A (Re)Moveable Feast: The Art & Science of Eating in Old Montreal. (Travel Essay)

They say travel is good for the soul. A change of scenery can inspire. And so my wife and I decide to return to my old stomping grounds for the passing of a new year. Montreal is my city of birth. And there is always a connection there, where we are born. It’s untenable sometimes, but it’s there.

We take the train down which I am fine with. It is cold inside the car and there are lots of people inside it, holiday season and all, and so I am reminded while in confined transit of that memorable quote by Jean-Paul Sartre. Hell is other people. Despite my curmudgeonry, the voyage is passed largely without incident.

Our Airbnb is situated in Old Montreal. It is inside a small building, at one time a factory of one kind or another. It had since been renovated, probably in the 80s, judging from its kitchen and bathroom facilities. Now, it is an inspiring loft, original pine beams and brick work exposed. The view is on a city square, almost directly across from the Canada Border Services Agency building, which served as the Customs house in the 2001 movie, The Score.  Like Edward Norton and Robert DeNiro, I immediately begin to plan my heist.

But first, we have to eat.

The culinary world is something we both love, so we are excited to try the many excellent restaurants that Old Montreal has on offer. We wander down the narrow cobble stone streets filled with Americans in snow pants(!) and CANADA toques. Asians shrouded in Moose Knuckles, Montrealers shielded by Canada Goose, leaving trails of cigarette smoke behind. There are still caleches, horse-drawn carriages packed with wide eyed tourists in blankets, despite an impending ban that comes into effect next year. I look at the horses and wonder if they know.

Clip Clop, Clip Clop, Clip Clop

We are hungry and desperate sooner than we realize. We notice a restaurant featuring giant photographs of the food that it claims to serve. Whenever the pictures are larger than the actual size of the dishes, it is usually a bad sign. But we ignore this omen because we are hungry and we are tired, so we go inside. It is small and busy but we locate a corner table next to the bar. My wife orders a glass of wine.

Are you sure you would rather have a glass? Our glasses are very small. Perhaps you would like to order a half litre?

No, thank you. We would like to order a glass of wine. 

She makes a small bow. I’m not sure what this gesture is supposed to convey, but it makes us both uncomfortable, as though she is being held there against her will.  She returns a short while later.

Something to eat?

Yes. I’ll have a smoked meat sandwich with fries. 

Would you like to order poutine? It’s only 3 dollars more.

No, thank you. Just regular fries please.

She makes the awkward bow gesture again. Was she trying to signal us?  This was starting to feel like a very bad idea. I looked around for an escape route. We were flanked on all sides by hapless young Americans, oblivious to the terrors that surrounded us. Just then, a large family shows up at the entrance. They leave the front door open while contemplating whether or not to pursue this particular altercation. At first, I am annoyed at the cold Montreal air that they are letting in. But then I see an opportunity.

Like a torpedo fired from a submarine, our server makes a direct beeline for us.  Exactly as I suspected.

Excuse me, pardon. We have a large party coming in, would you mind moving over this way to make room for us?

Not at all! I replied. I then reached for a vial of smoke bomb I carry for just such occasions. I raised it up high and smashed it dramatically on the ground. Using this diversionary tactic as cover, I grabbed my wife’s hand and we snuck out of the restaurant with ninja stealth. I left a wad of cash and used candy wrappers to smooth over whatever chaos we had left behind.

Back on the street again, we returned to a pizzeria I had cased previously. All was well. Pizza has a habit of making everything better, even when it is served by old men who mumble incoherently and don’t make eye contact. Perhaps it is better that way, sometimes.

We return to our temporary abode and quickly fall asleep. The next morning we feast on delicious pastries from the bakery conveniently located on the ground floor of our building. We listen to a Ted Talk podcast about living on Mars. It turns out most of the technology needed to survive on the red planet is readily available, so it is feasible, at least according to the lecturer, for us to be living on Mars in a matter of decades. I wonder if Mars might be our last hope, to survive as a species.  I also wonder why it is sometimes so hard to find a place to eat, right here, on Earth.

Clip Clop, Clip Clop, Clip Clop

For lunch, we saunter off in search of a popular pub connected to a hotel. Despite it being just before 2pm and crowded, with lots of people eating off of full plates at their tables, we were told the kitchen was closed. This seemed preposterous (given the hours plainly stated on the front door-730AM-11PM) but not wanting to argue the point with this haggard gremlin, we left. Of course, I spent the next hour or two ruminating. Was it my wife’s cane? My dog-eared, salt stained shoes? I scanned my face in the passing shop windows to double check for facial prison tattoos. Still nothing.

We are beginning to feel dejected, but we are survivors. We are undeterred. So we try another place, only blocks away. Plus, it gets very high ratings on TripAdvisor so you just know it’s going to be great.  We manage to claw our way inside and wait awkwardly for a table in the narrow entranceway. More people keep coming in after us and this place is busy, so within minutes there is a tsunami of fellow humans behind us. An unwitting person trying to leave the restaurant hurts their hand in the door in the ensuing melee.

Owww! She cries!

Chaos! It is now truly bedlam inside this unassuming bistro. Surely this will all end soon. Especially considering there are no less than five tables that sit empty. This glaring fact, impossible to ignore, does not make sense to us in the slightest, but we do nothing and say nothing because we are polite.  We are, after all, Canadian. We are soon seated at a table. I order a beer. I receive it less than two minutes later. It tastes crisp and refreshing.  All is well now.

We place our orders. Then…we wait.

And wait, and wait.

We notice that the family sitting at a table that came in after us got their food and appear to be enjoying it.

The waiter returns, apologizes. Confirms our order. Apologizes again.

We wait, and wait.

We notice another table receive their prescribed sustenance.  Then another.

The waiter returns with a second beer, this one flat.

No charge, he assures.

We wait. I no longer want this flat beer. I want food.

We decide to leave. This time I am out of smoke bombs, so we explain that we are leaving because we have been waiting for our food for over an hour.

Fair enough, he shrugs, while walking away.

Fair enough, indeed.  It was like he had just shot us both in the chest. We were on the ground, looking up at him, still holding a smoking gun. This was business, nothing personal. I was beginning to understand this game. Well played, good sir.  I couldn’t help but grin at our predicament.

Are you ok?

I’m fine honey. Thanks. Let’s just get some food.

It’s just that… You’re smiling like some kind of maniac.

I’m good, I’m good. 

We buckle up and soldier on.  Spot another possibility. Walk gingerly across the iced laced street as though avoiding landmines. If they were going to play this game, then forget the rules. Rules were for suckers. We usurp the normal pantomime of maitre d bullshit. Find our own seats.  We sit down. And…..we are promptly ignored for ten minutes. We leave – no need for a smoke bomb either this time – we were truly invisible.  I attempt to determine if we perhaps are dead. Maybe we are spirits wandering around, not realizing it. Could we be dreaming? I pinch myself. No. Were we unwitting experiments involving an invisibility serum or cloak?  All ensuing tests came back negative.

Eventually, we return to a steakhouse that we had enjoyed in previous years. The meal was fantastic. Service impeccable. Perhaps we had redeemed ourselves, somehow. The odds were back in our favour.

Clip Clop, Clip Clop, Clip Clop

That night, we watch a documentary on television about Putin and Trump. I suggest that perhaps there was collusion among some of the wait staff we had encountered.  Maybe we were the unwitting recipients of sanctions…but for what? The open question burned hotly in my mind. This would take more digging.

The following day, we head to the Science centre down the street and discover it is more geared for children than adults, but there are still some interesting things to discover. The downstairs exhibition features giant photographs of natives in full dress gear, dancing alongside pictures of themselves in street clothes.  There is a picture of a former sniper who describes himself now as a reformed warrior for his community.

Upstairs, I find out that human poop weighs more than our brains do. This confirms my suspicions.  However, while fact checking this article, the results are slightly less damning. The average brain is three pounds, while the average amount of scheisse stored inside each of us is about a full pound. Still, it’s pretty close, at least in my opinion. Most people, it should be noted, are full of shit. Sartre would be proud.

That night, we discover a pub located in a basement, not unlike a bomb shelter. Well suited for clandestine purposes.  Perhaps we had finally made our contacts with La Résistance via Le Steakhouse the previous evening.   Maybe the key was avoiding certain streets.  We certainly had targets painted on our backs.  It was safest in the shadows.  I ordered a fried chicken and waffle concoction alongside several pints. Everything turned out A-OK. Things were looking up again.

Clip Clop, Clip Clop, Clip Clop

The next day, we go to a British themed fish and chipper for a late lunch. The table next to us has a child watching an iPad at full volume while his parents eat in silence next to him.  The scene reminds of me of that kid in the Twilight Zone movie where the parents are terrified of him because he has all those crazy telepathy powers.

On the restaurant sound system Aretha Franklin’s Chain of Fools plays.

We decide to eschew all possibility of culinary service failure by going to a farmer’s market and hunting our own sustenance for supper on our last night. We head back to the Airbnb. I cook a duck a l’orange dinner that somehow goes off without a hitch. After the meal is digested, we watch Bird Box, a movie about a mother trying to save her two children from an apocalyptic plague.  I realize then that perhaps there are simply too many of us.  Maybe that’s why we had so many problems getting fed. Too many of us and too few resources.

Following Bird Box, we take in the science fiction epic Dune.  There is a scene when Paul Atreidis (played by Kyle MacLachlan) remarks “Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.” The idea gives me pause. I turn to my wife and tell her I love her.  Mars or not, who knows what changes lie ahead for us.  For all of us.

We fall asleep to the sound of fireworks made in China exploding over Montreal’s old port sky.  They sound like air strikes being carried out by fighter jets.

There were no sounds of horses, anymore.






Photos/illustrations by Colm Hogan




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