Tell me about café culture in Montreal...
January 30, 2011 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Tell me about café culture in Montreal...

My collaborator and I are both USAmericans with only a bit of French between us. Next November we'll be attending a conference in Montreal and we want to bring together conference participants and the city's café culture (this will be the forth in a series of related projects in different cities around the world). The conference is at the Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth Hotel, which is on Rene Levesque Boulevard West (looks like the cross street is Rue Mansfield), and proximity to that is valuable.

What I need to know, in order of importance:

What is café culture like in Montreal? I've never been. Are cafés general purpose gathering places, or coffee specific? Are there other kinds of gathering places we should consider? Are there distinctly Québécois coffee traditions? Are there expressions related to coffee (and conversation) in Canadian French that would be interesting to know?

What are great cafés around this area? Which are the most "Montreal"? Are there any that are particularly "cultural" (art, performance, counter-culture, even nationalist would be of interest)? Pi, for example, sounds awesome.

Is there a "lost" café culture of the city? Where what and when was it?

Very specific: is there a real café space inside this hotel? Hard to tell from their website.

[I have been doing some research, I'm just looking for your direct experience and specific advice. This post loves Cafe Italia, but that's a bit far. This one has several good tips which I'm plotting out. This Askme dims my optimism.]
posted by Mngo to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Montreal has a longstanding Italian coffee culture, which has been overlaid by lots of Starbucks and Second Cup culture and then overlaid again by some "third wave" cafés. Your hotel is right downtown which means you're not far from some of the more commercial café stuff (on Ste-Catherine mostly, but some will be found in the underground city – your hotel is directly connected to this), but to reach some of the more authentic and less chain places, you will have to move around the city to some extent.

However, I would say that our "real" cafés tend to be social centres and not too huge. People wander in and meet friends or hang out, but if you show up suddenly at the Caffe Italia or the Olimpico with a cohort of a dozen or more, you will have trouble finding places to sit. These cafés are run by and for locals and are not set up to host groups. Most do have some seating space outside but it's not likely it will be in use in November.

One of the best cafés in the downtown area, for example – Café Myriade – is so tiny and so popular that it can be difficult to find a seat at some times of day even if you're alone. If you're into third wave cafés like this, there's also Caffè Art Java and Caffè in Gamba. But none of these are huge places.

The closest I could come to talking about lost café culture here would be mittel-European places like the Toman, the Pam Pam and the Coffee Mill. These were downtown locations of a sort of eastern European flavour, with espresso and rich desserts, probably started in the wave of Hungarian immigration here in the 1950s and giving rise to a sort of bohemian vibe at that time. But they don't exist any more and they are largely forgotten.

Cultural cafés: a place like the Casa del Popolo, the Divan Orange or the Cagibi might interest you.
posted by zadcat at 11:43 AM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

because you're Anglos, the place you are likely to want to be is Mile End. start with St. Viateur between St. Laurent and Parc. starting from St. Laurent and going west you have Cagibi, the Social Club and then Olympico, which are the three cafés I frequent the most, and there is a pastry place and a vegetarian restaurant that I don't that would also fit the definition of a cafe. a little bit south on St. Laurent and you've got Casa del Popolo, and one block over on Bernard you've got a couple more little places. this is where you'll find the Anglo indie/arts community (for want of a better term). these places tend to be frequented by an even mix of small groups of people meeting to talk and the laptop brigade.

around UQAM (a French university) there are a couple of interesting places, especially L'Escalier at St. Catherine and Berri, but my French is ridiculously bad and I can't say that I know them that well. same goes for the Plateau. downtown, there is the Croissanterie at St. Catherine and St. Marc, which I loved when I lived closer to it and I still miss it.

I don't know of anything near your hotel. there isn't much in that bit of the city, besides the hotels and conference centres.

as for Montreal specific expressions, the drink of choice here is the café allongé, or just allongé — a long espresso.

and on preview: zadcat is right about cafes in Montreal tending towards being small, popular and not good places to show up at with a large group of people expecting to find seats. the only one I've mentioned that could easily accommodate a crowd is L'Escalier.
posted by spindle at 12:02 PM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Olimpico mentioned above (on St. Viateur St. in the Mile-End) used to be my fave. It's an Italian café, with TV showing soccer and a patio used in the warm months. Locals call it sometimes Open Da Night, in reference to a sign with a missing letter that was the only thing identifying the place before the fire. The coffee rocks. The ambiance is an important factor at Olympico, but I am not sure if you can "get" that with only one visit. For a more obvious Montreal experience with also pretty decent coffee the "cultural cafés" mentioned above are super nice and tend to attract a clientele that some would identify as "hipster." I love those places. I'd add to this category Le Depanneur Café, on Bernard (Mile-End).

Another place that I go often is Euro-Deli (St. Laurent just North of Prince-Arthur). They also have pasta and pizza. Very good coffee.

Myriade's coffee is really really good.

"Latte" and "café au lait" are used interchangeably in Montreal.
"Alongé" is what is called an "Americano" in the US.

If you've never been to a Tim Horton's, the iconic Canadian coffee and donuts chain, you could give it a try. It's drip coffee, just decent (a lot better than the other chains 2nd Cup, Café Depot, and a lot cheaper than Starbucks). Some people have strong feelings about Timmy's. There must be one near Queen Elizabeth.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 12:16 PM on January 30, 2011

These are both extremely helpful.

Just to clarify: we're most definitely not planning to parachute in with a large group of people. This project may involve very small groups going about together, it may involve collaboration with a café owner, and it might take some other form altogether.

Spindle, do you think the Francophone establishments would be unwelcoming to Anglos, or to mixed groups of internationals?
[My espresso machine is broken, which is unfortunate because I really want a café allongé right now!]
posted by Mngo at 12:17 PM on January 30, 2011

Francphone establishments will be happy to welcome you, they're used to it, don't worry. I Second Olimpico, which is a short bus ride from downtown.
posted by ddaavviidd at 12:20 PM on January 30, 2011

There's also a nice place on St. Laurent, Pi. Chess tables and great lattes, fair trade.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 12:29 PM on January 30, 2011

going west you have Cagibi, the Social Club and then Olympico

Just to be picky here, it's the Cagibi at the corner of Saint-Viateur, then the Olimpico at Waverly, then the Social Club west of there at Esplanade. My experience is that the Olimpico makes the best coffee on that stretch but many people go as much for the specific ambiance of each establishment as for the coffee, so people have their favourites where they tend to meet their crowd.

I might also add the Navarino around the corner on Park Avenue if you get that far – opposite the Y – and you might as well have a look in at Saint-Viateur Bagel which is on the way. You can't sit down and eat, but a fresh warm bagel from Saint-Viateur is a piece of poetry and might as well be experienced if you're nearby.

Another Mile End place you might look in on is the Croissanterie Figaro at the corner of Fairmount and Hutchison.
posted by zadcat at 1:34 PM on January 30, 2011

I've never been unwelcome in a Francophone cafe. I often suspect that everyone in the city but me is functionally bilingual. I can't imagine you running into problems, and you should definitely do what you can to get out and see a bit of the French side of the city.

(and an allongé is not an americano: they're both espresso + more water, yes, but significantly the extra water goes through the grounds in an allongé. it makes for a different flavour.)
posted by spindle at 2:01 PM on January 30, 2011

this is L'Escalier's website. and thank you, zadcat, for the correction.
posted by spindle at 2:05 PM on January 30, 2011

Yes, I wouldn't worry about language for a minute. After all, they have something they want to sell to you. They will cope.
posted by zadcat at 2:20 PM on January 30, 2011

I am a long time anglo in Montreal. In my experience, you can speak english anywhere and it's fine. If you leave montreal, however, like to go to Quebec City, you will want to speak french. My cafe preferences: Olimpico. Cagibi. Pi.
posted by Sully at 5:17 PM on January 30, 2011

Are there other kinds of gathering places we should consider?

Montreal has a decent shisha (nargila) culture, which is slowly being weeded out by the no-smoking laws. I try to sneak in some shisha whenever I'm in Montreal as they are very relaxed and social, but not centred around coffee/alcohol, and that's a nice culture shock when I get too accustomed to Toronto.

Maybe helpful:
posted by heatherann at 8:57 AM on February 1, 2011

While you're on your way to Olimpico I also would suggest Le Figaro as a french café, at 5200 Hutschison on the corner of Fairmont.
posted by furtive at 10:00 PM on February 4, 2011

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