Nora Gray, Montreal restaurant scene

Nora Gray. Photo by Clayton Sandhu

A decade in the Montreal restaurant scene

A look back at how this city became a world-class food capital.

The 2010s, though it feels strange to short-hand it that way, was a very important decade for me. I moved here in 2009 and started working in Montreal restaurants in 2011. I still work in restaurants now. In my time behind the scenes, I’ve worked as a dishwasher, a late-night burger flipper, a line cook, a sous-chef, a waiter and a bartender.

Near the end of this decade I became a restaurant critic, which gave me the opportunity to comment on an industry that I not only love but one I’ve been a part of. In my view, the past 10 years marked the evolution of Montreal restaurants from their French-centric adolescence to a dynamic industry respected and revered around the world. For this take on the decade I’m going to try and keep my reflections limited to what were for me, the big trends, and Montreal restaurants, people and events that had the greatest impact on the restaurant industry. To the best of my ability I’ll also try and keep the events and trends in chronological order. 

2011

Chefs Fred Morin and David McMillan, along with author Meredith Erickson, penned their first cookbook, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts. The book, wherein David Chang of New York’s Momofuku named Joe Beef as his favourite restaurant in the world, essentially positioned Joe Beef as the most important restaurant in Canada. Chang’s acknowledgment undoubtedly helped put Montreal on the map as a world destination for food. Over the next eight years, Joe Beef would expand its empire to include a second cookbook, three more restaurants (not including Liverpool House, which was already a success by the beginning of the decade), and a ranking amongst the top 100 restaurants in the world. 

Anthony Bourdain in The Layover Montreal Restaurant episode
Anthony Bourdain at Schwartz’s

That same year, Anthony Bourdain’s show The Layover re-introduced the world to Montreal. Hosted by Dave McMillan and Fred Morin, Bourdain, along with Martin Picard (Au Pied de Cochon) and Normand Laprise (Toqué) is taken on a booze and food-fuelled tour of the city that glorified the overindulgence synonymous with the identity of Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon. Bourdain best exemplifies this identity in his description of the most emblematic dish of the 2010’s, Joe Beef’s foie gras double-down, “What’s not to like? It’s an obscenity and a crime against God and all that is decent. But it’s delicious.” This episode propels Montreal into an era defined by gluttony and bacchanalian gorging. 

2012

Frédéric Simon begins to make waves in the Montreal natural wine world with his project Pinard et Filles. Although his first released vintage wouldn’t be until 2015, Simon, along with Michael Marler and Véronique Hupin at les Pervenches and a few others would delineate the moment when the natural wine movement and Montreal restaurants and bars became inextricably linked. Natural wine may have already been available, but it was when Quebec became more than just a drinker of natural wines and became a producer as well that the scene fully exploded. Today it’s hard to imagine a serious restaurant in town that doesn’t have a strong natural wine selection. 

2013

Le Vin Papillon opens and co-owner and sommelière Vanya Filipovic begins her ascent to the throne as queen of the natural wine scene. Along with Ryan Gray at Nora Gray, Filipovic and Vin Papillon would come to be the leading tastemakers and champions of the development of the natural wine movement. 

Montreal restaurant Le Vin Papillon co-owner and sommelière Vanya Filipovic
Vanya Filipovic

The same year, Marc Cohen and Sefi Amir (Lawrence) would open Boucherie Lawrence. The butchershop would set a new standard for consuming and sourcing animals, forcing restaurants across the city to think harder and work better when it came to cooking meat. 

2015

Toqué is named best restaurant in Canada two years in a row. Montreal is at the top of its game in 2015. Most would consider this city to be Canada’s food capital bar none during this golden era. 

Montreal restaurant Le Mousso
#TheArtofPlating at le Mousso

The same year, Antonin Mousseau-Rivard opens le Mousso. The minimalist restaurant with a rap-heavy soundtrack was met with boatloads of praise for its meticulously plated menu. Its opening signaled the decline of large single servings of weighty bourgeois cooking and a revival of the long forgotten tasting menu. Maybe more important, however, was le Mousso’s effect on the relationship between restaurants and social media. Having never worked for any big name chefs, Mousseau-Rivard’s notoriety was built on a massive Instagram following which was centred around one polarizing hashtag: #TheArtOfPlating. Today, a good Instagram is as important as a good menu, and in some cases, maybe more important. 

2016

As tasting menus continue to become more relevant, so too are small plates. Le Vin Papillon, and newcomer Larry’s amongst other standards like Hotel Herman and le Filet, become the go-to destinations. Larry’s and Vin Papillon in 2020 are still considered amongst the best places to eat in the city.

Montreal restaurant
Atelier Joël Robuchon

2016 was also the year of the highly controversial opening of l’Atelier Joël Robuchon at the Casino de Montréal. The $11-million project (paid for with public funds) was highly contested by the Montreal restaurant scene and in particular restaurant critic Lesley Chesterman, who argued the funds would have been better used to promote the world class talent within the city rather than importing the concept of a French multi-millionaire. The project raised serious questions about Quebec’s support of its own culinary scene. It also drew attention to the influx of big-name foreign chefs entering the Montreal restaurant industry, including the likes of Gordon Ramsay (Laurier BBQ, RIP), Daniel Boulud (Maison Boulud, 2011) and Marcus Samuelsson (Marcus, 2019).

2017

The beloved Mile End restaurant Hotel Herman is forced to close as their landlord refuses to renew their lease. No specific reasons are cited. Three years later, the restaurant’s former location on St-Laurent Blvd. remains vacant. This closing stands as a foreboding symbol for the future of small business in the area.

2018

Two of the principal owners of Nora Gray, Emma Cardarelli and Ryan Gray, along with Marley Sniatowsky, open Elena. The expertly branded Neapolitan pizza place in St-Henri becomes a trend magnate. Elena has been featured in nearly every best-of list since opening, and was the subject of a feature in the wildly popular food magazine Bon Appétit. In 2020 Elena is the bellwether for restaurant trends to come.  

In the same year, Prince Edward County star winemaker Norman Hardie is accused of sexual assault. The wine industry in Quebec cuts ties. The #MeToo movement begins to uncover the often malicious and predatory nature of the food and beverage industry. Ultimately wine buyers are forced to think more critically about the producers they work with. The restaurant industry as a whole begins to look in on itself and its conduct historically. Much more self-reflection is needed. 

Raw Wine Week Montreal 2018
Raw Wine Week Montreal 2018. Photo by Clayton Sandhu

For natural wine, 2018 is a banner year. Montreal becomes the newest addition to RAW wine, the world’s largest natural wine salon. This induction in some ways officially signalled the city’s  ascent to ranks of elite natural wine markets across the globe. 

2019

The Joe Beef empire enters a new chapter. The era of excess is over. Dave McMillan and Fred Morin are now sober and are very vocal advocates for sobriety in the restaurant industry. Sommelière Vanya Filipovic and chef de cuisine Marc-Olivier Frappier part from the Joe Beef group in order to pursue a single venture: Vin Mon Lapin

Montreal restaurant Vin Mon Lapin
Schnitzel-style blue crab and brunoised cucumber and caper sauce. Photos by J.P. Karwacki

Restaurant l’Express celebrates 39 years in business. It remains one of Montreal’s finest restaurants. Its old-school approach to restauration is as relevant today as ever. ■

To read our latest reviews of Montreal restaurants, please visit our Food & Drink section.

To vote for your favourite Montreal restaurants in the Best of MTL reader’s poll, please do so here