Neighborhood Watch: Old Montreal

The past meets the future in the city’s historic enclave

August 2018
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Photography by David Giral

There’s a full house inside the Notre-Dame Basilica. Every pew of the 189-year-old Gothic Revival church is lined with people. They haven’t gathered for Sunday mass—or any religious service. The crowd is here for a Saturday-night showing of Aura. Backed by the basilica’s booming organ, the high-tech light show’s effects include creating the illusion that the seasons are changing beyond the church’s walls by beaming computer-generated images of snowstorms, spring blossoms, sunny skies and falling leaves onto the church’s walls and ceiling.

 

Launched last year as part of the city’s 375th-anniversary celebrations, Aura exemplifies the changes that have come to Montreal’s oldest neighborhood. For decades, this small, wedge-shaped area sandwiched between the St. Lawrence River and the skyscrapers of downtown has been known mainly for its cobblestoned, antiquated beauty. More recently, Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal to French speakers) has drawn visitors with its stylish shops, cool galleries and laid-back sidewalk culture. Marché des Éclusiers, a combined produce market-restaurant complex overlooking the Old Port’s canals, has become a hugely popular local gathering spot, underlining the fact that Old Montreal has plenty to offer everyone.

 

“Twenty years ago, Old Montreal was not what it is today,” says Myriam Achard, a curator for the Phi Centre, founded in 2012. The cultural venue, located in a former 19th-century dry goods warehouse, hosts edgy film screenings, theatrical performances and virtual-reality art exhibits. While there, I don a headset and am guided by artist Laurie Anderson through a virtual world created with her words. It’s a metaphysical experience that feels as if I’ve transcended space and time. In reality, I was only sitting on a stool for about 15 minutes.


Terrasse William-Gray rooftop bar

The Phi Centre is among several enterprises reshaping the neighborhood from within meticulously restored buildings, including Crew, a co-working space and café in the gilded lobby of the old Royal Bank of Canada headquarters. “I remember coming to Old Montreal as a teenager,” recalls Achard. “I was scared because there was nothing here at night.”

 

That’s no longer the case. The city guide app Montréal en Histoires—part of the artsy Cité Mémoire project—leads visitors to dozens of after-dark film shorts projected onto the sides of buildings at the tap of a smartphone screen. My favorite, outside a pizza parlor on Rue McGill, features mod visuals and a pillbox-hat-wearing reenactor reminiscing about her role as an Expo 67 hostess. (“As hostesses, we weren’t allowed to smoke or consume alcohol in public,” she coos in my headphones. “We went through a tube of lipstick, 12 pairs of nylons and a whole eyeliner pencil in one month!”) 

“Twenty years ago, old Montreal was not what it is today.”

Despite the pervasive sense of renewal here, Old Montreal still lives up to its name. This is where French missionaries first established the Ville-Marie settlement in 1642, laying the foundations for the island city. Those bricks can be seen through a transparent floor at the Pointe-à-Callière archaeology and history museum. While many 17th-century buildings remain standing, the modern history is just as compelling. From the quaint Terrasse sur l’Auberge rooftop bar, you can look over the river to the interlocking cubes of architect Moshe Safdie’s striking Habitat 67, which served as one of the 1967 World’s Fair pavilions. 

 

It’s been nearly a decade since I last visited Old Montreal and first tasted foie gras at Boris Bistro on McGill. I’m pleased to see the restaurant and its charming garden—tucked behind the freestanding façade of a burned-out building—are still there. However, most of Old Montreal feels totally new to me. For starters, a giant London Eye-like observation wheel has been erected along the river, where the Old Port has morphed from dilapidated silos and warehouses into a hub of bustling activity with a zip line, science museum, boat rentals and a gathering spot for food trucks. You’d have been hard-pressed to find chorizo tacos served out of a carriage in the Old Montreal of yore. 


CaRoule owner Andre Giroux brings a bike in for maintenance

André Giroux knows all about adapting to the times. When he moved here in the 1980s, he saw a business opportunity in a craze that now makes him chuckle: Rollerblades. “They were all the rage,” Giroux says. “They were expensive—like 500 bucks—so people only wanted to rent them.” He bought several pairs and rented them out of a storefront near his apartment. “It was wild here,” he says with a smile.

“People are coming here to discover different flavors.”

Over time, the inline skating fad ebbed, and Giroux turned to bicycles. He now runs the biggest bike rental and bike tour operator in the city. Because most out-of-towners tend to stay in Old Montreal or nearby downtown, the location of Giroux’s Ça Roule—on a bike path across from the Ferris wheel—is an ideal starting point to explore the city, which has over 525 miles of bike paths. 

 

“Montreal is one of the best cities in North America for cycling,” Giroux says, “so business is really good.” Well, for bikes, at least. Earlier this year, he donated his last remaining pairs of Rollerblades to a children’s foundation. It’d been years since anybody rented them.

 

I take a ride through the Old Port to admire the views: a basin surrounded by grass that’s a popular spot for locals on their lunch breaks; the pale, century-old Clock Tower (Tour de l’Horloge) memorializing sailors lost at sea; the immense Jacques Cartier Bridge, which leads from Old Montreal to St. Helen’s Island, where much of Expo 67 was held; and the silver dome of the 19th-century Bonsecours Market, where you can procure everything from aboriginal art to tuna sashimi. Next, I zip past fruit stands and artisanal booths on the sloping Place Jacques-Cartier, then stop at Place d’Armes, the square outside the Notre-Dame Basilica that’s watched over by a bronze statue of Montreal founder Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve. Skirted by buildings spanning three-and-a-half centuries, the square is an architectural timeline of Old Montreal.


A virtual reality art exhibit at the Phi Centre

I return my wheels to Giroux and walk to Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle for lunch at Toqué! The exclamation point is part of the restaurant’s name, and it makes sense after you’ve eaten there. Chef Normand Laprise’s haute cuisine is widely recognized as the best in Canada. I order duck tortellini with brown butter sauce; skate wing served over black rice with milk garlic puree; and a rhubarb cannolo filled with mascarpone cream. The James Beard Award-winning chef also surprises me with a plate of asparagus topped with a lemony sabayon. “The only time of the year we have asparagus is now,” says Laprise, who is famously unyielding about the provenance and seasonality of his ingredients. “If you want tuna, we only serve tuna in September.”

 

Laprise moved his 25-year-old restaurant here from the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood over a decade ago. “I built the kitchen myself,” he says, leading me around a sprawling space that has served as a training ground for some of Quebec’s best young chefs, including Montreal Plaza’s Charles-Antoine Crête and Au Pied de Cochon’s Martin Picard. With 7,000 restaurants, it’s hard to talk about this city without mentioning food. Almost every taste can be satisfied right here in Old Montreal: Le Serpent’s sultry Italian dishes, Garde Manger’s flavorful poutine, Hà’s funky take on Vietnamese, Le Club Chasse et Pêche’s quirky supper club fare or Maison Christian Faure’s riotous pastries.

“Success can take a long time in an up-and-coming neighborhood.” 

“Forget about McDonald’s!” Faure exclaims in his office overlooking Old Montreal. “I am McDonald’s. And people are coming here to discover different flavors. That’s better than McDonald’s.” Five years ago, after serving as director of Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa Culinary Arts Institute, the French-born chef opened a patisserie in one of the area’s oldest buildings, a pleasant space worthy of a cameo in a Wes Anderson film. “The joy in Old Montreal is amazing,” he says in a French accent as thick as one of his chocolate pots de crème. “This house is from the 17th century. It’s one of the first houses of Montreal. It’s so nice to be here!” It’s even nicer to savor one of his croissants masterfully wrapped in a swirl of chocolate, which I do as soon as our conversation is over.


Chef Christian Faure

Fast-food quips aside, Old Montreal doesn’t have the parade of global franchises you’d expect of such a touristy area. Times Square it is not. This is partially due to the difficulties in setting up shop in super-old buildings—historical regulations, cramped quarters, the occasional rodent, that sort of thing. It’s also a reflection of how fiercely protective locals are of their traditions—some of which, as it happens, don’t involve butter or duck fat.

 

Montreal has always been known as a cultured place, and this is especially true of the old city. You could spend days browsing the art galleries and museums here. The area is also home to fabulous fashion boutiques from homegrown designers, such as Denis Gagnon and Philippe Dubuc. Even the gift shops have a cultivated air to them: Lunch à Porter has delightfully designed lunch boxes, and almost everything relates to maple inside Délices Érable & Cie, which looks more like a museum than a typical souvenir shop.


Lysanne Pepin outside of Maison Pepin, her home furnishings store

Then there’s Maison Pepin, a home furnishings store and café that launched in the area 20 years ago. Sorta. Initially, artist Lysanne Pepin had a vision for a concept store that would reflect her taste in clothes, paintings, furniture, whatever. It flopped. “I was a little too early,” says Pepin, who co-owns the store with her photographer brother, Patrick. She pivoted and rebranded it as a fashion boutique called Espace Pepin. In 2013, she gave the concept store another shot. This time, it worked. Her Maison Pepin—whose chic wares are crafted mostly by local artisans—is a must-stop shop.

 

With rents on the rise here, Pepin wants to ensure there’s a place to showcase the work of talented young designers. This sense of responsibility illustrates the community spirit that endures in Old Montreal, but also the fact that Pepin knows what it’s like to be young, talented and in need of a boost. “When you’re in an up-and-coming neighborhood, success can take a long time,” she says. “It took more than 20 years for me to get to where I am now.” For Old Montreal, it’s taken over 375 years, and it’s been worth every minute.

Derrik J. Lang

Derrik J. Lang is the senior editor of American Way and a frequent contributor to Celebrated Living and Nexos. He is an award-winning journalist who has covered travel and entertainment for 15 years. His celebrity interview subjects have included Cher, Elton John, Kristen Bell, Mark Hamill and Kermit the Frog.

 

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