Feasting on Montreal's Charms

By Erica Johnston
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007

I've been captivated by Montreal since my first trip there almost 20 years ago, drawn in by two things in particular: the bowls of hot chocolate offered at the city's many cafes -- hey, why settle for a measly cup? -- and the people who packed the streets in July and August, soaking in the two-month party they call summer. It seemed as busy as midtown Manhattan at rush hour, but these people were smiling.

So when my oldest and best friend and I realized that our 40th "anniversary" was approaching, I managed to talk her into a celebratory trip over a long weekend. To Montreal, of course.

When I arrived on a summer-like fall afternoon, a day before Kathy, I hit the streets. It had been eight years since my last visit. Had I exaggerated the city's charms?

From our hotel downtown, I walked a mile or so, past the edge of Chinatown and through the Latin Quarter to the Plateau, the neighborhood where my affection for the city first took root.

Ahhhh, the Plateau. Pretty much in the middle of the part of the city frequented by visitors, the neighborhood is all about strolling, sipping and shopping: chic marries shabby-chic, college professor meets slacker, with an impressive assortment of retro record stores, independent bookstores, artfully graffitied walls, more than a few "tatouage" parlors, and ethnic restaurants everywhere. (Anybody up for food from Reunion, the island off Africa?)

Along the leafy side streets, spiral staircases wind their way up the outsides of cozy rowhouses. Somehow, it seemed that if I knocked on a few doors, I'd find someone I knew. A few blocks away, Mount Royal, the modest mountain and majestic park on the neighborhood's western flank, rises over the city, offering a constant compass and an instant refuge to anyone who needs one.

In a bakery, a boy of about 4 offered me his friendliest "Allo!" I did my best to respond in kind: "Allo."

"Oh," he responded, no fool he. His smile never broke. "Hello!"

And that seems to sum up the language issue -- for tourists, anyway; it's far more complicated for residents -- in the place generally acknowledged to be the world's second-biggest French-speaking city. French? English? Whatever. We can work with you.

Four Kinds of Pork

A half-hour in the Plateau and I felt back in the groove. I wasn't dragging my friend up here for nothing, after all. The pungent smoke wafting out the doors of Portuguese rotisseries, the burnished yellows and oranges of the maples along the sidewalks, the tangle of overheard languages: My senses felt fully open. This, all of this, in its understated splendor, was what I wanted to show her. I was ready to lead the way on the Walking and Talking (and Eating) Tour.

But first, La Binerie.

In travel, and okay, in the rest of life as well, there is no doubt: I lead with my stomach. The rest of me merely struggles to keep up. So the next morning -- Kathy wouldn't arrive until later -- I headed back to the Plateau, this time on the subway, to La Binerie (The Beanery), a nearly 70-year-old, bare-bones eatery renowned for its Quebecois specialties.

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