A New Panache

  • Montreal, Europe's pied-a-terre in North America, went through a grim economic patch in the '80s and early '90s, when it had clearly lost its panache. The threat of Quebec separatism and a prolonged Canadian recession sapped its economic life. So many shops were shut that the city began to look more like struggling Buffalo, N.Y., than Paris. Today, though, this charming city is experiencing the kind of renaissance that old cities like Dublin and Prague have seen in recent decades. Chic new businesses, such as fashionista Fidel or juice purveyor Moozoo, are popping up seemingly everywhere. The economy is solid; and, best of all, there is a new sense of optimism that makes Montreal's streets, restaurants and bars a rejuvenating pleasure.

    That's evident in the first-class boutique hotels recently built in the city's large stock of grand old buildings. The most sumptuous is the Hotel Le St-James (514-841-3111), which was fashioned out of a 130-year-old merchant-bank building in the Old Montreal district. Travelers looking for suites with antique furniture and plasma-screen-TV-equipped, marble-encased bathrooms can alight here for $300 to $3,750 a night. A bit pricey, non? "Our guests don't ask the price, they ask for the square footage," sniffs the hotel's directeur-general Guy Luzy. If price does matter, try the Hotel Gault (514-904-1616), a minimalist gem where classic 20th century fixtures and furniture are set against bare white, oak or hot-rolled-steel walls and concrete floors. Tucked away on a quiet Old Montreal street, the Gault's design aesthetic is so gaunt that a visitor can barely make out the insignia by the front door. Rooms are $170 to $435.

    Once ensconced, set out to sample the food in one of North America's great dining capitals. In the preen-and-be-seen category is downtown's Cavalli (514-843-5100), where sumptuous nouvelle cuisine Italienne is served in a hot-pink and wasabi-colored decor best described as Felliniesque. You can lounge in a fishbowl setting, supping on the likes of macaroni with fontina and cheddar, black truffle puree, brioche bread crumbs and black pepper. Of course, this is a French town, and you can't go wrong at Toque! (514-499-2084) for fresh, local gastronomic creations. The place is 10 years old, but thanks to the ever inventive chef-owner Normand Laprise, Toque! never bores. It's perhaps the best of the market-cuisine restaurants in the city. Less elegant but just as inventive is the newish Au Pied de Cochon (514-281-1114), where iconoclastic chef Martin Picard throws coronary caution to the wind with his heavy and delectable pork, venison, lamb, poultry and fish dishes in seasonal dress. His foie gras-poutine appetizer (pate atop a version of the Quebecois snack of fries, cheese curd and gravy) typifies his highbrow-lowbrow approach.

    Montreal's greatest attraction remains its inner cityscape. Though it is a largely French-speaking metropolis of almost 3.5 million (nearly everyone speaks at least a little English), its core is easy to explore on foot. Visitors inevitably are drawn downtown, the heart of which is Rue Sainte-Catherine and the dozens of streets that radiate from it. In the winter the entire district is accessible through a 19-mile grid of underground passages and atriums known as the underground city. The nearby and stately Rue Sherbrooke is also worth checking out, especially from around high-end Rue Crescent (the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is at the intersection) to the entrance to McGill University in the east.

    For an earthier taste of Montreal, head to Boulevard Saint-Laurent, where the street's character has been forged like a pearl out of constant friction between generations of immigrants, poets, nihilists, students and most recently the inevitable yuppies. The funkiest part, between Rue Sherbrooke and Rue des Pins, is filled with a pungent mix of great restaurants, cafes, food stores, nightclubs and local-designer clothing shops. Continue north past Rue des Pins to Schwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, the best place in the Milky Way to sample smoked meat sandwiches (a delicious slice of the pastrami-corned beef food group). Even heartier walkers can head west to the giant Parc du Mont-Royal, where there are miles of peaceful trails in this bucolic retreat, designed by Central Park creator Frederick Law Olmsted.

    Finally, don't miss a stroll through Old Montreal. Until a few years ago, this was the town that time forgot, which in a way is a good thing. Today the quaint and sometimes cobblestoned streets, especially the meandering Rue Saint-Paul, are abuzz with new bars, art galleries, restaurants and lofts. On a rainy or snowy afternoon, you can also hire a caleche (a horse-drawn carriage, which costs about $26 for 30 min.), snuggle up under a giant fur and watch the scenery of this trading town on the banks of St. Lawrence go by. It's not hard to pretend you're still in the 18th century.