Nothing Like Noir
Here's a sad truth about the Green Mountaineers who come to this fair island-opolis: They're determined to find a party but often end up missing the best action the city has to offer. Some, it is rumored, tragically depart without having checked out Montréal noir. The cognoscenti know that the city owes its unparalleled party rep to its 140,000 black residents, who compose 4 percent of the total population and are roughly evenly divided between English and French speakers.
In the 1950s night-club era, Rockhead's Paradise on St. Antoine - where outrageously talented Nubian dancers and singers put the rest of the town to shame - was the place to be. When disco hit these shores two decades later, it was thanks to black party pioneer and chatterbox Alfie Wade, whose eponymous club helped this town become an international boogie capital.
The tradition still thrives. Visitors, be warned: Those who step into this city's black scene - the night clubs, restaurants and parties - risk swaggering to the office cubicle Monday morning like Isaac Hayes on a Caribbean beach. That's because the black scene offers instant gratification to sensation seekers, whether they come to ogle smooth-moving Afro-Canadians, seek some cultural food for thought, or simply chow down on a bit of Caribbean cuisine.
Touring the city without checking out the black scene is like going to Cairo and skipping the pyramids. Montréal noir is a tonic to party-deprived troops who've been indoors all winter. And it's easy to infiltrate. Don T. of Hustle or Die Productions has a few tips for those who want to enjoy a black club: First, don't expect to loiter in the corner - that is simply not an option. "Everybody dances. Everybody. If you don't dance, you must be dead!" Don says, as he stuffs party flyers into the hands of downtowners.
Like many of the black events here, Don's are moveable feasts. The locations change, but the entry fee is usually $15 or less. Check out http://www.blackmontreal.com or http://www.montrealdancehall.com for oft-updated what-where-whens. Don's favorite venue is Club Safou, centrally located at the Main (St.-Laurent) and Ontario. "It's always a good time, great location, good vibe," he promises.
More advice for us dorky white dance-floor introverts: "People won't notice if you're a bad dancer; just try to follow the tempo, move left and right, up and down," Don says. Some parties - such as Hustle or Die's Black Out events - are conveniently held in a very dark room. "You bring a lightstick for the ladies," Don confides, "but that's it."
And he says there's no trick or secret handshake involved in initiating one of those awkward night-club self-introductions. "It's exactly like anybody else, Russian, Chinese - just be yourself, don't act like someone else," is Don's sage counsel.
Montréal's francophone blacks are mostly Haitians; they officially number 70,000, but some believe there are as many as 100,000. Haitians are known to favor the dance vibes of kompa and zouk, whereas many in the English-speaking black population have Jamaican roots and prefer reggae and dancehall. The twain frequently meet on the dance floor, and in curry houses.
Novelist Fimo Mitchell wrote about Montréal's black experience in his new book Lost or Found and considers it a cornucopia of entertainment options. The community is diverse and sometimes fragmented, so, whatever one's taste, it offers a vast variety of everything from cuisine to music.
In Mitchell's view, the ultimate, not-to-be-missed black community event is Carifiesta, which turns Réné-Lévesque Boulevard into a massive summertime party. (This year's is tentatively scheduled for July 7.) It's a friendly, noisy happening populated by old and young alike. Other parades pale in comparison with Carifiesta, which "unites everyone," Mitchell says - though he'd like to see more African participation.
Those seeking the heartbeat of Africa are advised to drop in at Club Balattou (4375 St.-Laurent, 514-845-5447) and to check out the annual Nuits d'Afrique festival held in late July - visit http://www.festivalnuitsdafrique.com for details.
Another reliable party joint is Visions Lounge, at 662 90th Avenue in Lasalle. It's a bit of a scoot from the downtown core, but there's parking, and the intimate vibe, busy dance floor and posh upstairs make the place worth the drive.
E.B. Resto-Bar at 5345 de Maison- neuve in the West End is an easily accessed venue with a capacity of 300. It's not a regular night club, but it tends to get rented for hip-hop or reggae events, so check the local listings.
Those with more highbrow tastes - or fear of dance floors - can take in some of the city's finest dramas performed by accomplished actors at the Black Theatre Workshop - http://www.blacktheatreworkshop.ca. Led by master thespian Tyrone Benskin, the troupe puts on a number of events, culminating in an annual big-budget play. Four of their last five productions have sparkled.
Another mainstay of the black community - now relegated to kitsch status in whitey culture - is a good old-fashioned beauty pageant, and there is no shortage of them. The best is probably Justine Charlemagne's Miss Exotika, held every fall in Montréal North (details at http://www.missexotika.com/).
To really get into the black experience, pop in on Sunday mornings at the century-old Union United Church on Atwater, considered the soul of the local black community (http://www.unionunitedchurchmtl.ca/).
After all that, it's time to eat. I've never heard bad things about any of the city's 40-odd Caribbean restos, but here are some of the best:
5889 Sherbrooke W., 514-487-7488; open 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.
"It's not a really cozy, sit-down place, although we have nice paintings on the walls," says Devon Williams, four-year veteran of the venerable 14-seat West End restaurant, which anchors a series of black-owned adjacent stores, including a hairdresser and an African variety shop. "Our boneless chicken is our bestseller, and the jerk chicken sells up there with the roti - it's only $5.75 and is a great value," Williams adds. The unassuming spot was named after a now-retired Trinidadian matron, who apparently left a killer recipe for the Jamaican national dish, ackee and saltfish. "That dish was invented in the 16th century," says Williams, "and we've been improving it since."
Caribbean Curry House
6892 Victoria, 514-733-0828; open 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
This landmark, founded by Emrith Kallicharan 27 years ago, stands at one end of a strip now filled with Hassids, Filipinos, East Indians and Caribbeans. For many Montréal blacks, the Curry House roti is the ultimate snack, the black equivalent of the Schwartz smoked-meat sandwich. According to manager Savi Podia, who's spent 12 years at the 40-seat eatery, "We take what's like a large pita bread and grind split peas and put it inside, and add chicken, beef, goat or even shrimp curry." Here you can fill your belly for $5.50. Live bands and DJs on Fridays.
10827 Pie IX Blvd., 514-324-9792; open 12-10:30 p.m. Sun-Wed, 12-11:30 p.m. Thurs-Sat.
To get the real flavor of Haiti, scoot up to the North Side, a trip that'll take you past Marie Gédeon's 13-year-old eatery, which boasts 70 seats, ample parking, a liquor license and a massively popular goat plate. Staffer Anne Marie says they've got the best eats of the estimated 30 Haitian restaurants on the island. Any doubters can test the claim by sampling a variety of entrées. A meal will set you back anywhere from $8.50 to $22, for the more exotic lambi.
5345 de Maisonneuve W., 514-588-7674; open 9 a.m. - 11 p.m. (later on concert nights), closed Sun-Mon.
After closing its doors for a year, this 24-seat restaurant has been reinvented as a place where you can stock up on the traditional jerk chicken, as well as burgers and fries. Asked whether it's the best Jamaican restaurant around, staffer Debbie Grant answers candidly: "I don't go around checking what all these restaurants serve."
But you can. And you really should.
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