I’m not going to pretend to be objective about Montreal. It’s one of my favorite cities on this continent. After my most recent trip, a jaunt that focussed on the city’s vibrant and eclectic Mile End neighborhood, I realized why. Montreal is a lot like New Orleans: arty, international, architecturally distinct, connected to its French roots yet decidedly independent. Throw in the current high American dollar, and Canada’s second largest city becomes an even more appealing escape. As one recent transplant from Toronto explained, “Toronto is where you go to work. Montreal is where you come to live.”
Then, there’s the food and drink parallel. In short, eating and drinking choices are ubiquitous in Montreal. Ask what you should do in Mile End, and chances are you’ll get a list of restaurants, bakeries and cafes. Twice, we were told by locals that they were sure there were other things to do in Mile End besides eat and drink, but what followed were polite blank stares. Clearly, no one knew what waited beyond the culinary frontier. As a New Orleanian, I understood.
Mile End runs in a longish, narrow strip located within the larger Plateau Mont Royal section of the city. Before its recent reincarnation as Montreal’s hippest neighborhood, the area was like many other urban hotspots: an immigrant, working-class section. Here, waves of Jews, Eastern Europeans and Italians found a place in the New World, often packing large families into cheaply rented flats and starting up small businesses or working in the district’s numerous garment factories.
Eventually, the factories closed, leaving behind spaces ripe for artists, lofts and upstarts. Today, bustling commercial avenues alternate with quiet, charming leafy streets and alleys.
Three-story row houses of brick and stone, many over a century old and with carved Victorian doors, line the sidewalks. Human-scaled and embracing, Mile End’s understated elegance may evoke Brooklyn or Boston, but with Montreal’s telltale architectural detail: the exterior staircase. Meandering these less frequented byways is one of the great freebie pleasures of the neighborhood.
But the traces of the Mile End’s immigrant roots remain, especially when it comes to inexpensive food options, like handmade bagels that can go hole-to-hole with New York any day.
The two longest-running shops, St. Viateur and Fairmount, maintain a healthy rivalry, relying on century-old recipes and churning out fresh bagels 24 hours a day. (My vote goes to St. Viateur’s ever so slightly sweet sesame bagel — ours was so hot from the oven that we had to wait several minutes before digging in.) If you still need convincing, note this: Montreal bagels are flavored on BOTH sides. I ask, Why not, America?
The neighborhood’s tradition of small, family and independent businesses also continues — a parallel most New Orleanian visitors will appreciate. Indeed, Mile End remains decidedly diverse with a significant population of Hassidic Jews and more recent influxes of Latino, Asian and African immigrants, all of whom have created authentic eateries.
And while plenty of upscale establishments exist, budget-minded options abound, like Chez Boris, on Avenue du Parc, where a Russian emigre makes small, delicate doughnuts or beignets (minus the heaps of powdered sugar). How can any self-respecting New Orleanian not be curious?
Like the French Quarter or the Marigny, Mile End is best enjoyed on foot, and driving can be more of a hassle than a convenience. We arrived, parked the car and didn’t use it until we left. There is a metro but stations are sparse. Given all the temptations, walking several miles each day is probably for the best. Mile End is small enough to be easily navigated on foot, and on a sunny afternoon, it’s a pleasure to stroll the streets or meander through nearby Parc de la Fontaine.
Rubber-soled shoes, Euro-styled sneakers and small backpacks are de rigeur for locals.
As are bicycles: visitors may want to consider renting a bike from one of the kiosks scattered throughout the area. For most Montrealais, two wheels are better than four, and the city has numerous bike lanes.