Bar-Hopping Over the Border
A guide to Montréal watering holes you've probably never heard of
Drink in Montréal and you sip among the immortals. We natives have spent generations cultivating our city's reputation: Sin City. Havana North. A perpetual Mardi Gras.
We love our bars. They're where we meet after work, where we fall in love, feud with friends, and conduct pub crawls - a pastime many locals consider a rite to be repeated every weekend.
In Montréal, where the legal drinking age is 18, the philosophy is that those who drink early drink more responsibly later in life. Who's arguing?
Montréal drinking is the stuff of legends. Rat packers Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis and Dean Martin - until he was run out of town for impregnating a young fan - saw the bottom of a lot of Montréal verres sterilisées.
Silver-screen star Veronica Lake drank herself to death here in 1973, leading her lover to sneak her dead body over the border in a gold station wagon. She was pronounced dead in the much more wholesome and bucolic city of Montpelier, Vermont.
My favorite local drinking tale, though, is from 1952, when Welsh poet and fall-down-drunk Dylan Thomas - whose final words were "I've had 18 straight whiskies. I think that's the record" - frequented a watering hole near McGill University. Thomas crowned a student who was drinking with him one night as an upcoming great. The student's poetic glory was confined to that evening. He quit poetry soon after. Or so the story goes.
But enough rambling contextualization. Here are some off-the-beaten-path drinking joints for your next tippling session in our great island city on the St. Lawrence.
Bar Chez Françoise
3875 St. Catherine East
Tourists zip up here hoping to see some unique French-Canadian culture and often leave frustrated when they barely get a chance to parlez-vous or to see anything truly different or authentic.
The best cure for touristic superficialitis is to get really drunk down at the Chez Françoise, a cozy neighborhood bar in the city's east end. Many describe it as kétaine - French for tacky.
I prefer to call it unpretentious. Many of us university-educated, chattering-class types might never visit anything like this wood-paneled bar, where aspiring, no-name songsters dream big on a small stage. Gino does the musical accompaniment; Christian slings the beer, and owner Mario is never far from the action. They've all been there approximately forever.
You might cringe at the idea of drinking with the working class in one of the city's poorer areas, especially when they haul out the mini putt or beanbag toss on Sunday afternoons. But you'll depart with insight into another world - one where the stars in the local firmament burn less brightly but no less warmly. You'll leave knowing you've visited the sort of place most Montréalers never even think of wandering into. And, heck, if any of the singers hits it big like Celine Dion, you'll be the first to say that you saw him or her in a crowd of 20.
115 Laurier West
Before they were swallowed up by the oppressively generic chains, tiny mom-and-pop pharmacies were all over Montréal; they'd diagnose you by eye and slip you a cure, prescription be damned. Alexandre Baldwin's granny owned such a place at St. Viateur and the Main (which has since become Café Esperanza, full of hippie Plateaunik socially conscious do-gooders).
Watching his granny distribute drugs inspired in young Alex the dream of becoming a barman. Not sure how that works exactly, but 18 months ago he took off with another staffer from the Whiskey Café to launch his own gin joint. He now peddles booze at a place that salutes the family pharmacy tradition with award-winning décor souped up with serious medicinal motifs, including drinks served in medicine vials.
The split-level layout and sunken dance floor offer some temporarily disorienting sight lines. Entering the place you get the impression that patrons in the distance might be dwarves. The crowd is eclectic and trendy, but on most nights dwarves aren't in great numbers among the clientele.
5562 Upper Lachine Road
In Montréal, hockey and alcohol are two great traditions. When the two bisect, it's instant cultural orgasm. This city has always had at least a joint or two owned by a high-profile puck pusher, at least since the days when hardnosed enforcer Jimmy Orlando ran a nightclub favored by mobsters. The Toe Blake Tavern featured old guys falling asleep in their beers while Henri "The Pocket Rocket" Richard's tavern on Park Avenue fed twenties into that bulging pocket. When Shayne Corson skated for the team, he had a drinking place downtown. Current Hab Sheldon Souray also owns a place out in the sticks. But the grassroots hockey joint of choice is Momesso's, where you can also find legendary sausage sandwiches and espresso that tastes as if it dripped from heaven.
This basement joint in Lower NDG existed long before Sergio Momesso - son of the owner - hauled a Stanley Cup with the Habs. A bunch of faded photos of the bad-boy, cup-winning team of 1993 sit at the door. Sergio himself has opened another franchise out in the West Island.
2174 St. Patrick
Montréal's first Irish settlers had a hell of a rough time. Scores died of disease on the way over, and many of those who did make it worked hard and drank even harder. Their turf in Point St. Charles was home to bars with such names as The Bucket of Blood, and eventually wine widows forced their hubbies to move to the next suburb over - the dry Verdun. The drinking tradition in the Point has been declining ever since.
The last great out-of-control bar, the Do Drop Inn, was plagued with violence before it closed a year ago. The only nearby survivor, the Bar St. Charles, sits dramatically in an industrial setting beneath overhead highways, but the smoking ban has so devastated business that owner Helene - a veteran of 30 years in Point St. Charles bars - now tries to sell the place to the few customers who still walk through the door. The over-hyped Magnan's, also in the Point, has betrayed its mandate by going upscale. Sticker shock always kills a good beer buzz.
What's left? The last best joint in the Point for catching some of the original iconic Point St. Charles drinking culture is the Capri. It's not much to look at, but it's where all of the most colorful local Irish storytellers spend their days congregating and chattering. Get friendly with one of these people and you'll know the city better than do most Montréalers.
The Royal Canadian Legion
5455 de Maisonneuve
Montréal has a half-dozen military drinking establishments, which are like war museums with warm beer. They're more dusty than trendy, but anyone who wants to cross paths with Canada's warriors should drop in. Most Montréal legions have waived their members-only policy or are prepared to ignore it.
Montréal went through a cringe-worthy bar trend during the last recession, when many owners transformed their empty buildings into watering holes where customers were served by waitresses in the nude. At least the sexy serveuse fad was better than the one that followed: bikers burning down any bar in which they weren't allowed to sell drugs. Naked women still carry trays at this trucker joint in the industrial east. To their credit, they conduct their insane task with surprising dignity, except for that time, of course, when a few were busted for sitting around outside in the buff.
Do Ré Mi Dance Hall
505 Bélanger E.
This joint serves up all the ballroom dancing you can handle without that pesky too-young demographic that bums out many a bar goer. In fact, many people will feel like spring chickens in this place, as seniors come out in great numbers to prove that they can still move. No doubt an excellent spot for finding that sugar daddy you've craved for so long. Bingo also available downstairs.