Holy hell, what a year — and I could still be saying that even if COVID-19 never happened. If 2020 has taught us anything so far, it’s to expect the unexpected, especially when the unexpected is an unprecedented catastrophe. As is done every year, I’m going to do my best to comment on the results of the 2020 Best of MTL Food & Drink section in what we usually call the annual Resto Wrongs. This year, however, is a bit tricky, besides the fact that nobody in Montreal has eaten at a restaurant for the better part of three months, COVID-19 has seriously called into question the continued existence of many of the restaurants in this survey. While it’s true that I can be very critical when it comes to talking restaurants, I am first and foremost a staunch supporter of the restaurant industry — I owe so much of what I have in life to working in the Montreal restaurant scene. So while I would like nothing more than to take a strip off the tasteless troglodytes who think McDonald’s coffee is some of the best in town, the Food & Drink results in this year’s Best of MTL (barring a few very weird submissions) actually link up with my personal preferences pretty well.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say. I suppose it only took a world-wide mandatory lockdown to remind Montrealers of the finer things our city has to offer. So with that in mind, I’m going to ditch the nit-picky criticism for this year and focus on what you got right.
Let’s start at the top. This year saw Chanthy Yen skyrocket to #2 in the Best Chef category behind the perennial first placing Danny Smiles. Remember last year’s straight-white-male dominated list? Well, the status quo is being shaken up in no small part by Chanthy and chefs like him. The Parliament and Cold Room food director cut his teeth at Fantôme, ran the short-lived but popular restaurant Fieldstone and is currently running a Cambodian take-out operation out of Parliament. Emma Cardarelli also ranked in the Top 10 this year and while more women and more chefs of colour ought to be on this list, it’s a noted improvement from last year. Somewhat bizarrely is the #4 ranking of Dino Babydoll Luciano, who for many will be an unfamiliar name. Luciano, a New York City transplant, is freshly arrived in Montreal and his cooking background is almost unilaterally tied to his 2017 MasterChef U.S. win — the only vegan chef to ever do so. Luciano, today, is best known for his Italian inspired vegan pop-ups and works in Montreal as a private chef. His appearance on this list comes as a surprise to me, but hey, you guys voted him in.
Beba was the hands-down favourite to win Best New Restaurant this year and what a well-deserved win it is. After six years of running the kitchen at Liverpool House, Ari Schor parted ways with the Joe Beef team to open a small Argentinian restaurant with his brother. The result has been exceptional and an intimate introduction to the harmonious blend of Italian and Spanish influences of Argentine cooking that has long been overshadowed by the Argentinian Steakhouse. Having been open for less than a year, Beba’s rise to the top is about as meteoric as you can get. If you haven’t had the chance to taste their food, Ari and his team recently launched a take-out menu alongside some hard to come-by wines.
Damas, which continues its reign as best Middle Eastern restaurant, also jumped up a few spots in the Pricey Eats (read: fine dining) category falling behind only Montreal’s favourite son, Joe Beef. A lot has been said about “ethnic” food and its struggle to find its acceptance in the world of fine dining. In my opinion, Damas has excelled in all aspects of fine dining, from professionalism in service, to finely executed cuisine, to an exceptionally curated wine program (the restaurant employs two full-time sommeliers) for years. Not to mention the ornately decorated room that recalls the opulence of that old-world style of restauration seldom seen these days. It’s been up there for me for years, but it seems as though Damas has officially arrived.
St-Viateur Bagels retain their spot on the top and the Uniburger still reigns supreme, and I for one am happy to see some non-Neapolitan pizza places like Adamo and Pizza Bouquet firmly stake a claim for some of the best pizza in town. Perhaps most unlikely of all, considering the amount of Italian (and Italian adjacent) restaurants opened in the last year, is that an old NDG stand-by, Pasta Casareccia, found its way to second place amongst the Best Italian restaurants in the city, reinforcing that age-old Italian logic that the old ways are often the best ways.
While the future of Montreal restaurants is wholly unclear, it still feels so nice to reflect on the ones that mean the most to us. Many years from now we’ll look back on this time and we’ll reflect on the importance of some restaurants, the ingenuity of others and the utter triviality of attempting to rank food & drink (and restaurants) as if taste were objective. I’m choosing to look at this year’s list differently: instead of thinking of it like a ranking system, I’ll think of it more like an extremely thorough take-out directory for the ages. ■
See the Best of MTL 2020 Food & Drink results here.
For more about Montreal restaurants, please visit the Food & Drink section.