This past February, Jen and I made the bold decision to return to Montreal for a quick weekend trip. We had previously visited the city years ago at the end of May, and we were excited to see how bad a Canadian winter truly is.
The quick answer is, freezing. In the summer, Montreal bustles with its French cafe culture as locals and tourists throng outside bars, restaurants, cafes, and beautifully manicured promenades along the Saint Lawrence River. In winter ... not so much.
It becomes too cold to sit around outside enjoying a nice glass of wine, but all that built up Québécois joie de vivre doesn't suddenly get buried under the snow. Instead, the city embraces the chill with cozy beer halls, crowded cafe get togethers, and rocking nights out; of course, Montreal has all that in spades during the summer, too.
But the beauty of Montreal is that the city, despite whatever the weather may be, is ... well ... beautiful and totally inviting. Read on for our favorite spots in the city!
The Cozy Cafe Life
Coffee and tea drinkers, as well as lovers of sweets and nestled in book reading, will find much to love in Montreal's winter cafe scene. While the city's streets remain quiet and empty as everyone hustles to get out of the cold, cafes bustle as everyone gets out to stave off cabin fever.
Some of the best, and definitely hippest, cafes can be found at the Mile End neighborhood, part of the Plateau-Mont Royal borough. The whole area felt like what Brooklyn used to aspire to be - effortlessly hip, without shoving it in your face.
The vibes, man. A favorite spot for local musicians, Le Dépanneur offers a constantly rotating cast of local artists who are cutting their teeth playing low-key cafe sets. And while the music is definitely a draw, the overall additional feeling of the cafe will be sure to drag you in.
Full of mismatched furniture, delicious bites, and some of the best coffee you will find, the cafe feels more like the living room you wish you had than somewhere to simply grab a caffeine fix. Be warned, though, that the cafe draws large crowds so, depending upon the artist playing and the time of day, it may be hard to find a seat — particularly with a group.
More subdued and smaller than Le Dépanneur, Larue & Fils offers a quieter spot to chat, read, or write (preferably on a Mac Book so as to look like a local). Located a little outside Mile End, this cafe should be treated as a destination in and of itself.
But it's worth it! The coffee is strong, the hot chocolate delicious, and the space inviting and warm. The staff are ready to make any and all recommendations, and the pastries served are delectable.
Inspired by Tsarist Russia, Bar Kabinet offers a more opulent cafe experience. Only open in the afternoons and evenings, Bar Kabinet doubles as a bar with a heavy influence on upscale cocktails.
Starting at 8pm, Bar Kabinet offers access to the more wild Bar Datcha. For a caffeine injection at the start of a long night, Bar Kabinet is hard to beat as the ideal first stop.
Located in the heart of Old Montreal by the St. Lawrence, Le Petit Dep is technically a convenience store. But don't let that stop you from visiting! Not only is it a great place to buy chocolate and quick groceries for the go, it also has some amazing pastries and some truly great coffee and tea.
Perfect for the cold, and those trying to be worldly, is the golden milk. An Indian recipe, it is a mixture of hot coconut milk, tumeric, and other seasonings mixed together into frothy deliciousness.
The Foodie Extravaganza
Montreal is a food city. From Chinese and Southeast Asian to French, New American, and specialty Québécois eats - including, obviously, the best poutine you will ever eat - Montreal serves it all and more.
Founded in 1942 as a lunch-stop for workers in Montreal's then-Jewish garment district by husband and wife team Hymie & Freda Sckolnick, Beauty's quickly grew from critical acclaim into one of the city's most famous weekend brunch stops. Family-owned throughout its entire operation, Hymie still visits the restaurant and helps seat customers as they come in.
The food at Beauty's is a nice mix between traditional diner food — think massive fluffy pancakes, hash, eggs — and more traditional Jewish deli works, such as (again massive) smoked salmon bagels. And while the food is solid, a major draw is the feeling of stepping into an actual historic diner that has continued to thrive. Classic!
There's poutine, and then there's poutine. La Banquise offers up the latter. While the restaurant is definitely a hotspot among tourists and locals alike, read potentially long lines, the food is incredibly worth it. Nowhere else in Montreal will you find such a ridiculously delicious wide range of massive bowls of poutine that you could drown in.
Want a classic serving of poutine? Sure. Want poutine that comes with ground beef, smoked meat, spicy sausage, and merguez sausage? Of course you do! How could you not? And La Banquise offers that and every other possible option in between the two.
Nothing staves off winter chills, or hunger for that matter, like a giant bowl of pho. Located a bit of a walk outside the Mile End neighborhood, Pho Tay Ho offers enough Vietnamese delights to tide anyone over until the night pho-craving hits ... likely only a day later.
The restaurant offers up all the expected Vietnamese dishes — vermicelli noodles, rice dishes, Tonkinese soups — but the pho, served with a variety of slices of beef or chicken, steals the show. If you're looking to be stuffed, order the cánh gà, lòng gà (assorted pieces of chicken wing, stomach, liver, and heart) to start.
Like La Banquise, Schwartz's is a Montreal mainstay; although likely to be crowded and requiring a wait, do not miss this. The deli offers some of the best smoked meat sandwiches you'll ever get your hands on. And in true Jewish deli style, the sandwiches are massive and will leave you kvetching over how full you are after you failed to control yourself and stop halfway through the meal.
Chez José Café is a small funky brunch, cafe, and sandwich stop close to the heart of Mile End. Specializing in serving Portuguese-inspired foods, it is by no means a stretch to say that this was one of the best brunch meals I have ever had — an omelette with perfectly sauteed mushrooms, onions, mixed chorizo, and freshly made bread. A+ work, all around.
As for the cafe, the hot chocolate is perfectly on point — sweetly bitter, dark, and thickly chocolatey. The selection of teas and coffee styles totally rounds out the experience.
Note: the restaurant only accepts payment in cash, however they have an ATM on premise.
A wildly successful dessert restaurant dedicated to chocolate, that has since turned into a chain across the Montreal area, Juliette & Chocolat makes a perfect romantic date spot and/or gullet-shoving location. The store caters to all manner of chocolate delicacy, and the location in the Latin Quarter is close to the lively nightlife of Montreal's famous gay neighborhood.
"Why would I get ramen in Montreal? Ramen is ramen," you might say. Well, you don't know what you're talking about, because this is some of the best ramen you might get anywhere.
Serving up a specialty Hakata-style ramen, these bowls are flavored to the nines. All fresh and delicious, with local noodles made on premise and with a broth that has been simmered for over 12 hours to extract the full range of flavors, this ramen will blow your mind. By the end of the meal, the only thing you'll be wishing is that your stomach was big enough for a second bowl.
Located in Montreal's Chinatown, Bao Bao offers the traditional selection of Chinese bao — fluffy buns full of pork, cabbage, and the like. More uniquely, they also offer dessert buns shaped into adorable animals! The only thing more perfect than the way they look is the way they taste as you munch into them.
A seasonal joy apparently only usually available outside of the center confines of Montreal, the Mont-Royal metro station has a sugar shack directly outside its exit; the shack sells gooey delicious made-to-order maple syrup and sugar crystal lollipops. Served warm and nearly molten, they are the perfect treats to pick up the spirits during a freezing trudge through the snow.
Nearly unbearably hip outings
For graphic novel and comic book fans, Drawn & Quarterly is like Mecca. Located across the street from Le Dépanneur Café, this bookstore and publisher is the ideal stop to feel like a hip neighborhood local. So stop in, take the time to find the exact right book for you (I was instantly tempted by the first display I saw), and maybe head on back to Le Dépanneaur to read it while being nearly totally insufferably hip.
A funky vinyl store offering a great selection, there's not much to say about Phonopolis beyond it being an ideal pit stop for music and vinyl lovers of all stripes. Located next door to Drawn & Quarterly, Phonopolis is an ideal way to savor the local flavor of Mile End.
Mile End is known for the many, many, many vintage and thrift stores that line each and every block. This is when you make sure you're traveling with fellow (window) shopping addicts
Pissing the night away
Located a short walk away from the Latin Quarter and Old Montreal, La Distillerie no. 1 is the first branch out of three of this cocktail bar. The drinks here mean business, and, through incredible craftsmanship and inventiveness, hit all the right marks.
The cocktail menu is broken down into six sub-varieties: powerful, fresh, tropical, delicate, fruity, and tart. And while some of the sections enjoy old classics, such as the Hurricane, there are plenty to be blown away by; the cherry bomb, for instance, is made from Jim Beam black bourbon, red wine, tart cherry purée, homemade gingerbread syrup, chocolate bitters, angostura, and hot water. Damn.
Be prepared to wait a little while at the door for entrance, or aim to get to the bar early to avoid the wait.
Some brew-pubs offer exactly the right mix of inventive beers, old standbys, a cozy atmosphere, and small plates; Dieu du Ciel! is one of these pubs.
With a rotating menu of creative house beers - green tea saisons or hibiscus wheats, anyone? - and very affordable flights, an entire afternoon can easily be whiled away here.
Check out the full Away We Went review here.
If cocktails are a little too fancy, try out the Ping Pong Club. A restaurant-bar, it serves up comfort food, beer, slushy versions of cocktails, and, of course, ping pong.
The bar also has Jenga and other games, making it a perfect place to grab some food, day drink, or have a more raucous night.
For an upscale drinking experience, head over to Big In Japan Bar. As a speakeasy, it is easy to miss the entrance to the bar - watch for the few lingering couples waiting to get in.
Once inside, Big In Japan Bar offers big wows. Incredibly long and narrow, the bar feels as if it is from the gilded age with its long curtains and plentiful curtains. Catering mostly to classic cocktails with a Japanese twist, the speakeasy also has a limited beer and wine selection that will still be enough to please most people.
After 8pm, these two bars open their connecting door to become one giant Russian-themed wild night. While Bar Kabinet offers a more refined Imperial Russian-themed cocktail and coffee experience, Bar Datcha lets lose with DJs, brews, and the general dive experience.
Obviously the great thing about this combo is you can start off in Bar Kabinet and drink your way forwards in time from the Russian Empire to the present day (conversely, you could get blind drunk at Bar Datcha and invade Bar Kabinet in the name of the proletariat. Both good options).