Perhaps its cold winters are the reason why Montreal isn’t ranked as one of the top destinations amongst the world’s metropolises. It’s difficult to say. The fact is: the country’s over three and a half million inhabitants aren’t really shedding too many tears about their secluded existence. After all, there are quite a few urban attractions that the Montrealers might not necessarily want to share with the rest of the world. Their fantastic restaurant scene for one: after New York, Montreal has the most restaurants per capita in North America – of which a high proportion, and this is the best bit, serves up excellent French cuisine. As we all know, it was the French out of all the European colonists who decided to settle at this pretty spot next to the St. Lawrence River. And while we’re on the topic, there’s the culture clash between the old world and the new, as one is constantly reminded of both New York and Paris when in Montreal. The skyscrapers in the banking district downtown, the grid layout of the streets, the relaxed lifestyle: so New York. The picturesque architecture dating back to the 18th century, the language, the churches and the cuisine: so Parisian.
Above and beyond that, Montreal also has its very own trump cards to play – when it comes to nature for example. The city has over 2000 hectares of green parks, and 70 percent of the inhabitants don’t own a car. 450 km worth of bike paths have been created and another 400 km are in the pipeline. That makes cycling a very attractive option, at least during the warmer months of the year: you can be in Rue Saint-Paul Ouest, checking out the best fashion stores, tucked away behind elegant stuccoed façades, and a quick cycle later you can be in amongst the skyscrapers downtown – switching between two worlds in a matter of minutes. Also easy to get to by bike is the plateau at the foot of Mont Royal, the mountain that gives the town its name. This is where the legendary Boulevard Saint- Laurent can be found – legendary because of its high density in fashion stores and nightlife.
And as if that weren’t enough: the side streets are also full of pretty boutiques and interior design shops, cosy little restaurants and delis, cool wine bars and bagel bakeries. Toronto may have more financial pulling power, but in a countrywide comparison, Montreal just can’t be topped when it comes to lifestyle and culture: with 250 theatre and dance companies, including the renowned Cirque du Soleil, with 90 festivals a year and a vibrant mixed scene in all kinds of neighbourhoods, the pearl of the province of Québec is a cultural heavyweight. It also boasts the third biggest fashion industry in North America, after New York and Los Angeles. Reason enough for J’N’C editor-in-chief Ilona Marx to take a trip and explore Montreal together with Berlinbased photographer Andy Rumball.
Selected texts from the City Guide
Want to feel good in Montreal? Nothing could be simpler! After all, it’s not just French cuisine and maple syrup that keep the inhabitants of the metropolis on the banks of the St. Lawrence River going. Spas and saunas are what take the edge off the Canadian winter for its urban dwellers, and the list is endless. Especially spectacular is Bota Bota, a refurbished ferry dating back to 1951, which now bobs around in the harbour as a wellness temple. The fact that the name is reminiscent of a well-known small South Sea island makes sense: once inside you’ll truly feel like you’re in paradise. Bota Bota consists of several saunas, steam baths, sun-decks, massage salons and a small restaurant. And the view is just as delightful, taking in the starboard outdoor pool as well as the domes and church turrets of the old town all the way across to the downtown skyscrapers. If you get into the jacuzzi at the stern, you have an amazing view of the charmingly ramshackle harbour silo which is impressively lit up at night, or you can gaze over to Habitat 67, a futuristic convoluted apartment complex which the Israeli architect Moshe Safdie nonchalantly strewed along the river’s edge for Expo 1967. An unforgettable harmony of sensual pleasures and architectural enlightenment – highly recommended under the light of a full moon!
Breakfast at Birks. Montreal’s answer to the tradition-steeped jewellery store Tiffany may be 42 years younger than its New York role model, but it also has a distinct advantage: since last autumn you really can get a great breakfast here. But it’s not just the delicacies served up by star chef Jérôme Ferrer that tempt the epicures into ‘Birks Café par Europea’. The view is truly breathtaking: via an elegant staircase, guests reach a gallery from where they have a bird’s eye view of the sparkling jewels laid out below. That way the flusher customers amongst us can mull over their planned investment, and the rest of us can dream a little whilst admiring the fantastic stucco ceiling of the sales room. After all, not everyone is as rich as the Queen of England, who has been known to indulge in several shopping sprees here. But us mere mortals get to feel quite royal too, especially when enjoying the afternoon tea with scones and clotted cream. Happiness guaranteed – without having to get up to your ears in debt.
“I am a man of the present; the past only marginally interests me,” says Philippe Dubuc. And this attitude is mirrored in his collections. As one of the most influential designers in Montreal, Dubuc specialises in the deconstruction of old traditional forms and has made their reduction to a minimum his maxim. Simple cuts, monochrome colours: you can’t get more understated than that. The shop in the Rue Saint Denis – which the French-Canadian considers a “bourgeois Bohème street” – certainly stands out, its understatement far surpassing that of its neighbours. Despite this, Dubuc feels at home here, flanked by small restaurants and boutiques, record shops and antique dealers: “We’re not just chic, but also relaxed,” is his statement. No wonder that even actors and musicians beat a path to his door at number 4451 – David Bowie, Cindy Lauper and band members from The Nine Inch Nails for example. They all highly rate his understated, self-assured look and uncompromising, sharp silhouettes. Dubuc, who studied in Montreal and opened his first shop 14 years ago, owns a second store in Quebec City. Another branch in Montreal is already in the starting blocks. But despite his love for the here and now, most of his designs are manufactured in the ‘old world’. 75% of his wares are sewn in Poland, in the interests of quality.
The Gault is most definitely the most design-obsessed of all Montreal’s boutique hotels – and probably the only one to be found in a former cotton warehouse. So it seems apt that the luxury hotel is named after Canada’s ‘King of Cotton’, Andrew Frederick Gault. The 30 rooms, lofts and suites are all furnished with the most beautiful mid-twentieth century classics. Against a backdrop of white oak, polished steel, warm brick and cool concrete, the Cappellini, Knoll and Artifort chairs, the Artemide lamps and bathroom fittings by Arne Jacobsen are accentuated beautifully. The house, whose interior was designed by the architects YH2 and Paul Bernier, originally belonged to the software magnate and art lover David Langlais, but was then sold to a European investor. However, the artworks, knowledgeably selected by Langlais, remain; they line the lobby and corridors but also provide the rooms and suites with a distinguished, but at the same time intimate, atmosphere. The icing on the cake: art lovers don’t even have to check in to the Gault. The entrance lobby, which covers the whole of the ground floor, serves as a temporary gallery space. This is where exhibitions for contemporary Quebecer art are held.
Are there any true coincidences in life? If so, then the meeting of the three owners of Nora Gray is a particularly serendipitous one. Ryan Gray, Emma Cardarelli and Lisa McConnell met at their former workplace: to be exact, Liverpool House, a Montreal hotspot for lovers of French cuisine. That’s also where the idea was born to set up their own business. Lisa, who studied interior design, took charge of the restaurant’s interior while Ryan and Emma worked out the concept for the food and drink. In order to stand out from the crowd they decided to add a clear emphasis. Southern Italian cuisine with a focus on fish and vegetable dishes. No sooner said than done: within a week, word of the opening had spread, and it was soon hard to get a table at Nora Gray’s. One of the secrets of their success: the food not only tastes like someone’s Italian mama cooked it, but they also help you keep an eye on your figure and health. So every dish is available in either a home-cooked version, or as a lighter, low-fat option. High-calorie sauces are avoided anyway at Nora Gray’s, and there are also always vegan and lactose free options on the menu. Good food combined with a clear conscience – what a good idea!
When love and a common passion combine, it’s not uncommon for the result to be a successful business. That was certainly the case with Olive & Gourmando. Dyan Solomon and Éric Girard, the two owners of this cosy restaurant, met at their previous workplace, the star-studded Toqué. But the nightshifts, which there’s no getting away from in the gastronomy scene, exhausted them both. They wanted to be able to share a social life with their friends and so took the daring step into self-employment – with a daytime café. “Cooking is something we do out of love, and our customers seem to sense that,” explains Dyan Solomon grinning at the sight of the crowded café. Even as a teenager, when others were surviving off chips and sweets, she was interested in cooking. And it’s a passion that still makes her happy. “We make everything ourselves here, whether bread, cake, croissants or jam. Yes, we even grow the vegetables we use for our soups, salads and sandwiches ourselves.” The couple, who have been combining business with pleasure now for 14 years, swear by the simple things in life and so they cook without the frills. And because one of the things they are passionate about also includes free time, Dyan and Éric close their doors at 6pm as well as being closed on Sundays and Mondays. But when you see how busy it is at Olive & Gourmando’s on the other days of the week, you can’t help but agree that they’ve certainly earned it.
‘Want Stil’ was the name of the Peart brothers’ first shop, which is pretty self- explanatory. Now the fashion managers, Dexter and Byron, have upped sticks taking all their earthly possessions from the old harbour to the affluent district of Westmount to open a kind of fashion pharmacy. ‘Want Apothecary’ is the new kid on the Rue Sherbrooke Ouest. And here once again: it’s all in the name. After all, the two brothers’ self-declared mission is to provide the folk of Montreal with everything they need for their wellbeing. And top of that list is chic, high- quality fashion, for example by Acne, Filippa K. and Nudie Jeans – Scandinavian brands for whom the Peart brothers have taken on the distribution. Byron, who has his fingers in various pies, is also responsible for introducing the French label Kitsuné to Montreal. And as if that weren’t enough in terms of high-quality names: the chemist’s counter is a treasure trove of quality, with products by the Australian cosmetic company Aesop for sale here, as well as candles from Paris. And because the busy brothers are often travelling, they have pragmatically come up with their own travel baggage collection. The range, consisting of bags, holdalls, large briefcases for travel documents and cases for iPads and co. stand out with their luxury Italian leather, in part combined with organic cotton. It’s just a shame you can’t get accessories on prescription in Montreal.