If New York is the city that never sleeps, Montreal is the city where something’s always cooking.
Quebec’s biggest city is famed for its food—and for very good reason. A lot more than poutine, smoked meat and bagels (although these are all definitely worth lining up for!), Montreal’s food scene is creative, accessible and endlessly diverse.
More than 120 cultures influence the city’s culinary offer, which boasts everything from tried-and-true Quebec fare to world-class international eats including Portuguese, Mexican, Haitian, Syrian, Singaporean, Vietnamese, Caribbean and any other kind of cuisine you might be craving. At the same time, locally and sustainably grown ingredients are increasingly prominent and prized – not least in McGill’s own food operations.
A rich culinary culture
One of the best ways to get a taste of Montreal’s diverse flavours is to take a culinary walking tour, offered in a handful of historic neighbourhoods across the city.
Colin Rier, who moved to Montreal from Cambridge, Ont., to study Food History at McGill, leads culinary tours with the Museum of Jewish Montreal. Their mission: to showcase the rich and deep-rooted Jewish culture that has helped shape the city’s culinary identity.
“There’s such a density of Jewish restaurants in Mile End and the Plateau, and you can walk between them in just a few hours,” he says. “The quality and uniqueness of Jewish food is incredible here, even compared to New York. By the end of the tour, people are so excited to learn about Montreal food and the history behind it, and I love being a part of that.”
Now in his final year at McGill, Rier has been obsessed with food since as far back as he can remember. In addition to his studies and the walking tours, he also manages a busy restaurant downtown and writes food articles for Time Out. For Rier, one of the biggest things that sets his new home base apart is the abundance of quality affordable eats.
Dining on a dime
“So much of Montreal’s food is rooted in working class, quick meals,” Rier notes. “For every fine dining restaurant, there are just as many humble bistros serving solid, classic French fare, where you can get a main, dessert and a half bottle of wine for as little as $40.”
Another great way to eat well on a budget is to hit up Montreal’s countless summer food festivals. One of the most popular is First Fridays, Canada’s biggest food truck festival, held at the Olympic Stadium on the first Friday of every month from May until early October. Rain or shine, flocks of foodies line up around the block to fill up on dim sum, lobster rolls or loaded poutine for a fraction of the cost of a restaurant meal.
Rier also recommends visiting one of the hundreds of cabane à sucres (sugar shacks) around the city during maple syrup season—the ideal spots to sample affordable, Quebecois food at its finest. “Sugar shacks are hands down one of the best dining experiences here,” he shares. “There’s so much history behind them, and you get endless amounts of comfort food for next to nothing.”
As evidenced by the time-honoured sugar shack tradition, eating local has long been a part of Montreal’s food culture. The city is home to a host of farmer’s markets, many of which are open year-round, where local farmers and artisans come together to offer an impressive selection of fresh, seasonal produce.
Located in the Little Italy district, the open-air Jean-Talon Market is one of the most frequented food hubs in the city. Seven days a week, you can pick up organic fruits and vegetables, artisanal cheeses, cured meats, sustainable seafood, maple treats, orchard ciders and more—all while learning where the ingredients come from and getting to know the local producers.
“Montrealers are concerned about eating local and organic,” says Élise Guerrero, a second-year McGill student majoring in Global Food Security. “There are a bunch of rural farms less than 45 minutes from the city, which makes it easy for people to buy local and connect with farmers.”
Sustainable food solutions
Guerrero is co-president of the McGill Permaculture Club on Macdonald Campus, which aims to raise awareness about permaculture among students and the local community. The club runs a garden where student volunteers plant trees and grow small batches of tomatoes, apples and berries. It also organizes workshops and events with guest speakers to educate the public on how to grow local, sustainable food.
This past June, Guerrero helped launch the Mac Regenerative Food Hub, an umbrella project that regroups the Permaculture Club, the McGill Apicultural Club and other food-related initiatives on and around campus. Its mission, Guerrero says, “is to help all of these groups work together in synergy, sharing knowledge, tools and resources to find new sustainable food solutions.”
With students like Guerrero dedicated to transforming the food system, both locally and around the globe, the sustainable food movement in Montreal is gaining momentum every day. “If you’re someone who wants to change the system, come help us, because we’re doing it. We have all these initiatives in place—all we need are more people and ideas to make them grow.”