Montreal’s Mile End and neighboring Le Plateau-Mont-Royal appear consistently on lists celebrating the hippest neighborhoods in North America. The food, drink, music, and art can’t be beat and the street life lasts all day and night.
But it wasn’t always this way. Before gentrification transformed the neighborhood, Mile End was home to a hard-working immigrant community. Until the 1960s, it was Canada’s largest Jewish quarter, a world immortalized by Mordecai Richler, where the teeming streets reverberated with the old-world sounds of Yiddish. In those days, scores of delicatessens and lunch counters fed the people who worked there. The food was similar to what could be found in the other North American, Jewish neighborhoods but Montreal was developing a food culture all its own. And the taste of days gone by remains in the neighborhood to this day.
Montreal bagels are unique—smaller, crisper and sweeter than their New York cousins. They reach perfection at Fairmount Bagel, a block and a half from Saint Laurent. Fairmount opened in 1919 and claims to be Montreal’s first bagel bakery. Its bagels are still prepared the original way, rolled by hand, boiled in honeyed water and baked in a wood-fired oven. The result is slightly crisp and chewy, with an intense wheat flavor. Fairmount offers all kinds of post-modern bagel mutations, including chocolate chip and blueberry as well as traditional poppy seed or sesame seed.
WILENSKY’S LIGHT LUNCH
Step into Wilensky’s and you’ll feel you like you’ve entered a time warp. The place is the kind of old-fashioned lunch counter that’s disappeared most everyplace else. Proprietor Sharon Wilensky, granddaughter of the founder, explains that it opened as a barbershop and cigar store in 1907 and began serving hot dogs and soda in the 1930s finally landing as a lunch spot in its present location in the 1950s. The special here is a glorious $3.90 and gets you grilled all-beef salami and baloney on a pressed Kaiser roll. Mustard is obligatory.
Cheskie’s Bakery in Outremont was started just a few years ago by members of Montreal’s Hassidic community. But the pastries are pure nostalgia. Jewish classics like black and white cookies, danish, rugelach are all made to delicious perfection. The chocolate babka is a transcendent mix of gooey chocolate and velvety pastry and is not to be ignored.
We all know that Schwartz’s deli gets the tourists but many Montrealers will tell you they prefer Lester’s. What’s more, owner Bill Lester claims his place is the only family-owned smoked meat joint left in town. Lester’s has a large wholesale business, but its Outremont-based deli (just down the street from Cheskie’s) keeps the smoked meat tradition alive. Beef brisket is marinated in a spice bath, smoked and steamed the old-timey way.
Montrealers argue passionately about which bagels are better—Fairmount’s or St-Viateur’s. Many customers buy their bagels and take them a few blocks down Rue St-Viateur to Café Olimpico to wash them down with a café au lait. Others stock up. As I left, I met an excited couple packing 16 dozen bagels into their car—their year’s supply to kept on ice in their home.