Where should you have lunch in Montreal? Finally, I have some answers!
For a travel writer, I sometimes do a poor job of coming up with personal recommendations. I remember once describing my favourite cafe in a particular city - only to realize I was talking about a Starbucks. Oops!
And other times, I felt I knew a city well only to draw a blank when asked for restaurant recommendations. I found myself confronted with this very situation when a friend asked for advice on where to eat lunch in Montreal. I know Montreal! Or, at least I thought I did. Haven't I written more about Montreal than any other city on the blog? Then why was I struggling with my answer?
I eventually cobbled together a response for my friend but I wasn't entirely satisfied. I've been determined ever since to come up with a killer list of my favourite lunch spots in Montreal and they're all around $12 - or much less. So go ahead, ask me for a recommendation. I've got this!
Librairie Espagnole (The Spanish Library)
Welcome to my favourite new (old) spot in Montreal. Librairie Espagnole - The Spanish Library - is indeed a bookstore but you'll have to make your way to the back for their selection of Spanish magazines, newspapers, and books. The front of the store is filled with fine imported foods, kitchen supplies like paella dishes, beautiful gifts including colourful pottery, and - best of all - a small deli counter.
They carrry cheesy treats like "Murcia al Vino", a red wine soaked goat cheese traditionally served with quince paste, as well as a large selection of fine Iberian ham. They may just make the most luxurious ham and cheese sandwiches in the city! Before you leave, check the counter for a container of freshly made churros and, if you're in the city on New Year's Eve, be sure to stop by. This is where the Spanish community concludes their holiday revelry and meets up for hot cider at midnight!
The battle of the delis
Montreal's Schwartz's (technically Charcuterie Hebraique de Montreal but absolutely nobody calls it that) is one of the most famous delicatessens in the world - and definitely Montreal's most beloved culinary institution. Its recipe for smoked meat, handed down by Romanian Jewish immigrants, is the stuff of legend and includes 8 hours of smoking and 3 hours of steaming. For the uninitiated, Montreal style smoked meat is less sweet and more moist than pastrami and is always served on rye with mild mustard, accompanied by a pickle and a black cherry soda.
The deli is so famous that a quick visit is rarely possible. It boasts some serious lineups and the quieter Schwartz's takeout shop next door might be a better choice for those on a deadline. Alternatively you might want to seek out another deli and Charcuterie Hongroise is an ideal destination.
Charcuterie Hongroise - The Hungarian Deli - is the legacy of the Hungarian immigrants who brought fine coffee to Montreal, using machines imported from Italy. While the number of Hungarian coffee houses in the city has dwindled, The Hungarian Deli keeps other culinary traditions alive.
A wave of paprika hits your nose when you walk through the front door. The deli smokes its own meat in the back and you can taste the difference this attention to detail makes. You can order a Montreal smoked meat sandwich here but what you're really after is some of the house made sausage with a side of fries. And maybe some pastries and paprika to take home!
Chicken versus custard
How do you know when you've entered Montreal's Little Portugal neighbourhood? Wait for the delicious smell of roasting chicken! This corner of the city is famous for their rotisserie chickens, rubbed with a blend of Portuguese spices before being served up to an adoring crowd of students, seniors, locals, and tourists.
My friend Emma was once one of those students. Now a food writer, she lived around the corner from the famous Romados restaurant while she was in university. Emma reports that the roast chicken would be placed on top of the French fries in the take out containers, allowing for the delicious rotisserie drippings and juices to soak into the fries. Amazing!
I've never had Romados chicken myself (though I'm getting hungry just thinking about it) and I'm happy to take Emma's recommendation as a solid one. But I have experienced Romados' other specialty, their homemade Pasteis de Nata, and they are divine. These spectacular, egg custard filled tarts with flaky pastry are absolutely incredible, one of my favourite treats, and they're the perfect ending to a hearty chicken luncheon.
Speaking of recommendations.....
Emma really DOES know her food, and it's thanks to her that I discovered Juliette & Chocolat, a Montreal dessert cafe and chocolate shop chain with serveral branches around the city. Who says lunch has to be a savory affair?
We popped into the branch near Jean Talon Market and enjoyed a caramel brownie with a warm salted caramel sauce, an incredibly thick hot chocolate (served in adorable white hot chocolate bowls), some of their lovely chocolate truffles, and a finishing touch of an icy cold chocolate milk-slushy concoction. They DO have chocolate fruit fondue and fruit filled crepes, for those looking for a marginally healthier option. But go for the brownies - you won't regret it.
A new kid on the bagel block
Montreal makes the finest bagels in the world and everyone has a fervent opinion about which bakery is best. St Viateur and Fairmont, the two kings of the Montreal bagel castle, are virtually indistinguishable from one another and have long enjoyed little competition. As such, I was keen to seek out a new kid on the bagel block.
O'Bagel, on an alley by Jean Talon Market (just steps away from Juliette & Chocolat), is off to a promising start. Okay, I can't tell the difference between O'Bagels products and those from St Viateur and Fairmont - really, they all deliciously taste the same! But that doesn't mean that there's not some importance differences here. I liked the cute shop and its proximity to the market, as well as the cream cheese selection. Their lime and cilantro spread was one of the best I've ever tried and it made for the perfect light lunch on the go.
Shame? What shame?
I know, I know- the real reason you want to have lunch (or any meal) in Montreal is for the poutine. This classic Quebecois dish of freshly cut French fries, covered in authentic cheese curds (which squeak when they are eaten), and blanketed in homemade gravy falls under the category of "it's so wrong, it's kind of right". It's a hangover cure, it's a heart attack on a plate, it's everything that's good in the world.
Everyone has a favourite poutine place in Montreal and mine is the Montreal Pool Room. Better known for steamed hot dogs than anything else, it does a solid, respectable job with poutine, delivering a perfectly balanced plate with no frills or deviation. There's no butter chicken poutine or nacho poutine here, just great fries, curds, and gravy.
If you want more than lunch...
There are so many ways to explore Montreal's amazing food scene, no matter what meal you're searching for. Every November, you can take part in MTL aTable (Montreal Restaurant Week). A diverse group of over 150 properties offer special dishes, as well as set price, three course dinners ($21, $31, or $41). Having enjoyed a sneak preview of this exciting event, I have some critical advice to offer: Bring your stretchy pants!
You can also sample many of the aforementioned dishes year round through Fitz and Follwell's tours. To say that they offer food tours would be an understatement - and a mislabeling of what they truly do. The guides tell the story of Montreal's many communities and of the city's development through immigration and diversity - and food is their primary storytelling tool. The Montreal Pool Room, Schwartz's, The Hungarian Deli, The Spanish Library, and Romados were all included in the tour I experienced (plus several other stops as well) and I left with a full stomach and a new appreciation for one of my favourite cities. And I think you'll love it too!
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My visit and food tour were sponsored by Montreal Tourism and I thank them for their support. All research, writing, and opinions remain my own.