With Montréal’s history of separatism, it is unsurprising that it remains a unique city in North America. A confusing mix of French, Anglo and Canadian culture, the city was, until the mid-1970s, the largest in the country. Now, with culturally conventional Toronto bigger, Montréal luxuriates in the reputation of being one of the most liveable cities on the continent (see Monocle issue 5).
The city has good architecture, noted cuisine, a lively music and arts scene, the reputation for attractive and free-thinking people and – as the beneficiary of Canada’s booming energy and mining economy – the wealth to support an ambitious programme of renewal and re-gentrification (this is an environmentally conscious city). Ever since prohibition, when visitors came northwards to escape Puritan values, Montréal has had a reputation for fun and hedonism.
“Spiritually and philosophically we’re free-minded, liberal and socially progressive,” explains interior designer Benoit Gérard. “We’re Québécois, and we still have the feeling we’re fighting for our freedom, but now in a peaceful way – through design, having ideas, trying to live in balance.”
Montréal’s renewal is timely. Through the 1960s and 1970s vast areas of the city fell into disrepair when it ceased to be a major trading post after the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway. Politically, the Québécois separatist movement did the city no favours: just as Europe was looking to integrate, and with North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations underway, French Canada looked out of touch and indulgent of less attractive aspects of the distant homeland. Those days are gone but in a city of modern habits, the old ways are not forgotten: the Québécois still love their poutine (chips with curd cheese and gravy) and ice hockey, and they take their unionised employment customs seriously.
With the mid-to-upper levels of Montréal’s property market stalled as the credit crunch works its way through the system, there is still inexpensive property available. Investors looking beyond the already fashionable and gentrified areas of Plateau Mont-Royal and Mile End now look to the areas bordering the Lachine canal. One of the most promising is Saint-Henri, a former working-class neighbourhood of small townhouses, large industrial buildings being converted into residential lofts, and with new development bordering the Lachine canal.
For more than a decade, the real estate word has promised the revival of Saint-Henri. After many false starts, that prediction is coming true. One of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants, Joe Beef, opened up here; Canadian band Arcade Fire live here, and it houses one of the best fruit and vegetable markets in North America.
Close to the old port, and within a 10-minute commute of the financial centre, the area is seeing a low-key transformation. It may be too soon to call Saint-Henri the most desirable neighbourhood in Montréal, but it’s not too soon to call Montréal the best city in Canada.
Flights to Montréal:
Air Canada – two flights daily British Airways – one flight daily
From New York
Air Canada – five flights daily
Lufthansa – two flights daily
5226 Boulevard; Saint-Laurent; + 1 514 274 4888
One of several good design boutiques in Montréal, this store shows most outlandish items, including pieces by Makkum and 5.5 designers. It stocks owner Castor and Canadensis’s bizarre lamp titled “This is not a f**cking Droog light, light”; a chair with a man’s suit sewn over the back by Philippe Dubuc & Francine Thétrault, and a matching chair and lamp covered in soft black feathers by the Hungarian-born Montréal artist Melinda Pap.
5392 Boulevard; Saint-Laurent; + 1 514 271 5061
Mexican-born Renata is Montréal’s most fashionable clothes designer. Also working as an artist, she is known for her colourful avant-garde prints. In addition to ready-to-wear, Morales also offers custom pieces – Montréal women like to look unique. The designer styles the band Arcade Fire.
Phil’z 20th Century Design
5298 Boulevard; Saint-Laurent; + 1 514 278 2323
Another contemporary design favourite that specialises in mid-century modern. With two floors packed with pieces, and prices that beat New York, this is where bargain shoppers come in Montréal.
138 Atwater Avenue; + 1 514 937 7754
One of the best features of Saint Henri, this two-floor, year-round market is the best in Montréal. In summer, the stands of fresh fruit and vegetables are proof of nature’s bounty. With a butcher’s, comprehensive cheese shops, jam makers and vegetable preservers, a famous pizza takeaway and a coffee roaster, this is where the health-conscious come to shop.
1050 Rue Lacasse; + 1 514 932 9340
The inventor of the microphone, Emile Berliner also manufactured the first gramophone and moved to Montréal in 1908 to set up the Berliner Gramophone factory in this building. He sold the business to RCA Victor which built a recording studio that is still favoured by musicians for its warmth and clarity of sound. Oscar Peterson first recorded here, and Sinead O’Connor has also laid down tracks here.
The Corona Theatre
2490 Notre-Dame West; + 1 514 931 1402
This old variety theatre in Saint-Henri has been revived as one of the best places to play in Montréal. Well-known bands appear here, along with newer local groups such as the psychedelic sensations the Besnard Lakes.
The Parisian Laundry
3550 Rue Saint-Antoine West; + 1 514 989 1056
One of the city’s newest and smartest galleries, showing large-format photography, paintings, installations and performance art. There’s a dark basement where art films are shown.
Montréal has taken to the modern hotel aesthetic with energy and enthusiasm. Hôtel Gault (449 Rue Ste-Hélène; + 1 514 904 1616)
is queen of the night: this minimalist 30-room boutique hotel is known for its old-as-new look.
Concrete walls and brushed steel are counterbalanced by heavy curtains dividing the rooms. When it comes to service, comfort and grandeur, the Ritz-Carlton Montréal (1228 Rue Sherbrooke West, + 1 514 842 4212) has no equal.
A more reasonably priced option is Hôtel Nelligan (106 Rue St-Paul Street West, + 1 514 788 2040). Comfortable, modern, and with great bathrooms and an attentive staff it is situated in the Old Port close to Saint-Henri and many of the fashion shops.
2491 Rue Notre-Dame West; + 1 514 935 6504
Originally the nickname of Charles McKiernan, a 19th-century Irish immigrant who ran a tavern that fed poor dock workers, Joe Beef is the brainchild of two established restaurateurs, David McMillan and Fred Morin. It serves market-fresh, Gallic-Canadian food, there’s a lack of fuss, and customers are encouraged to enjoy the experience, not get precious about the haute cuisine. “Whatever looks good is on the menu,” explains Morin.
Lili & Oli
2515 Rue Notre Dame; + 1 514 932 8961
At Lili & Oli they make a very good cappuccino but this art-café is actually equally well loved for the quality of its sandwiches by day and more substantial fare at night.
3927 Rue St-Denis; + 1 514 845 5333
Classic French-style brasserie, open until 03.00. Serves traditional food but well. For steak frites or a quartet of roasted marrow bones and the vibe of a Parisian restaurant in North America this is the place. If you’re alone and there are no tables available (likely), sit at the long zinc bar.
5308 St-Laurent Boulevard; + 1 514 273 7442
This Mile End storefront offers a comprehensive education in Québécois cuisine. Local foodstuffs are again the name of the game: duck, rabbit and venison. This is the place to try poutine and experience its powerfully comforting effects.
1446 Rue Peel; + 1 514 848 0988
Portuguese food is usually heavy but here it is light and tender. Montréal has a substantial Portuguese population and this is where they come for salted frayed cod au gratin and popcorn quail. Heavy action comes with Cataplana – a copper pot filled with a stew of mussels, clams, potatoes, sausage and cod.
2040 Rue Peel; + 1 514 843 5100
This is Montréal’s Cipriani; the staff look as if they’re in a Robert Palmer video. The Italian food is refined but that’s missing the point. The scene is the point.
Late thirties. Interior decorator and traveller
“I am originally from Québec and I came up the river with my feathers and a tomahawk. Saint-Henri is the new cool area to live in. It is laid-back, young and professional. There’s so much charm, so many opportunities here, and it’s only just starting.”
“Montréal offers all the advantages of a small city but its neighbourhoods are what make it a vibrant place to live. The scenes are small and far-reaching, he says. The city lets you be yourself and have time for yourself. I’m in two bands, High Dials and The Rothschilds. We sing about money, but only metaphorically. What would be my one piece of advice if you choose to live here? Take a hot mid-winter vacation.”
35, IT designer
“Saint-Henri used to be low-income but now it’s really coming up. It feels more secure than it used to, and it is great to be around so much nature. You can kayak in the canal, walk the dog in the parks and you are only 10 minutes from downtown.”
33, restaurant manager
“We came here from Alberta when there was nothing and nowhere to go. It is still affordable to set up home here – there’s good shopping and a good arts scene. Montréal is really country-orientated – you can be in nature in an hour. We go to the Laurentians – it’s bear country – to the north, or the Eastern townships to the south.”
Average price of 100 sq m property
Buying in Montréal is straightforward. There are no tax penalties or restrictions on foreign ownership in Québec. Once you have found a property and made an accepted offer, a deposit is payable, typically 25 per cent. When buying a house in Canada, an offer must be made in writing so that all aspects of the transaction are clearly outlined within the offer. Once you (the buyer) have signed the document, it becomes legally binding.
“Saint-Henri has been developing for some years,” says Nathalie Brien, a real estate broker with Re/Max Performance (+ 1 514 349 0909). “Many of the old factories are transforming into penthouses, co-ops and condos. It’s certainly becoming more popular – the Atwater Market, the restaurants, the canal – and it’s within minutes of downtown. There are a lot of young professional singles.”
Brien’s properties include a 300 sq m penthouse in a converted factory on Rue St-Patrick at CA$1.89m (€1.34m). The apartment features two bedrooms, fireplace and wood floors. A smaller, new apartment at nearby 4250 Rue St-Ambroise is priced at CA$595,000 (€421,100) for 140 sq m. Small lofts and studios start at around CA$450,000 (€318,500).