Montreal French Restaurants

Casual dining didn’t come quickly to Canada, and certainly not to Montreal, a city that once favored formal French cuisine with strolling violinists on the side.

Au Pied de Cochon, surely the most significant restaurant ever to open there, arrived in 2001. It was both informal and inventive, but before it altered how people ate, it changed what they ate. Chef Martin Picard embraced local products and refashioned old, somewhat primitive dishes such as poutine, jellied pig’s head, and pouding chômeur, which means “unemployed pudding” and dates back to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Au Pied de Cochon created a Quebec regional cuisine.

I’m not certain why the transition to informal ambience was slower to take hold. Maybe it was because the populace liked dressing for dinner and being waited on by elderly men in frayed tuxedoes. It does seem a little surprising, because Montreal was in a recession until about 2009, and less-expensive, less-fancy dining should have been embraced.

Few of the restaurants that came along after 2001 were entirely casual. Joe Beef, the next great restaurant, did away with tablecloths and menus (using blackboards instead), but there was too much discipline to the food and way too much class to the service for it to be considered casual in the way New York was becoming casual. Joe Beef opened in 2005, about the same time as Le Club Chasse et Pêche. They were followed by Le 400 Coups and Lawrence, all of them unceremonious but still precise.

The best of the new restaurants I tried when I went to Montreal not long ago weren’t upscale at all. Unfussy is now absolutely acceptable. Yet as relaxed as Maison Publique and Vin Papillon are, nothing separates the care they take with their cooking from what you’ll find at more ceremonious restaurants. And at both places, the service is first rate. They have accomplished something noteworthy, remained totally distinctive while embracing all aspects of comfort cuisine.

Maison Publique

The storied Montreal taverns of old were beloved neighborhood spots where men would stop in for a beer and a pickled egg, and women weren’t permitted to stop in at all. (The taverns usually had frosted windows, the better to frustrate wives wondering what was going on inside.)

They died out in the 1970s, and were replaced by a new style of tavern that embraced equality between the sexes. That didn’t work out. Maison Publique is exactly what the old taverns should have become —engaging places to dine.

Located on a street corner in a residential, somewhat upscale section of Montreal, Maison Publique is an enormously appealing, British-style tavern offering only Canadian wines (and somehow pulling it off), substantial plates of mostly meaty foods, and a big-time chef in Derek Dammann. His experience cooking in the UK is the sort of credential all of us are pleased to see in a fellow who is dishing out variations on the theme of pub food. Imagine a tavern with a resident chef.

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