From café au lait to bagels in Montreal’s Mile End

The neighborhood is peopled by a diverse mix, and when the weather warms up people spill into its leafy streets, which become everyone’s common backyard.

St.-Viateur Bakery in Mile End is known for Montreal’s unique bagels. (photo credit: GEORGE MEDOVOY)
St.-Viateur Bakery in Mile End is known for Montreal’s unique bagels.
(photo credit: GEORGE MEDOVOY)
MONTREAL – One of my favorite neighborhoods in this lovely island city is Mile End, where Jewish immigrants once settled in the early part of the 20th century to begin life in a new world.
Today, the neighborhood is peopled by a diverse mix, including Italians, Greeks and hassidic Jews, and when the weather warms up people spill into its leafy streets, which become everyone’s common backyard.
You can see them sitting on the iconic stairways, or maybe riding their bikes to a favorite café to enjoy an espresso and a wonderful pastry.
The Mile End neighborhood is also home to some very interesting shops, including Drawn & Quarterly on Bernard Avenue West, which sells contemporary comics and fine art books.
If you crave bagels, Fairmount Bagels on Fairmount West or St-Viateur Bagels on St-Viateur West, two hole-in-the-wall places, hand roll their bagels and boil them in honey water to yield a truly intoxicating flavor.
The bagels are baked in wood-burning ovens and have a crusty exterior and a chewy center that Montrealers line up to buy no matter what the weather.
At St-Viateur, owner Joe Morena once told me that making bagels requires “a lot of hard work,” then jokingly referred to himself as a “good Italian boy who speaks Yiddish.”
Café Olimpico on St-Viateur West is known for its café au lait, and if gets too crowded inside, you can always join the others outside on the sunny patio.
Then there’s Wilensky’s Light Lunch, which is in a category all its own. I walk into the small luncheonette filled with nine stools at the corner of Fairmount West and Clark, where the signature item is the grilled salami with bologna on a roll for $3.90. The dish comes with mustard, but if you insist on having it plain, that’ll be five cents extra, thank you! Montreal writer Mordecai Richler of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz fame lived nearby on St-Urbain Street; owner Sharon Wilensky, who grew up in the neighborhood, tells me that Richler used to frequent the place to chat with her late father, Moe Wilensky, whose name is on the luncheonette’s window. Some of the scenes for the 1974 movie adapted from the book were filmed here.
Next June 7-28, a new Duddy Kravitz musical, with original score by Alan Menken and book and lyrics by David Spencer, will debut in English at the Segal Center for Performing Arts, a popular gathering place for the arts in another part of town and home to Montreal’s very special Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, led today by Wasserman’s daughter, Bryna.
“You know,” says Bryna Wasserman, “Richler was probably not much different than Sholom Aleichem in his time. As a folklorist… he was writing about what he saw.”
During our visit to the Segal Center, my wife and I attend the Yiddish production (with overhead English translations) of Soul Doctor, the story of “Singing Rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach’s friendship with jazz singer Nina Simone.
After the performance, cast members participate in the center’s wonderful “Monday Night Talkback,” where the actors sit on stage and schmooze with the audience.
Wasserman, who is also the executive director of the National Yiddish Theater – Folksbiene in New York City, notes that Montreal once “housed incredible [Yiddish] writers and poets – it was really the enlightenment.”
Next August 9-27, the Segal Center is planning to stage a Yiddish production of The Dybbuk, and while, as Wasserman notes, “Yiddish won’t be spoken on the streets [of Montreal] again,” its preservation at the Segal Center allows “ownership of history and who you are and what brings you forward.”
While on the subject of the arts in Montreal, we also find time to attend the city’s annual Jazz Festival downtown, not far from the stylish St-Martin Hotel Particulier.
Off crowded St-Catherine Street, thousands of fans come to hear singer-pianist Diana Krall in a free outdoor concert.
There are other great performances, too, like the Shai Maestro Trio.
One morning, I pick up a copy of La Presse, Montreal’s French-language daily, and discover an interview with Shai Maestro, who discusses the Israeli jazz scene.
Speaking of music, in the summertime Montreal has public pianos decorated by local artists for anyone musically inclined to play.
At the other end of the arts spectrum, Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, located within walking distance of the fancy Hotel Omni Mont-Royal in the Golden Square Mile neighborhood, is presenting “Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Impressionism to Expressionism, 1900- 1914” from now until January 25.
The museum, with its distinctive colonnades, overlooks Sherbrooke Street West, in a neighborhood of fancy condos, boutiques under stately walk-ups and streets leading up to Mount Royal, the city’s iconic mountain-park, which owes its name to the French explorer Jacques Cartier, who arrived in 1535.
Pretty Beaver Lake sits atop the park, which was designed by Frederick Olmstead, the renowned landscape architect who also designed New York’s Central Park.
The museum is down the street from the very tweedy Westmount neighborhood, which is home to Orthodox Sha’ar Hashomayim Congregation and Reform Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom.
The area has a very relaxed feel, and one Sunday afternoon, we stop to watch a group of people decked out in white very much in their own world, lawn bowling in front of Westmount’s Neo-Tudor city hall.
It’s all yet more of Montreal’s very inviting neighborhoods.
For more information, visit; www.lestmartinmontreal. com;; (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts);