It’s a street, it’s a division, it’s the beginning (and in some unfortunate instances, the end) of a book of Montreal stories, it’s a Friday night riot and a Sunday afternoon stroll. And it’s also a National Historic Site. To Montrealers, it’s The Main, or as any map would have it, St-Laurent…
Our street profile series has already traversed Bleury, Parc, Maisonneuve, Saint-Paul, Saint-Zotique, Crescent, Greene Avenue, Sainte-Catherine, Amherst, Mont-Royal, Saint-Denis, Bernard and Ontario, and now takes us on what is arguably, if not the best, at least the best known of them all: Saint-Laurent Boulevard.
Saint-Laurent, the much-beloved north/south street that at one time fed a steady stream of new immigrants from their just-docked ships straight into the beating heart of Montreal, is both the symbolic divider between Montreal’s French and English communities (though less and less with the passage of time), and the actual divider of east and west in the city (address numbers start at the boulevard and increase in either direction). Just over 11km in length, from the St-Lawrence River at its south end to Rivière des Prairies at its northernmost tip, Saint-Laurent bisects the entirety of the island of Montreal, and in so doing it really does represent a cross-section of Montreal.
Classic cafés, trend-attentive nightclubs, old-world delicatessens, time capsule-like greasy spoons, retro clothing stores, high-end eateries, low-end brasseries, ethnic grocery outlets and so on and so forth all co-exist comfortably on one of the most walkable streets in Montreal.
Saint-Laurent’s steadily northward and upward trajectory officially lifts off at De la Commune, which separates the city’s repurposed Old Port district (a warren of cultural activity all year-round) and historic Old Montreal, which can follow its cobblestones back to the mid-1600s. A short walk north of Old Montreal takes one to Chinatown, a vibrant hive of restaurants, specialty stores and imported produce shops that are all but impossible to ignore.
Continuing northward, we cross over into Montreal’s former red-light district, now home to the Quartier des Spectacles (the red lights projected on the sidewalks in front of most of the venues in the Quartier des Spectacles pay low-key tribute to the district’s place in Montreal’s history). It’s home to Monument National (a 1,600-seat theatre and National Historic Site constructed in 1894, and which houses the National Theatre School), the Société des arts technologiques (or SAT, a multi-disciplinary arts centre, venue and now food-lover’s fun spot with its new Foodlab small-plate resto), and one of the last vestiges of its red-light past, the Café Cléopâtre, which hosts regular fan-friendly drag shows.
Further north the character becomes even edgier, if no less fun and interesting, with all-inclusive punk club Katacombes (one of the more distinctive live music venues in the city, situated in a former bank), legendary and unmistakeable retro clothing store and café Eva B, where it’s Halloween every day, and for those wanting to get their activism on, the always-engaging anarchist book store, Librairie l’Insoumise.
The pace changes considerably as one crosses Sherbrooke and enters the upscale dining area of Saint-Laurent, typified by swanky staples like Italian eatery Buona Notte (popular with professional athletes and visiting celebrities) and Globe. After eating comes the dancing and socializing, literally steps up the street, at hearty party places like B-Side, Gogo Lounge and the perennially pumping Tokyo Bar (with its discreet and in-demand outdoor terrasse). The more rock’n’roll oriented will want to step into the unassuming Bifteck, popular with students and the indie rock set.
Moving evermore northward we approach a Montreal institution, Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, home to the best smoked meat – according to Montrealers – anywhere on the planet. The perpetual parade of prime ministers, Hollywood A-listers and assorted other heavy hitters who regularly chow down at Schwartz’s (recently purchased by singer Celine Dion and husband René Angélil) would seem to support that contention.
Further up the street is favourite local hole-in-the-wall Blizzarts, habitually dizzy with dancers of techno, electro, house, hip-hop and soul/R&B persuasions late into the night. It sits directly across the street from the character-filled, underground-ish multidisciplinary arts space MainLine Theatre.
Laptop convo with lattés and DJs? That’d be Laika. Legendary veggie poutine while taking in the scene? Cutesy corner cubbyhole Patati Patata will warm the coldest cockles. The rising stars of the local indie scene in an atypically unpretentious environ? Well, that would be Divan Orange. And world-class world music with a dance floor that knows no quit? The incomparable Balattou. And on the other side of Saint-Laurent, music fans that span all classifications can often be seen sunning themselves in Parc du Portugal, which honours the neighbourhood’s Portuguese character, and which sits directly opposite the residence of Montreal’s most famous musical export, the inimitable Leonard Cohen.
As Saint-Laurent angles evermore upward and northward, past vegan eating institution and juice bar Aux Vivres, just north of the boutique-lined Mont-Royal Avenue, we come to two opposing mainstays of the live music scene in Montreal – opposing because they are directly across St-Laurent from each other. The newly expanded Casa del Popolo (with its hidden jewel of a backyard terrasse) and Sala Rossa – with its adjoining, and excellent, Spanish tapas restaurant – are where bands such as Arcade Fire got their start and still showcase the best in international-calibre independent music.
A little further up the street and it’s hard to miss lively, beautifully-designed contemporary arts space Espace Go!, which regularly plays host to world-class dance, theatre and other performing arts (and its stylish bar is always a fun place to grab a drink post-show). For those who prefer darker, cozier environs with a bohemian touch, popular neighbourhood pubs Snack’n Blues (known for its friendly owners and finger foods) and Sparrow (with its well-appointed interior, range of tasty local brews and innovative brunch menu) are only a slow mosey away.
And speaking of brunching, the highly-regarded Lawrence, near Fairmount Avenue, offers a relaxed alternative to the usual breakfast/lunch counter chaos, featuring a changing menu comprised of fresh market ingredients that will satisfy both committed foodies and the simply hungry in equal measure.
And some of the best comes last on this lengthy promenade of Saint-Laurent, as the street eases into Montreal’s bustling Little Italy district, with its impressive and imposing churches, authentic Italian restos and colourful cafés – a bit of the old country smack in the middle of the new(ish) one. And Caffé Italia is at the high-spirited centre of it all, with its soccer-talking baristas, animated gang of neighbourhood regulars and what many would argue – and argue they will – is the best coffee in town. Or at least on St-Laurent Blvd.
Guest blogger Jamie O’Meara is a Montreal editor and journalist who covers arts, culture and music. Formerly the editor in chief of Hour Magazine, he is now an editor at Roverarts.com.
Photos: Richmond Lam