July 31st, 2009

Montreal is a 24-hour town, yes.

(This is info for anyone going to Montreal, but it's being posted now because a bunch of friends are going there next week for Worldcon.)

Montreal is the kind of place where you not only can get good food 24 hours a day, you can actually get to that food and back on public transit at a stupid hour of the morning. You should not find yourself eating out of a hotel vending machine at 3:30AM. Here are a couple of suggestions to keep you out of the vend-o-mat.

First, there are two 24 hour bagel bakeries in Mile End: Fairmount Bagel (http://www.fairmountbagel.com/eng/index.htm, 74 Fairmount West (between Clark and St-Urbain), (514) 272-0667) and St-Viateur Bagel (http://www.stviateurbagel.com/main/, 263 St-Viateur West (between Parc and Jeanne-Mance), (514) 276-8044). Note that St-Viateur Bagel has a second location three blocks down which is not open all night, so if you find yourself standing in front of 158 St-Viateur West looking sadly at a locked door--which happened to us--do not despair. Cross the street and walk three blocks farther west, towards Parc.

At both, you can get fresh bagels, still hot from the wood-fired oven, in a variety of flavors--try the traditional ones first, because some of the newer ones are reportedly disappointing--24/7, starting at 60 cents Canadian apiece.

Note also that these are Montreal-style bagels, not New York-style bagels.

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montreal-style_bagel: "The Montreal bagel, (sometimes beigel; Yiddish בײגל beygl, or sometimes in French "beguel"), is a distinctive variety of hand-made and wood-fired baked bagel. In contrast to the New York-style bagel[1], the Montreal bagel is smaller, sweeter and denser, with a larger hole, and is always baked in a wood-fired oven."

I really don't want to hear about which are better. Different Eastern European Jews brought different recipes.

(Final note is that if you want actual kosher Montreal-style bagels, you'll have to go to the Mount Royal Bagel Factory, at 709 Lucerne (corner Jean-Talon West), (514) 735-1174. They are not open all night, however. A listing of kosher bakeries can be found at the Montreal Kosher site: http://www.mk.ca/bakeries.html.)

Second, there's that Quebec invention, poutine. Again, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poutine: "Poutine (Quebec French pronunciation ˈputsɪn (help·info)) is a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered with brown gravy and sometimes additional ingredients."

24/7, poutine in over two dozen varieties can be found at La Banquise (http://www.restolabanquise.com/index.php?page=accueil&sp=&langue=an, 994 Rachel East (corner Parc Lafontaine), (514) 525-2415), a hipster haven over in the Plateau. The classic poutine comes in two sizes. Small was around $6, and large (feeds more than one) maybe $7.50. I can't remember because I can't imagine getting something bigger than a small for myself.

La Banquise also serves breakfast and a variety of other food, but I've only been there for their poutine. I was there last week, so the prices should be about right, allowing for my imperfect memory.

The Orange Julep (7700 Décarie, at Paré) which I posted about recently, is also open around the clock during the summer. Hot dogs are around $2, and a small orange julep is just under $2. Me, I usually get at least a medium. They also have burgers and a variety of other drive-in food, but I've never had any of it.

I also want to put in a plug for a place I found a couple of weeks ago which won't appear on anyone's 24-hour list, because I think it's pretty new. Le Gourmet, 414 Saint-Zotique East (corner St-Denis), up in Rosemont-Petite-Patrie, near Beaubien Metro, has a generally diner-y menu but executes those items very well. I had an excellent spaghetti carbonara for around $12, and the poutine was quite good, too. Again, order a large at your own risk; we couldn't finish the small, although we made the mistake of treating it as a side-dish to share. Staff were very nice in a home-town kind of way, even at 1:30 AM. Portions were generous.

http://montreal.com/tourism/24hr.html has a helpful list of 24 hour places, but it's not exhaustive. For one thing, there's a 24-hour fruit/vegetable market (!) right near the Côte-des-Neiges Metro station, called Les Trottiers Fruits et Légumes, which it doesn't list. It's on the northeast corner of Côte-des-Neiges and Jean Brillant. The Montreal Gazette article on the neighborhood (http://www2.canada.com/montrealgazette/news/arts/story.html?id=62f8bd7c-cf24-4ca4-ab02-153176edd869) says: "Besides a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, its counters offer maple and honey products, herbs, plants and cut flowers." I mean, I wouldn't go out of my way to go there when Jean-Talon Market (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Talon_Market) is open, because really Jean-Talon is the place to go for that. But if you need fruit and veg at 4AM...

That neighborhood also has a couple of 24-hour coffee shops, and a 24-hour supermarket. But the Plateau (along Mont-Royal, walking east from the Metro stop of the same name) also has some late-night/all-night coffee, so you don't need to go quite so far for that.

My next post will discuss taking the night buses after the Metro stops running.

Some notes on overnight transit in Montreal.

http://stm.info/English/info/nuit2009.pdf is a night bus map.

The night bus system is more or less a grid, with guaranteed connections at the bus stops next to two Metro stops, Atwater and Frontenac. All night buses have three digit numbers beginning with "3", and they start running after the day bus lines they replace stop running. This can vary from about quarter after midnight (on St-Laurent) to as late as 2AM (on Jean-Talon). They run at between half-hour and hourly intervals, and cost the same as day buses: $2.75, with unlimited transfers, including backtracking on the same or other routes, during a 90 minute interval.

For example, I managed one night last week to take the 51 bus out, walk to La Banquise, eat a late night meal, walk back to the 361, ride it up a few blocks, and just manage to catch the last 51 back home before I'd have had to wait for the 368 which replaces the 51, all on the same transfer. But I was lucky on my timing.

Probably the best bet for convention visitors is to pick up a 3 day transit pass, for $17, which is good on day and night buses and metro. There's also a 1 day pass ($9), and a 1 week pass ($20). The week pass isn't as useful for visitors because it is valid strictly by calendar week, Monday to Sunday.

You could drive instead, but parking is generally somewhat expensive and often hard to find because of permit-only spaces. On-street parking is often sold via kiosk, and can be a couple of bucks per hour. Fortunately, they do take credit cards.

For Bostonians, driver behavior is comfortingly familiar, with a French accent: you should be able to pull all the obnoxious crap you do back home in Montreal and fit in just fine, although you may find that someone more familiar with the street layout has beaten you to that "special" maneuver you were about to execute.

All bus stops include indications of the bus numbers which stop at that stop, the next Metro and commuter rail stop they stop at, and a bus stop code which you can key into (514) AUTOBUS, which will tell you when the next scheduled arrivals should be. (This is particularly handy when it's -30.) Most stops include printed schedule information, making a call redundant.

More information can be found at stm.info, along with system maps and journey planners. System maps and metro schematics can generally be obtained from metro station kiosks (although you will need to specify if you want a system map or they will hand you a pocket metro plan instead).

The city is fairly safe; there are no areas I can think of that a tourist would stumble into which might be dangerous, and even if you try hard it's difficult to find a place which is really dangerous. I've asked "Are there any no-go neighborhoods in this town?" of friends from Montreal and gotten a thoughtful look, and then a shake of the head. Not really, they seem to think. This obviously makes late-night transit a bit less risky. I still do watch it on empty streets after midnight.

Edit: I wanted to add this on the night bus system from http://cmeckhardt.livejournal.com/96487.html, because she mentions some things I forget. I do recommend reading her whole post, too.

"Furthermore, after the Metro ends (in the midnight to 1am range, check the lines you want and the day you're using them for details), there are night buses! Night buses! They don't duplicate the bus lines or the Metro lines exactly, and it pays to know the schedule of them if you can (the one I wanted to take came every 45 minutes), but if you go out late at night, you can get home! The buses go to both ends of the island and have two major hubs where the departure times of various routes are coordinated so you can transfer easily, Atwater and Frontenac. I strongly suspect that the night buses are why the platforms at Berri-UQAM are packed at midnight- because you can still be going places then! And you can still go home! (Though I freely admit your trip might suck if you don't know your bus schedule. I had a completely pessimal trip home one night where I walked most of the way from Mount Royal to Frontenac because I just missed a 97- and in the walking I just missed my night bus from Frontenac, so I had a 35-minute wait. But the weather was nice and I had a good book and I knew that might happen since I didn't have bus schedules, so I wasn't annoyed.)

"The thing that makes the night buses a little odd to navigate is that though they don't duplicate day bus lines exactly, they each have a day bus line they are associated with that they are considered to "replace", and night bus service for each bus line starts relative to when day bus service for that line ends. So whether you are taking the night bus or the day bus will be different at the same time depending on what bus you want. This is why for my pessimal trip home I wanted the 97 (a day bus) to the 364 (a night bus- the night buses are 3##). Again, if you can know your schedules it helps a lot."

Oh, and with regard to vegetarian poutine...

...hammercock asked me if I knew of any place that served vegetarian poutine. Some digging revealed that Pizza Pita (6415 Décarie, near Plamondon, (514) 731-7482, http://www.pizzapita.com/) is a kosher dairy restaurant serving poutine. I would think their poutine reliably vegetarian.

Incidentally, while I am no authority on this subject, I did also find the following listings in the Jewish Community Council of Montreal website (mk.ca), which folks may find useful:

Bakeries: http://mk.ca/bakeries.html
Caterers: http://mk.ca/caterers.html
Restaurants: http://mk.ca/restaurants.html

Thoughts on Bixi.

Bixi is Montreal's version of the Paris Vélib' system of public bicycle sharing. Now that I've tried it out, I have a few thoughts.

First, I think it's a great concept. The cost is $5 a day to participate, paid by credit card at one of hundreds of rental stations around the city. Or, you can sign up for a month or an entire season. (Stations are deployed from May to November.) After that, you simply insert that credit card and check out a bike. The first half hour of each rental is free. When you're done, you return the bike to any other station. If a station is full, you register and are then given a free fifteen minutes to return it to another nearby station.

However, the implementation has some issues, mostly related to lousy maintenance and unreliability. It's not the bikes, though. The bikes are mostly fine. It's the stations.

The failures I've encountered have been of two general types: being unable to get a bike, and being unable to return one. In my experience, each happens about a third of the time, which makes practical use of the system rather difficult.

I've run into stations which are simply dead; they're full of bikes, but the sign-up/check-out kiosk is dead, so the station can neither check out nor receive bikes. Then, there are stations which have apparently working kiosks, but all the bikes at that stand fail to respond to the unlock code the kiosk generates, so you can't check out a bike. This gets frustrating, as you end up passing other stations which are entirely empty because other nearby stations are broken and everyone who wanted a bike had to go to the station which was working, which now has no bikes.

Once you have a bike, it's fun. As I said, the bikes are mostly in good working order. I ran into one which had the end of the left handbrake lever broken off, but you could still apply the brake with full stopping power. The bikes come with integrated LED head and tail lamps, so you're reasonably safe even at night. And you can really move fast on a bike through Montreal, particularly if you're going down hill. :)

However, once you want to turn a bike in, you run into similar problems to those you had when you were trying to check one out. I have been in the position of wanting to return a bike at my destination, and had to cycle from one station to the next to find one which would accept my bike, riding farther and farther away with each station. Not because it was full, but because the electronic dock simply wouldn't accept the bike and lock. Very annoying.

So overall, I think the idea is great, but they either need to have more robust stations, or they need to spend more money on repair. There's a phone number to report problems to, but as I was roaming internationally, I wasn't eager to report all the stations. I'd have been on the phone a lot.

One of these years I'll try out the system in Paris, but it won't be until one of my banks actually starts issuing EMV compliant credit cards, which as far as I know none of them do. Bixi will accept an old-fashioned American magstripe credit card.