Hotel Birks

How do you spell holiday? The Montreal staycation pt. 2

An “entitled, elitist” Montreal staycation report on staying at Hotel Birks and L’Hotel, and eating at Monarque, Dandy and MARCUS.

I write this from Suite 666 at the Birks Hotel, overlooking Square Phillips, the Bay building to my left acting as a reminder of Canada’s colonial history. But who cares? 

Let’s not get bogged down in who stole whose land first. Right now, I should be living somewhere straddling the Polish-Ukrainian border, just east of Krakow where the Soviet Army stole our family’s ancestral land nearly a century ago. Anyone who remained was shot and buried in mass graves or sent to Siberia. Nobody is exhuming their bodies, though, or apologizing. Instead, it’s all happening again like some bad TV sequel, a proven formula.

No doubt I am here now, safe and cool in the air-conditioned, humidity-controlled comfort of Montreal’s most beautiful hotel — one of the most beautiful hotels that I’ve ever been in, in the world. 

You can watch the planet’s flux and flow in a square like Phillips’s, where people of all creeds and colours gather together in peace. Action swells and subsides throughout the day in circulatory cycles of slowness and speed. 

A bicycle courier swerves to avoid a group of tourists at a crosswalk. A cross-legged woman in black tank top and pants seated on a concrete bench scratches her ankle and pokes her phone. Wind blows another woman’s straw hat off her head. She gives chase as it wobbles away, slapping it against her thigh to, I assume, swat off the COVID.

Happy dogs frolic in the water fountains and shake their fur, spritzing anyone within flicking distance with dog fur water. Despite the hostility spikes, seagulls manage to make their mark upon the namesake statue’s head and shoulders. A flock of pigeons fans out, flapping laps above the treeline, but below me. I’ve looked at pigeons from both sides now.

People seem to look at me like a ghost here, haunting the place. I shouldn’t be here. It’s just that there’s a situation. I like my life, though, and won’t get into it now. Suffice to say nothing.

I don’t mind dying at home, but please bury me at the Birks Hotel, because I cannot imagine heaven being any nicer. But before I go on like a berk about Birks, there are other heavenly spots in Montreal worth mentioning, too — for instance, L’Hotel on Saint-Jacques. 

Constructed in 1870, and later serving as Jean Drapeau’s law office, L’Hotel is unlike any place of lodging in the city, and it’s obvious immediately upon entry. This Rock n’ Roll boutique hotel’s lobby might have been designed by John Varvatos. Famous works of Pop Art adorn the corridor’s walls, the front desk feels like a quintessential film noir set with its office tucked away in back, and the dining room is as European as Montreal gets. That’s why people come here. They can’t afford Europe. Let’s be honest: we should raise our rates.

I stayed at L’Hotel in a suite immediately after vacating Hotel Place d’Armes and was immediately welcomed by the room’s cozy vibe, funky décor and friendly staff and service. A framed, signed portrait of a grinning Burt Lancaster sat upon the desk in my room. I couldn’t help but think that some mischievous decorator with a twinkle in her eye put it there. Still, nothing appears double-clicked into place here. It’s all analogue.

One of the best things about L’Hotel is its proximity to Dandy. I’ve conceded a love for Dandy before, and it’s not a guilty pleasure to have brunch there, it’s just innocent. Weekend brunch in Old Montreal is a competitive sport played amongst three teams: A: locals, B: Torontonians and C: ROW. The locals are the best looking and best mannered of the bunch. Torontonians talk loudly about Drake and Jordan Peterson and are mainly there to post photos on social media. ROW people are usually dressed like embarrassing parents with embarrassing children and don’t tip. Dandy’s staff and uber-homme owner — an Instagram celebrity in his own right — are far hipper than anyone who eats there, and the hardest-working folks in any restaurant, anywhere. It’s not just the food that’s photogenic.

Monarque Montreal restaurant holiday staycation
Monarque, a gem in Old Montreal

Saint-Jacques is culinarily blessed, because just down from Dandy is Monarque, the reigning king of Montreal’s bistros. Monarque is where Brad fucking Pitt goes when he’s in town. Good for him, and good for us. I love everything about this place: the food, surely, but also the music, the furniture, the walls of booze (these days strictly for the aesthetic), the vested staff, the textured tile floor, the different menus for the Salle à Manger and Brasserie, the clever bag hooks beneath the bar, even the bathrooms and especially the butterfly logo. If you go to Monarque a few times, they’ll remember your name, they’ll remember your order, they’ll deliver everything you’d expect from a world-class restaurant. This place makes you feel lucky to be alive, to need to eat.

MARCUS, the new restaurant on the 3rd floor of the Four Seasons Hotel, overlooking Len’s conspicuous mural, is another slice of heaven. Cult MTL recently held our 10th anniversary brunch there, and it was a tin anniversary worth remembering. On the menu: a Montreal bagel tower with smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers, onions, and lemon wedges, followed by a tower of fresh oysters, crab, shrimp, and lobster tails. Then, fried chicken and waffles. Then, a chocolate cake lightly dusted with gold flakes. For the vegans, try a bowlful of diamonds. 

The bathrooms’ infinity mirrors are custom-made for selfies, which is convenient since all of their patrons rock lewks that could kill Bill Cunningham if he were still alive to die. And the staff could not have been lovelier, even though everyone who’s ever worked in service knows that parties tend to be the most demanding, most obnoxious and chintziest customers. But not us.

It is common knowledge that service staff are overworked and seldom remunerated. If you are going to go through the trouble of going out, you’d better come correct. Shower. Dress up. Smell nice. Look your server in the eye. Smile and say s’il vous plait and merci beaucoup. The best strategy in any upscale establishment is to order like nobody’s paying, and tip like everyone’s watching. Don’t be rude unless you really don’t plan on coming back.

There is something special about Hotel Birks, though. It’s more otherworldly than Old World. Built in 1907 as Henri Birks’s flagship operation after moving from Saint-Jacques, this building is Ste-Catherine Street’s crown jewel. Its restaurant, Brasserie Henri, is a bona fide French eatery that doesn’t need to imitate any other French city’s eateries. We’ve got angels in our architecture, too. Hallelujah.

But the Devil’s in the details, and there is a special feature to this particular room. Next to the bed is a sliding screen, a triptych of translucent panels that folds in to reveal a full-length glass window dividing the shower and bedroom. Here, it is possible to sit in the main room — on the bed, say — and watch your partner take a shower. Not only that, but it is the viewer, not the showerer, who gets to decide. The thought process at work is admirable.

The room comes equipped with artisanal dark chocolate turtles and Eska water, and you can order from a late-night menu until 7am, which means that my room service bills are running higher than expected. I feel like The Passenger, but trapped inside my own body, using my own credit card, forging my own signature. Darkness has fallen upon Square Phillips, vacant, save for a straggling crew of skateboarders. Being up here makes me grateful to live in such a singular city, somewhere people travel to from all over the world, and talk about for months after they return to whatever cookie-cutter place they come from. Montreal is exceptional, a genuine, international destination.

The idea for this ‘workation’ column called ‘How Do You Spell Holiday?’ originated from a funny scene in the classic punk rock film, Sid & Nancy. On the Sex Pistols’ American tour, the band travel across the desert in a decrepit tour bus. In transit, Gary Oldman, playing Sid Vicious more viciously than Vicious himself, writes a letter to his mother back home, yelling out to his bandmates, “Oi! How do you spell ‘holiday?’” to which Johnny Rotten replies, “S. H. I. T.” Vicious resumes writing: “Dear Mum, having a lovely…” There’s a world of difference between the worst and best that any journey has to offer.

I don’t usually read the comments, but someone beneath the first installment of ‘How Do You Spell Holiday?’ called me an entitled elitist. Well, yeah. Give me luxury or give me death! You’re damn right I’m entitled, I’m a PhD of Communication Studies, man. They don’t give those to chimps. And you’re damn right I’m elitist. This ain’t fucking Regina. Montreal is an elite, metropolitan city, and those of us who understand that act accordingly. You think this is easy, elitism?

A lot of talk this summer is devoted to “revenge travel.”  But the best revenge is living well, so if you’re not living well at home, take your revenge elsewhere. We have the best hotels in the world, the best restaurants, the most stunning architecture, the sexiest service staff — hell, even our hookers are elite. Montreal’s tourism business may have bent, but it’s ascending. ■

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