A day in the Paris of North America
Quebec’s “Charter of the French language” declares that French is the sole official language in the province. You wouldn’t know it in Montreal, though: Quebec’s “métropole” is a Babel, and a lot of its residents switch easily between two or three languages. That’s the city’s zeitgeist.
That being said, it is entirely possible to spend a visit bathing exclusively in French-speaking culture. French is still the city’s cultural spine.
By this, I don’t mean going on classically Québécois outings, eating maple toffee on snow at a cabane à sucre, hunting for the best poutine, or going to a hockey game – I’m talking about the more European atmosphere Montreal offers francophiles.
As a francophile myself (and a bit of a drama queen), I like to imagine my life in Montreal as part of a nostalgic Proustian universe. I spend my days eating madeleine cakes at modest cafés, watching Goddard retrospectives at independent cinemas, and shopping for fancy couture dresses at local boutiques.
Okay. My life is nowhere near that fancy – I’m a broke barista who watches a lot of Netflix. But on my days off, I can, and often do, indulge in my fantasy with the sort of glamorous itinerary I’ve compiled here: a day in the life of a Montreal francophile, lapping up the crème de la crème of the Plateau Mont-Royal, the most charming and European of Montreal’s neighbourhoods that stretches out from under the city’s eponymous mountain.
- Breakfast: Engaufrez-vous
Engaufrez-vous is a quaint and unique artisanal waffle house that serves up one of the best brunches in town. The space is small and the decor evokes an old-timey fair, with each brunch dish taking the name of a carnival game and including a choice of one waffle, either savoury or sweet. My favourite is the “Pêche aux Canards” (hook-a-duck) dish with the “Piémontaise” waffle, stuffed with ham, mozzarella, and pesto. The “Bruxelloise” is closest to a “standard” waffle and arrives with chocolate, homemade compote, or another topping of your choice. Everything is delicious, homemade, and affordable. And they truly have the nicest staff in the world.
- Books: Gallimard
Gallimard is a French bookstore on St-Laurent Blvd., close to the corner of des Pins. The staff will enthusiastically recommend titles, both from here or France, and they’ll know what they’re talking about. When I went, looking for a Canadian mystery novel, the saleswoman excitedly handed me a book called Meurtre à Westmount (Murder in Westmount). They also hold Q&A segments with authors and host workshops and book clubs centred on French-language literature.
- Clothes: Boutique Onze
Onze is a small Montreal-based chain with three locations: one on St-Denis Street, one on St-Laurent Blvd., and one up in Rosemont, on St-Hubert. Their clothes are girly, original, and well-priced. While they offer a variety of brand names, they focus on Canadian and especially Montreal designers. Everything is well-organized and the sales section at the back of the store is a killer.
- Cinema: Excentris
Excentris is not your typical movie theatre. It’s a posh complex with an ultra-modern look. And while I enjoy the cutesy perks like their dainty portions of popcorn and candy, I really only go to Excentris for their impeccable movie selection. They screen foreign and local films, but no blockbusters, and the subtitles are all in French.[Note from the Editor: Sadly, Excentris has since “temporarily” ceased operations. Pending further developments, check out Cinéma du Parc and Cinéma Beaubien.]
- Night Cap: Restaurant L’Express
L’Express is a French Bistro on St-Denis Street that epitomizes the feel of Montreal’s widest and most stylish avenue. It has served generations of Montreal’s cognoscenti. Discreet and romantic, L’Express is a favourite of actress Jodi Foster when she’s in town (Foster’s French is perfect, and she often acts in the language). Their handwritten menu has changed little over the decades, and the big jar of spicy gherkins with the wooden tongs still arrives first. There’s a remarkable wine selection with a lower-than-average markup and a smaller selection of delicious meals. I would suggest the soupe de poisson(fish soup) served with saffron rouille and homemade cheese-crusted croutons. Roll in at 1 a.m. The kitchen will still be open for another hour.
Photo: Engaufrez-vous, by Henry Macdonald