There’s no particular occasion associated with this homage — no landmark anniversary, no change of location or staff. The pretense of this text has only to do with my personal love for one of the city’s finest restaurants: l’Express.
Of course, this is not the first gushing review of the iconic bistro, but it is my first, at least the first I’ve ever written down. Recently, I had lunch at l’Express with a friend of mine who manages one of Montreal’s currently beloved restaurants. She had just returned from nearly a month in Italy spent mostly visiting winemakers and assisting in their harvests. We spoke about food, and what makes it good or bad, but most importantly great. We spoke about service, and we spoke about restauration the great and noble craft to which she and I both have committed our lives to. I couldn’t help thinking to myself that the things that we agreed made for great restaurants were the very things that led us to eat l’Express that afternoon.
As a bartender at a restaurant, I often get asked where I like to eat and I always include l’Express in my answer. As far as restaurant experiences go, it’s pretty well perfect. For one thing, it’s open every day, and it’s open from 8 a.m. (10 a.m. on weekends) to 3 a.m. non-stop. The late filmmaker Kevin Tierney in his own love-letter to l’Express wrote: “Cool cities should be judged on where and what you can eat and drink ‘round midnight. L’Express closes at 3 a.m. Really cool ones should be judged by what you can eat before noon, too.”
Coolness aside, this Plateau staple is much more than its hours of operation. Eating at l’Express is a transformative experience. Its casual elegance makes one feel dignified and civilized, like the kind of person who drinks champagne on a Wednesday simply because it suits them. But it’s not only that kind of restaurant — and by that kind, I mean the kind where one eats and drinks flashily, but because the civility of the restaurant also extends to the more benign. What I mean to say is that in the same room at the same time, you might have someone enjoying a small glass of beer and Croque Monsieur, or an allongé and chocolate truffle. Such is the delight of a meal at l’Express; it elevates and romanticizes any meal as grandiose or modest as it may be.
When the restaurant opened in 1980 it was meant to serve a utilitarian purpose: feed the theatre community. St-Denis, at the time, was the bustling hub of the francophone theatre scene, and the owners of l’Express, Pierre Villeneuve and Colette Broisot, were deeply entrenched in the theatre community. The aim was to provide affordable food of quality. Although the clientele today is more diverse, the ethos is relatively the same. Ask anyone around town and they’ll tell you that l’Express is simply one of the best deals in the city. From the reasonably priced menu to the extremely reasonably well-priced wine list (from a cellar of over 11,000 bottles, expertly curated by Mario Brossoit), one feels like they’re living high-on-the-hog without the steep price-tag. That feeling, the one of class and refinement, is largely due to the ambiance of the space.
Of course, one cannot speak of l’Express without also mentioning the architect responsible for its design. I’ll keep it brief, but suffice to say that the aesthetic of Montreal, as we know it today, is largely due to the work of the seminal design and architecture of the late Luc Laporte. Bistro food, especially in the ’80s, was widely overdone — the Frenchness of the culinary scene in Montreal was ubiquitous — but it was the meticulous design of the restaurant’s interior that set l’Express distinctly apart from anywhere else in town. It still does today. It’s been said countless times that the restaurant seems plucked from the streets of Paris and dropped on St-Denis with everything intact (including the austere service attitude), but what is so remarkable about this is that the Frenchness of it all is so authentic. The bistro is completely unconcerned with the ebbs and flows of the culinary trends of the day, seemingly unaware of the passage of time outside its front doors. To me, this is also what makes it such a great representation of Montreal restaurants. The city’s great restaurants are deeply rooted in tradition, or completely wrapt in a specific concept. Toqué may be distinctly modern, but the concept remains relatively unchanged since it opened in 2008; Joe Beef built its reputation on a return to classic bourgeois cooking, a stark contrast to the omnipresence of avant-garde fusion cooking of the day. If someone were to attempt to open l’Express today, even if they hit the nail on the head, the attempt would seem contrived. L’Express is both completely somewhere else and completely organic, like an intrinsic link to the underlying Frenchness of Montreal — a bulb planted by the French colonialists that lay dormant over the centuries only to emerge in 1980 as a blossoming rose by the name of Restaurant l’Express.
Laporte often mentioned that he never owned a refrigerator; he ate in restaurants every day and as such never needed one. His design work, at l’Express and elsewhere, is the manifest of a life-long study of restaurants. Of course, the spaces are beautiful, but moreover they’re comfortable and functional, they harken back to a time when the restaurant was not simply a special occasion venue or the egoistic flexing of a chef-restaurateur’s ego. It was a place to be fed, a place to enjoy the company of others and to rejoice in the simple pleasures of eating and drinking. I think this is why l’Express endures, if not thrives, nearly 40 years later. It’s still that place. There’s no music, the service is efficient, and although the food may not be exquisite it’s consistently very good. The picky eater is placated, the gourmand is satiated, the oenophile delighted and the bill is never inflated.
From the moment you enter your evening is transformed. The room is electric with energy, but not the energy of chaos; the buoyant energy of conversation, the room’s charms begin to set in. The elegant burgundy walls and expertly placed mirrors make the space feel intimate yet spacious. You arrive at your paper-lined table and peruse the ample wine list. You take a cursory glance at the evening’s specials, but a more thorough look isn’t needed — you knew what you were having before you arrived. Perhaps you’ll have one of M. Masson’s infamously good martinis, or no, straight to wine. You pick a well-priced pinot-noir, and suddenly your vest-clad waiter arrives with slices of baguette, some mustard and a jar of cornichons. Dining at l’Express is like listening to a favourite song: you don’t tire of it the more you hear it, in fact you learn to love it more. It’s a tune I know well, and look forward to replaying over and over again. ■
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