Montreal: The city of bagels

Our writer enjoys eating his way around this Canadian city


Ask any Montrealer to name the city's most iconic foods and without hesitation, they will answer smoked meat and bagels. But what most probably don't know is how Jewish immigrants brought those foods here and how they managed to endure as favourites.

One Montrealer who knows that history and is keen to share it with locals and visitors alike is Kat Romanow, the Director of Food Programming at the Museum of Jewish Montreal.

“Jews have lived all over the world and wherever they’ve settled they’ve taken the cuisine of that region and adapted it to the Kosher food laws — so when we talk about Jewish food, we’re talking about a cuisine that is very diverse,” she explains.

Romanow’s enthusiasm for the community’s history is contagious and the perfect starting point to understand how the city’s 93,000 Jews and their cuisine fit into the story of Montreal.

As the Wandering Chew, she conducts walking tours of the Plateau and Mile End neighbourhoods looking at how Jewish immigrants not only introduced foods like smoked meat and bagels to the city, but other dishes as well, not to mention offering the chance to nosh along the way.

For three and a half hours, she guided us through the old city neighbourhood that borders Boulevard St-Laurent, the accepted dividing line between east and west Montreal that was once symbolic of the split between French and English-speaking Montrealers.

At one time, it was a working-class neighbourhood favoured by European immigrants but today is a gentrified area popular with young creatives.

The Jewish presence here remains strong with a sizeable Hassidic community, and vestiges of the old Jewish neighbourhood endure, brought to life by the tour’s carefully researched stories — not to mention Montreal foodie icons such as 95-year-old Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen, considered the city’s gold standard for smoked meat with its origins in the Romanian Jewish community. The locals order theirs with medium fat (not lean), a Cherry Coke, and dill pickle and french fries on the side.

Between the anecdotes about places which no longer exist, plus some venerable culinary institutions, we discovered new additions to Montreal’s constantly evolving Jewish food scene. Here are her tips on where not to miss.


Boulangerie Cheskie

This tiny Kosher bakery seems like it’s been here forever, but it’s only 14 years since Cheskie Lebowitz, a Hassidic Jew, married a Montreal woman and moved here from Brooklyn. It’s where Hassidim and hipsters line up for their favourite New York style pastries. The smell of the baking is the first thing that hits you and first-time visitors have a hard time choosing between the cheese crowns, babkas, black and white cookies and an array of other delightful choices. Don’t come on a Saturday, because they’ll be closed.


St Viateur Bagel

Bagels were an everyday bread in Eastern Europe, likely brought to Montreal by immigrants in the early years of the 20th century — although there’s much dispute as to who first introduced them to the city. Unlike bagels sold elsewhere, Montreal’s version is boiled then baked. They are also sweeter, denser and have larger holes. One of the most acclaimed bagel bakeries is St Viateur Bagel. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, visitors can watch bakers turn out bagels by the bushel from the wood-fired oven. Traditionalists will tell you to choose poppy-seed or sesame-seed versions, although other flavours are available. Cream cheese is optional, but delicious.


Fairmont Bagel

Fairmont Bagel is St Viateur’s biggest rival and Montrealers stand firmly on one side or the other. Take a blind taste test and you’ll likely notice that Fairmont’s version is sweeter and less dense than their rival’s. The rivalry between the two bakeries has deeper roots than simply who has the better bagel. St Viateur was founded by a business partner who left Fairmont to launch his own bakery in a tale of treachery that Romanow describes in mythic terms.


Wilenksy’s Light Lunch

Walking into Wilensky’s is like stepping onto a movie set from the 1950s. The decor is untouched from that decade and the dominant colour in the lunchroom is a seafoam green that hasn’t been in vogue since tailfins were popular on automobiles. Unlike restaurants that try to manufacture a nostalgic look, Wilensky’s is the real deal. Sit at one of the stools along the counter, order a hand-mixed soda from the soda fountain and enjoy a chopped egg sandwich — all the meat products here are 100% beef but it’s not one of the city’s 21 certified kosher spots.


Boulangerie Hof Kolsten

Jeff Kolstein’s new bakery is an example of the Jewish Food Movement where classic food is updated to be healthier, embracing sustainable agriculture. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Kolstein returned home to Montreal three years ago after working at such world-famous restaurants as El Bulli and Noma to challenge himself by starting a bakery. His breads now grace the tables of Montreal’s finest restaurants and you’ll find some of the best rugelach and bialys in the city here.


Beauty’s Luncheonette

Montrealers like to brunch and there’s no better place to do it than this little restaurant that pretty much invented the concept in this city. In 1942, newlyweds Hymie and Freda Sckolnick purchased the Bancroft Snack Bar and later renamed it to Beauty’s, not because of Freda’s looks but after Hymie’s bowling nickname. Hymie, now in his 90s, still greets guests who come for the Beauty’s Special, a delectable combination of smoked salmon, cream cheese, tomatoes and onions on a bagel.

Espace Culinaire Fletchers

Romanow’s own contribution to the Jewish Food Movement, Fletchers, is a café that’s part of the Museum of Jewish Montreal. Their vegetarian/vegan menu changes frequently to reflect the diversity of Jewish cooking from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions, with traditional and modern takes.

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