawa, that is). Montreal, it beckons.
I didn't have the slightest inkling of the depth of this city when Brett and I decided, on a whim, to move there. Living in the Plateau and Mile End, and working in St-Henri and Mile-Ex for three years, I walked away with amazing experience, way better french language skills, and a LONG LONG LONG list of things to see/do/try while you're in town that are so worth doing, even if they take you out of your comfort zone of downtown Montreal.
I've practically written this guide a million times over for everyone I know when they head to the city for a day, a weekend, or even longer, but for sanity's sake (and so that it's not 1000 pages long), I'm breaking it down into distinct neighbourhoods (Mile End, Mile-Ex/Rosemount/Petit Patrie, St-Henri/Little Burgundy, The Plateau proper, and Elsewhere to collect the stragglers). This week, I'll be posting about Mile End. My favourite part of the city, and also the craziest, in it's own subtle, nutso, Montreal way.
Mile End is an unofficial borough, a part of the Plateau-Mont-Royal, one of Montreal's 19 different official neighbourhoods, and on the edge of Outremont. For many years, it's been a rich cultural and artistic district within the city, a place that's most recently been home-base for bands like Plants & Animals, the Arcade Fire, Lhasa, and many more artists across many mediums. Mordecai Richler grew up on St-Urbain, just a stone's throw from Wilensky's famous deli, around the corner from my first Mile End apartment.
Many different communities call Mile End home, including Hasidic Jewish families, Portuguese, Greek, and Italian families, French ex-pats, English Canadians, Americans and others. It's this mix of cultures that makes this quartier of the city so interesting to me.
Those unfamiliar with the area but who frequent Montreal will most likely know it as the neighbourhood with the bagels, as it's home to Mtl's two most famous bagel shops - St-Viateur and Fairmount (for the record, we are Fairmount Bagel folks, and you can never change our minds).
Where To Eat
Some days it feels like Mile End has a fabulous, delicious place to eat every ten feet or so. While that is not *actually* the case, it's pretty close. Here's where I would recommend, if you asked me where you should have a delicious meal on a weekend.
Lawrence (St-Laurent at Fairmount)
Usually a little wait, but you can pass the time having coffee @ Sardine next door in the morning, or across the street having a drink at the Sparrow (bring cash) in the evening. They'll phone your cell when your table is ready. Food is delicious.
Nouveau Palais (Bernard & Parc)
Go for their breakfast chicken and waffles, or go later in the day for the best burger around. My favourite dish? House-made Spaetzle. Lots of Mile-End folks brunch here after starting their day with coffee at Olimpico on St-Viateur. It also used to be the home of the revered Cookies Unite - a monthly event featuring young rising star chefs who deliver a themed table d'hôte menu to Montreal foodies looking for something different.
OMMA (Bernard & L'Esplanade)
Korean comfort food. Come for dinner (and reserve!), or arrive sans-reservation to get some of the same great dishes at brunch on weekends. People watching potential here is great, and it's conveniently across the street from a superb stop on your shopping travels - the Spice Station.
VORO (Fairmount & Jeanne-Mance)
One word: Cocktails. Also, wine list. This Mediterranean small-plates spot was a default "4 friends in an hour on a Friday night - WHERE CAN WE GO?!" spot. Eat at the giant communal table, or outside on their super-cute patio. Enjoy thick pieces of maple bacon with sweet potato slices, fabulous veggie dishes or their specialty dessert - magic bread. Brunch, like their dinners, is top notch. If it's just two of you, eat at the bar and chat with the bartender and wait staff. They are cool, and they'll like you. Don't worry.
Café Sardine (Fairmount & St-Laurent)
This was our go-to coffee shop and for a while, our favourite dinner spot, too. They no longer serve dinner here, but it's worth dropping in for their light brunch, delicious coffee and house-made donuts (lime juniper tastes just like a gin & tonic). Soak up the sun at their huge front windows. If they're out of donuts, head two doors down to boulangerie guillaume for a bun pomme-caramel (I promise it will be good).
Magpie (rue Mcguire & St-Laurent)
Just thinking about the pizza artichauts at Magpie (not to mention their Caesars) has my mouth watering. Go here for an easy casual meal with lots of delicious things. Embrace the cocktail list. And while I haven't tried it myself, my tablemates have always raved about the creme brulee.
Café Falco (De Gaspe just north of St-Viateur)
No website for this secret mile-end gem. Conveniently located near Jeans, Jeans, Jeans (we'll get to that in a minute), this is the perfect place for a week-day lunch or a caffiene pick-me-up. They make BEAUTIFUL siphon coffee here. Amazing to watch *and* also delicious. You'll want to try their japanese rice bowls for lunch, full of lentils, protein (usually tofu or chicken or pork) and fab miso soup. Hang by the windows and eat lunch at an old sewing table while locals pick up their veggie baskets from Lufa, the city's rooftop CSA farm.
Maïs (St-Laurent just south of St-Viateur)
Tacos are still hip right now, as is this tiny yet roomy taco joint right next door to Ubisoft's Mtl warehouse-loft style office. Get the vegetarian tacos, the scallop ceviche, and a Paloma and you'll have had my best spring meal this year. Don't forget to bring good company, a little patience (no reservations, but a friendly, fast-moving lineup), and cash (it's cash only).
Hotel Herman (St-Laurent b/w Maguire & Fairmount)
New to the neighbourhood, I've only popped in once before we left montreal altogether, but everyone raves about their food, and my charcuterie plate left me wanting a return visit. Maybe soon!
What To Do
While much of Mile End is meant to be enjoyed simply by walking around, relaxing on a terrasse, or watching the craziness of the neighbourhood go by, you can, actually, go out and do things on purpose. Here are a few of my favourites.
"Afternoon" in Parc Jeanne-Mance (Mont-Royal at Parc Ave)
While many choose to hang out on the rolling hills of Mont-Royal, the real fun to be had is at Parc Jeanne-Mance right across the street. Bring a blanket, your shades, and some friends, stopping to pick up some snacks and cans of beer along the way (alcohol is generally allowed in Montreal parks - just don't be a nuisance, and please choose cans over bottles) . Watch a ball game, check out the volleyball courts at the south end, or soak up the sun. While you're in the park, you should also take the time to check out the Tam Tam's - a Sunday Montreal tradition. Skip across the street to Parc Mont-Royal and check out the drum circle, or wander through the woods during the afternoon to check out the LARPers in action. Don't be surprised if you stumble across a few LARP-sword and shield selling vendors on your route.
Drinks at The Emerald (5295 Parc b/w St-Viateur and Fairmount)
Before it had a name, we called it Casablanca bar. You'll know why once you're inside and comfortably settled on a settee in the back. Order an old fashioned and make friends with your sofa-neighbours.
Catch a Show
Check out any of mile end's great venues, including Cabaret Mile End, The Rialto, and Casa del Popolo. For really indie acts and great local talent, pop into the Phoenix, at Bernard & St-Laurent.
Local brews at HELM
Located directly across the street from our old apartment, it was hard not to become a regular at Helm. This local microbrewery has a good selection of munchies, but more importantly, an EXCELLENT selection of local beer, all named after local streets. Go for one pint, stay for five - you'll always find someone nice to chat with sitting on the sofas in the front window. For another local round of microbrews, drop by Dieu du Ciel, just a few blocks south on Laurier Ave at Clark.
Sip Some Espresso at Olimpico
Mile end's quintessential café. Everyone who is anyone is hanging out here, standing in the long lineup to grab an espresso or a latte at the bar, or to watch the latest Euro or World Cup matches (you'll want to cheer for Italy here whenever it's an option). People-watch on the patio, and make friends with the locals. If Olimpico is busy, you can check out Club Social just one block west.
Ride a Bixi!
Bixis are everywhere, and so are bike lanes. If you're from out of town, it'll cost you less than $10 to rent one for the day, keeping in mind that you need to check them in every 45 minutes to avoid "overdue" charges. But 45 minutes in Mile End is enough to get everywhere - and you should! Take advantage of the plentiful bike lines to get from breakfast to the park in record time.
Where To Shop
Spice Station (Bernard b/w L'Esplanade and Waverly)
If you like food (and enjoy cooking even more), the Spice Station is a place you're going to want to visit. Bring your nose - you'll be smelling all of their delicious spice mixes, fruit sugars and tea blends and choosing which ones will come home with you, so you don't want to be, say, hungover, or suffering from that summer cold. The staff are amazing, the spice blends are fab (try the south indian curry!), and your only regret will be not living nearby.
Adam & Eve (St-Laurent just south of St-Viateur)
Find stylish local designer goods here along with a plentiful supply of great shoes (Camper and Miz Mooz are steady brands), handbags (yay for Matt & Nat!) and more. A good chunk of my closet has come from here amongst other local shops.
Style Labo-Deco (St-Laurent just south of Bernard)
Think Industrial-antiques meets the Etsy shop of your dreams, and your imagination will have led you straight to the front door of style labo-deco. This was where we (finally) found our favourite clock, after a year of searching. Check out their old medical equipment, classic old signs, and hip light fixtures.
Savoie & Fils (St-Viateur and Jeanne-Mance)
This corner shop on St-Viateur sells an eclectic and beautifully curated selection of mens clothes, toiletries, and accessories. Buy the perfect shave kit, a gorgeous sweater, or the best picnic blanket. Incidentally, it's also home to a coffee shop. Grab a coffee and sit outside on their sidewalk benches, watching the rest of the 'hood go by.
Mile End Kicks (Parc, b/w St-Viateur and Fairmount)
If you like comfortable shoes (and you already own a pair of Converse), you should probably buy shoes here, that's all.
Drawn & Quarterly (Bernard b/w Jeanne-Mance and L'Esplanade)
If you like books, comics, graphic novels, or just have good taste, you'll want to ensure you have enough time to properly devote to a visit to D&Q. They sell all manner of great local zines, delicious cookbooks (they were the source of many an issue of LuckyPeach for me), and graphic novels galore. You'll find other likeminded (and sometimes famous) folks browsing the racks. Make friends, and buy lots of books to take home so you can remember your new favourite shop after your visit is over.
Jeans Jeans Jeans (5575 Casgrain)
You'll never buy jeans anywhere else again. Bring a budget (or you'll just buy a mountain of jeans if you don't), your list of must-fit criteria, and the patience to try on a giant pile of denim.
Invest in Montreal Designers
The Montreal equivalent of Ottawa's Workshop/Flock/Victoire, Unicorn (St-Laurent and Fairmount/Laurier), the Arterie (L'Esplanade and Bernard), Général 54 (St-Viateur and Clark), and Atelier B (St-Laurent south of Bernard) are all overflowing with clothes and accessories from local and Canadian designers and ALL are well worth checking out.
In addition to a loooong list of where to eat fantastic meals, Mile End has its fair share of treats and places you absolutely must go. These ones are my picks.
Cheskie's (Bernard and Parc, NW corner)
Don't go to Cheskie's on an empty stomach - you'll buy everything at this delicious local jewish bakery! We recommend trying the chocolate or cinnamon babka (the small ones behind the counter, not the loaves), raspberry rugelach, or pretty much anything else in the display case. Worth noting that it's closed from Friday at sunset to Sunday morning, so it's a pick-up-before-you-leave-the-city excursion.
Fairmount Bagel (Fairmount at Clark)
In Montreal, there are bagel loyalties. You either love St-Viateur, or Fairmount. I am a Fairmount person - it's impossible to resist the chewy, toasty, hot-out-of-the-oven allure of their sesame seed bagels. Pick up half a dozen, along with some cream cheese and smoked salmon and you're ready for a late morning brunch in Jeanne-Mance Parc. On y va! If you're not a Fairmount person, that's ok. St-Viateur is just a few blocks away. Head NW to St-Viateur (on St-V between Jeanne-Mance and Parc).
Kem Coba (conveniently next door to Fairmount Bagel)
Easily Montreal's best ice-cream / gelato show and well-loved by the Mile End locals. On warm summer nights, everyone flocks to the lineup that forms early outside of Kem Coba's lime green and pink exterior. On the board out front, you'll find the weekly soft-serve twist flavour (it's always two, and it's always delicious). Ones I remember included blueberry and honey, sour cherry and almond milk (shown above) and orange and coconut (best creamsicle ever). Get a pint of their Beurre Salé to take home - you won't regret it. I sometimes dream about this flavour - and doubt it's repeatable anywhere but in this tiny shop.
Chez Boris (Parc b/w Laurier and Fairmount)
This tiny cafe on Ave du Parc makes teeny tiny donuts fresh to order. Nothing is quite like wandering Mile End's streets with an espresso and a paper bag of tiny, hot, sugary donut goodness in your hands.
There are many more places I could tell you all about in Mile End, but then you wouldn't get to discover them yourself, would you? Enjoy your visit to my favourite Montreal neighbourhood. Eat well, shop well, and for goodness' sake, have an Old Fashioned at the Emerald for me, will you?