Montreal - City of Smiles
Written by Jamie O’Meara
The North American hub of European-style savoir vivre, Montreal celebrates simpler pleasures, such as sinfully good food, fun, and – especially – festivals, which are a nearly year-round feature of Montreal. Among the biggest and best-loved of these would be the Just For Laughs comedy festival, headed by co-founder and current President of Festivals and Television Andy Nulman.
The coiffed and congenial Nulman understands Montreal better than most, having seen it from a vast assortment of social and cultural vantage points over the course of his life. He speaks with love, and it’s only appropriate that this quintessential Montrealer – who values good health as much as good hockey – lives in a historic building in the very heart of ‘centre-ville’.
“The only way I could get any closer to Montreal is if I lived at City Hall,” jokes Nulman. “I have this old 1960 Corvette that I like to drive in the summer, but it’s almost foolish to take it out because I’m smack dab in the middle of everything.”
Indeed, despite over 500km of bike paths – many of which converge at the city’s rocky centrepiece, the parks and pathway-covered Mount Royal (Mont-Royal), the tree-covered flanks of which backdrop the city in all directions – and an award-winning transit system, Montreal is a metropolis made for walking. (Further evidenced by Montreal’s ‘underground city’, more than 32km of indoor shopping malls, theatres, and restaurants connected by numerous tunnels and passageways.)
“Anything that you want to do, you walk,” says Nulman. “Last night I went to the [Montreal Canadiens] hockey game at the Bell Centre, where there are also tons of concerts, and you leave and there’s this madness, as you walk toward Mt-Royal, which gradually lessens and quietens until you get to the bottom of the mountain and it’s completely silent.”
Montrealers know that the city’s international reputation for top-rated restaurants isn’t based solely on marquee eateries like Toqué (900 Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle) and La Queue de Cheval (1221 René Lévesque W.) but rather the overwhelming availability of high-quality cuisine in, very often, the most unlikely of places.
“The greatest Italian food in the city is at Chez Ennio [1950 de Maisonneuve W.],” asserts Nulman. “It’s 30 seats and a three-hour ordeal to eat there, and it’s all made in a kitchen the size of a small broom closet. It’s one guy, one waitress, and this girl I’m trying to set up with my son. And that’s not even a joke. But we love that place.
“The other place I like going to – I don’t even know if it has a real name – I think it’s called the Oyster Shack [1242 Bishop], but check it out. They’ve got a lobster roll and everything you eat is magnificent…For seafood I also go to Zante [3449 St-Laurent], a teeny, teeny little restaurant. It’s one of the few places where you can have the highest of high-quality seafood and watch the hockey game at the same time. It’s not very pretentious. I like being anonymous – I don’t like people driving me crazy, and I don’t like to drive other people crazy.”
Nulman is also something of a burger connoisseur, it turns out. Though not in any conventional sense.
“Café FINO [1616 Sherbrooke W.] is out of this world, one of the best burgers in the city. But that said, we also go to M:brgr [2025 Drummond], a phenomenal place owned by one of the guys who runs Moishes [3961 St-Laurent], my steak place. M:brgr has the $100 burger – two paddies of Kobe beef and stuff like that – and they have truffles, things that my kids eat because they’re foodies. But I’m a simple man with simple tastes so I’ll just have the regular burger, but wrapped in lettuce, not in a bun.”
If downtown is the beating heart of Montreal, then the three-block Crescent Street strip is the aorta. From swanky, well-heeled restaurant/nightclub Newtown (1476 Crescent), owned by former F1 driver Jacques Villeneuve, to labyrinthine and much-loved Irish pub Hurley’s (1225 Crescent; popular with professional athletes, especially hockey players, and local media), to the elevated and always-overflowing terrace-style restaurant bars that rise above the sidewalks – Sir Winston Churchill’s (1459 Crescent) and Thursday’s (1449 Crescent) chief among them – Crescent Street is a perennially popular draw for visitors to the city. However, most true Montrealers, like Nulman, take pride in the many undiscovered, overlooked, or even eccentric holes-in-the-greystone-wall that frequently reveal surprising inhabitants.
“Sometimes, because I’m such a workout fanatic, I’ll relent and treat myself to a hot chocolate at this place on Crescent. It’s the strangest store in the world,” enthuses Nulman. “It’s this watchmaker [La Pendulerie, 2080 Crescent], and the guy makes handmade Swiss chocolate – it’s unreal! And I’ll go there and have hot chocolate made with cayenne pepper. Unbelievable! But you’re standing there amongst watches, imported goods from Switzerland, little cars, cuckoo clocks, and hot chocolate. It’s crazy!”
While residents and visitors alike have always been able to connect over cuisine, there are also common threads when it comes to fashion. Locals take immense pride in personal style, and Nulman is no exception.
“As far as shopping is concerned, two of my favourite places are Holt Renfrew [1300 Sherbrooke W.], and my friend Joey has Boutique Tozzi [2115 Crescent], which is a great little place with understated men’s clothes. And then there’s Boutique Encore [2145 Crescent], which I love, and which is all secondhand clothes from rich people. You can get Vuitton purses, Berluti shoes, Versace belts, all for really cheap. And Boutique Verso Milano [1200 de Maisonneuve W.] has really great stuff, but the guy there is really hard-sell – he makes Donald Trump look like Mother Teresa. But if you can deal with it, he’s got some nice things.
“For women’s clothes, there’s designer Renata Morales. And there’s a guy that I love, Yves-Jean Lacasse [2185 Crescent], who makes stuff for both women and men. It’s unique – you can’t get it anywhere else. And that’s what Montrealers really try to do. What’s great about this city is you’ll find things you won’t find anywhere else.”
And so it is that Nulman’s day-to-day life in Montreal is also an expression of love for his hometown. “I’ve travelled the world and, with very few possible exceptions, there’s no other place I’d rather live,” Nulman says with sincerity. “In the end, what’s great about Montreal is it’s a city where you can work, you can play, you can visit, but you can also live – it’s a great city to live in.”
Summer is festival season in Montreal, and the city takes it to extremes with several major festivals closing down streets and packing up the centrally located, newly constructed Quartier des spectacles. Primary among these would be the French and English Just For Laughs comedy festival, the largest of its kind in the world, taking place from July 5 to 31. Also there is the Montreal International Jazz Festival, with over 650 concerts of jazz, blues, R&B, rock, pop, and world music serving upward of 2 million visitors annually (June 25 to July 4). The St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe independent theatre festival features over 500 artists at more than 700 performances in the trendy Plateau Mont-Royal quartier (May 30 to June 19), while the French language Francofolies music fest closes downtown with internationally acclaimed performers from July 12 to 16. Also of note is world music festival Nuits D’Afriques (July 12–24), the breathtaking International Fireworks Festival (June 25 to July 30), and the hugely popular Osheaga Music and Arts Festival featuring internationally renowned pop, rock, and hip-hop artists (July 29–31).
Montreal, with a population of more than 1,620,000, is not only Canada’s second-largest city, it’s the second-largest French-speaking city (where French is the first language) in the world, behind only Paris.
Approximately 60% of Montrealers speak French at home, though this increases significantly as you venture off the Island of Montreal and into Quebec’s regions, where French is by far the dominant, and with a few exceptions often the only, language spoken. French is the language of commerce – all advertising must display French prominently, and all businesses, retail and otherwise, are obligated to offer service in French first (though in Montreal, at least, you will find it’s not difficult to find assistance in English) – as well as daily life. All street signs are in French only, and most essential and government services are conducted strictly in French, but exceptions will often be made for visiting non-Francophones.