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Malcolm Jolley: Three restaurants to try in Montreal, Canada’s culinary capital

Commentary

I think it was in one of Mordechai Richler’s columns for the National Post, as opposed to the longer pieces in the New Yorker, though I’m not sure because I can’t find it online. It’s the argument in it that I remember: if the Fathers of Confederation and Queen Victoria had chosen Montreal instead of Ottawa as the nation’s capital, Canada would have escaped much of the drama of its 20th-century constitutional crises.

Questions of national unity might be put in the more serious parts of The Hub, but Richler’s idea, or at least the idea that Montreal could have been the country’s capital, stayed with me as I roamed its streets and ate well in its restaurants on a visit last week. I lived in Montreal as a student, while Richler was alive and well and drinking on Crescent Street, and now that my son lives there as a student, I am delighted to visit more frequently.

I live in what’s now the country’s biggest city, but that status is recent. For all of the 19th century and most of the 20th century, Montreal was Canada’s metropolis, as well as its financial and cultural centre. It’s where ambitious people moved to, in both languages, from within Canada and across the world.

Montreal retains its status as the metropolis of Quebec and French Canada, however diminished this might seem from west of the Ottawa River. It also has become a magnet for Francophone immigration, not least for France itself. So, whatever its relative size, Montreal retains its big city vibes and its standing as the country’s most urban environment.

This urbanity and sophistication extend famously to the Montreal dining scene, which gained particular notoriety in the English-speaking world in the first two decades of this century. A new breed of chef restaurateurs, like Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon, and David MacMillan and Frédéric Morin of Joe Beef, combined the city’s Gallic heritage with its reputation as a place to have a good time.

The new Montreal restaurant revolution was televised and promoted by the likes of Anthony Bourdain. It was written up in the newly expanded food sections of newspapers on both sides of the pond and even regionally insular Canada. Montreal had as great a claim to at least being Canada’s dining capital as it ever had. (Richler, and likely any random Montrealer picked off Sherbrooke Street, would undoubtedly argue it had always been.)

The restaurants weren’t downtown, they were in residential areas, sometimes just gentrifying, like Little Burgundy, or long-neglected Old Montreal. The food was classic, often looking like it had come right out of the 1938 Larousse Gastronomique. The rooms were loud and full of energy: everyone ate too much, and a lot of them drank too much too. If you knew where to go, dining out in Montreal was a really good party.

Then, of course, came the COVID lockdowns. The party was over and, like everywhere else, restaurateurs began the slow recovery of the hospitality industry over the last year and a half. On my third late summer or autumn visit in as many years I am happy to report the city is back and I had the pleasure of dining at three very different restaurants that nonetheless were bound by a golden thread of good food and fun Montreal-style.

Outside diners at the restaurant Nolan in Montreal, Quebec. Credit: Malcolm Jolley.

Nolan

1752 Notre-Dame Ouest

Nolan is the newest of three restaurants I dined at last week, having just opened in 2022. It was busy on a Monday night with a crowd that ranged in age from 20 to 50 and beyond. The food is vaguely Italian (some pasta), but mostly farm or forage-to-fork seasonal with a little French thrown in (a duck breast and a steak). The room is warm and homey, as though you had come over to a dinner party.

The food comes in small and larger plates and the idea is to share and pass them around, and it works. The young waitstaff were friendly and more than competent, especially on the tightly curated wine list. (Yes, I ask questions, too.) Nolan’s easy charm made it hard to leave once the last of the pudding chomeur and digestives were gone.

L’Express

3927 rue Saint-Denis

There have been occasions where I have been in Montreal and not gone to Toujours L’Express, but they have been mercifully few, and if I am able to get a seat, at the zinc bar or on the black and white tiled floor of the dining room, I will take it. L’Express has been open since 1980, although it feels older. It was already very much an institution in the early 1990s when I was a student.

I wrote about L’Express in a Hub piece about 10 of my favourite restaurants and the last visit confirmed my ranking. The service at L’Express is veteran and archly professional, and the American tourists in T-shirts and baseball caps are treated no differently than the locals in suits. The food never disappoints and satisfies all palates, as long as you like classic bistro.

Damas

1201 Avenue Van Horne

If Nolan is the present and L’Express the (near) past, is the Syrian restaurant Damas the future of Montreal dining? That would make for a tidy column. I could frame it as Allophone Montreal taking over from Anglo and Franco, except it’s been around since 2010, which is a long time in restaurant years.

Tucked away at the bottom of Outremont, on the other side of the Mountain, Damas is definitely off the beaten tourist track. And yet it took three tries over three years to get a late Wednesday night booking. At nine o’clock the restaurant wasn’t full, but it was close, with all manner of Montrealers from families to first dates.

Syria is a member of the Francophone, and so Quebec, with its particular immigration program, has been settling people from there and its Levantine neighbour Lebanon, for a long time. Damas is a fancy restaurant, and I suspect a point of pride for Montreal’s Middle Eastern community and something of a fine dining novelty for a city dominated by French tradition.

Damas serves very good, classic Middle Eastern dishes made from fresh ingredients whose provenance is declared. It has two large, ornately decorated tiled rooms, and has a humming energy. The portions are large, so it’s best enjoyed in a party of four or more, unless one opts for the long dish of dishes that make up the tasting menu (we did not).

What Damas is not is cheap, and the service may be inclined to encourage pricey dishes involving whole fish or racks of lamb, the restaurant imports a serious red Syrian wine, the Cabernet blend Domaine de Bargylus, whose Mediterranean earthiness pairs nicely with everything. Alas, what price can one put on fun?

Trevor Tombe: Labour disruptions are on the rise and inflation is to blame

Commentary

Labour disruptions are on the rise.

Recent strikes have closed Metro stores and B.C. ports. Universities, Ontario construction sites, Vancouver hotels, and Canada’s largest cemetery have seen the same. Work stoppages at Air Canada and WestJet, which would have had massive spillover effects throughout the economy, were only narrowly avoided. Even Federal public servants went on strike to demand higher pay and flexible work arrangements. 

These are not isolated incidents.

Last year, over 2.1 million work days were lost to labour disputes—almost double the amount in 2019 before the pandemic hit and the highest since 2009. This year, we’re on track for even more. From January to June, we’ve already experienced over 1.6 million lost work days. That’s more disruption in the first half of any year since 2002.

And there’s more to come. The United Auto Workers, along with their Canadian counterparts in Unifor, for example, have voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike if a deal isn’t reached soon.

This may not be too surprising. Inflation rose last year to highs not seen since the 1980s and did so faster than at any point since the 1950s. Rising prices mean wages and salaries can buy less than before, so the real value of pay is down. 

And while inflation has eased considerably, affordability challenges remain. In recent analysis for The Hub, I showed that price levels are over six percent higher than they would have been had inflation remained on target. 

Workers are naturally going to push hard to recover this lost purchasing power. With tight labour markets, they often have the power to demand just that.

Indeed, we’re already seeing wage settlements agreed to in recent collective agreements rise sharply. Of the 26 major settlements reached in the first half of this year, the average annual wage increase was nearly three percent per year. That’s double the roughly 1.5 percent annual increases normally agreed to in the years prior to the pandemic, but still below inflation. 

We should expect this trend to continue. Business leaders surveyed by the Bank of Canada expect wage increases over the coming year to average roughly 4.5 percent.

But as more contracts come due while broader economic conditions weaken, it may become increasingly difficult for many employers to meet rising wage demands. This could lead to more strikes, work stoppages, and disruptions throughout the economy.

We’ve seen this before. 

Historically, the frequency and scale of work stoppages tracked very closely with overall inflation. 

Starting in the late 1960s, inflation gradually rose. By the 1970s, it exceeded ten percent at some points and remained uncomfortably and persistently high until the early 1990s. Strikes and other labour disputes dramatically increased. From less than half a million days per quarter lost to work stoppages in the early 1960s, disruptions rose sharply to over four million days per quarter by 1974. 

Such disruptions took a significant economic toll. In 1976, there were nearly 12 million days of work lost. That’s possibly around 80 to 90 million hours where workers earned no wages and firms produced no output—equivalent to nearly as much as two to three percent of all hours worked in the entire economy.

Today’s situation is less bleak, with disruptions accounting for approximately 0.5 percent of total work hours. But even a modest increase could be a drag on Canada’s already weak economic growth.

There’s some reason for optimism, though. The rise in strike action in the 1970s and early 1980s was due to more than just rising inflation. It was also due to uncertainty around what future inflation would be. Some, such as former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge, have argued that many wage demands at the time were made as insurance against unexpected increases in inflation over the life of the employment contract. Uncertainty itself was therefore a driver of rising wage demands and resulting strike actions.

Today, things are different. The Bank of Canada—along with central banks around the world—is aggressively moving to get inflation back to a clearly defined target of two percent. Some may not believe that they will succeed, of course, but overall inflation expectations today are far better anchored than they were a half-century ago. 

Over the next five years, Canadian consumers expect inflation to average roughly three percent per year. And businesses expect almost as much. With less uncertainty around future inflation, it may be easier to negotiate and agree to more gradual adjustments to worker pay and conditions. 

If the Bank of Canada can successfully and sustainably return to normal rates of inflation soon, then its credibility may improve and bargaining may become easier. 

But if it cannot, then turbulent times for both employers and workers alike may be ahead.