In many ways, Montreal feels like a European city in North America. French is the predominantly spoken language in town, although the cultural barrier for an English-speaking tourist is modest. Many people here are at least bilingual, and meeting somebody who is trilingual is not in the least bit uncommon. The most comparable city in the United States is probably New Orleans, another French-flavored metropolis for which travel guides inevitably invoke the phrase joie de vivre. The city is major-league when it comes to fashion – even in the midst of winter, which hits Montreal hard, people in the nightspots are dressed on a fashion level that puts to shame the more utilitarian winter garb of most Yankee visitors.
So while the English-speaking visitor will encounter many people who speak English, and there are pockets of the city where English predominates, let there be no doubt about it: French rules here. We are, after all, in the fiercely independent-minded Canadian province of Quebec, whose populace voted by the slimmest of margins not to secede from Canadian Federation in the mid-90’s. Street names and road signs are in French, and so is much of the music you hear as you go about town.
Second Cup: A Different Kind of French Roast
We trudge down Montreal’s snow-filled sidewalks in February 2001, and Second Cup cafe on rue Crescent beckons us. We heed its call, and in its vaguely familiar environs, I order a cappuccino.
Upon first encounter, Second Cup looks, smells, feels and tastes like a Canadian twin of Starbucks. It is as common in Montreal as Starbucks is in many U.S. cities, and the array of coffees and coffee-based beverages will seem familiar to those who frequent Starbucks. Even the menu over the counter looks like a Starbucks menu, though written in some type of French/Italian fusion appropriate for the coffeecentric fare being served. The Ontario-based chain seems to have made similar waves in terms of choice for coffee lovers in Canadian cities.
“The choices for a coffee lover [in Montreal] weren’t as diverse earlier in the ’90s as they are now,” says Tim, an alum of Montreal’s prestigious McGill University. “It was much harder finding certain types of specialty coffees until Second Cup came in. Before that, I actually thought the coffee culture in town was pretty bland. Still, the city’s cafe atmosphere more than made up for it.”
Photo by storem.
Not everybody has greeted Second Cup with such open arms. In October 2000, three Second Cup cafes in Montreal were victims of attempted firebombings. A group calling itself the Brigade d’Autodefense du Francais (BAF) claimed responsibility had previously threatened similar violence to Second Cup and other retail chains in Quebec with English-language names. The Montreal Gazette reported soon afterward that Second Cup’s clientele remained undaunted by the attacks.
“More of a Bar Culture Than a Coffee Culture”
“I’d say the city has more of a bar culture than a coffee culture,” says Tim. “If you have to choose between coffee and Boreale [a microbrewed Quebec beer], sorry to say it, but Boreale is going to win.”
In light of Tim’s recommendations, we see no reason to choose between the coffee culture and bar culture, and on the following night we seek places that can give us the best of both worlds.
Admittedly, McLean’s, an Irish pub in downtown Montreal, may not seem like a logical stop for coffee connoisseurs. We are not only caffeine-thirsty tonight, though; we are also hungry, and McLean’s seems like a lively place that will serve us reasonably priced, hearty food. We are not disappointed. I go for the Sous-marin McLean’s, a giant sandwich featuring a generous helping of smoked meat.
“Smoked meat on rye is one of the city’s signature food items,” said Tim, describing the sandwich which tastes similar to corned beef. While I’m perfectly happy with the McLean’s version, Tim sets me straight about the quintessential place to get it. “The most famous place to get [a smoked meat sanwich] is at Bens Montreal Deli. Almost every Prime Minister has gone there for the ‘Big Ben Sandwich.” (Since this trip, Bens declined in popularity and quality, and closed in 2006. The building was demolished two years later.)
All about us, television screens are aglow with several out-of-town hockey games. We are, after all, in the mother of all North American hockey towns. Montreal’s National Hockey League squad, the Canadiens, are historically the premier NHL franchise, and have won more Stanley Cups than any other team in the league. In recent years, however, they have found themselves in unfamiliar territory: the lower echelons of the league standings, sometimes even failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Furthermore, some of the team’s heart and soul seemed to evaporate in 1996 when the team vacated the beloved 80-year-old Montreal Forum in favor of the ultra-modern Centre Molson. Still, Montreal remains devoted to its hockey, and the area is abuzz on game nights. The Washington Capitals are in town during the weekend we visit, and even in the mid-afternoon on game day, scalpers approach us trying to sell us tickets.
Montreal Canadiens Statue by spcbrass.
In need of a caffeine pickup, we cap our meal with some coffee. This McLean’s does very well – even late on a Saturday night, it tastes fresh.
A Room With A Vieux
We spend the afternoon in Vieux-Montreal (Old Montreal), a part of town that encompasses cobblestone streets, municipal government buildings, and a waterfront. Mid-February is not peak time for Vieux-Montreal, and we intermittently find ourselves amidst moderate crowds of people, then suddenly alone on long stretches of road. Large ships are docked in the frozen port, and we hike back uphill on blvd. St Laurent by a city square overlooked by Vieux Palais de Justice.
Photo by ckemp.
We have walked many a kilometer from downtown to Vieux-Montreal, and are in need of warmth and caffeine, which brings us to A L’Aventure. This bistro-style French restaurant and bar has its fair share of Belgian fare, and like so many other elements of this city, the coffee I later order has a taste of the European. The bartender goes to an espresso machine to pull my coffee. Quality wins out over quantity – it’s served in an small mug – and I am about to cap off my pub evening with a carefully brewed, rich-tasting coffee, the best of my weekend.
Slowly Growing Attuned
It is folly to believe you can ever get a true feel for a large city after just a few days; I don’t kid myself that I’ve even scratched the surface with Montreal. There is much more to Montreal’s cafe culture that deserves attention, and I would love to go during the summer months when it is in full swing. However, my Yank friends and I are slowly growing attuned to the city’s unique atmosphere, and our eyes are open to the fact that the options for a coffee lover are as diverse and culturally rich as the city itself.
Editor’s Note: This article was written in 2001 and fully updated in 2010.
Although Alex no longer drinks coffee until 3 a.m. as he did in college, he starts each day with two giant servings of drip-pot coffee in his New England Patriots mug with the old-school logo.
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