Once upon a time, it was easy to give cafe recommendations in Montreal. Though a few pioneers had hacked their way through the nondescript landscape of bitter European roasts and allongés, it wasn't until Cafe Myriade opened that Montrealers really had anywhere special to drink coffee. But as with anything, if an idea is good enough, imitators and innovators will follow suit. Nowadays, Montreal offers a host of chouette little cafes with roasters from across the continent (though they're almost all using the same espresso machine!), establishing this already renowned dining city as one with a taste for sophisticated coffee, too.
It's worth noting, by the way, that West Coast roasters, and mostly American ones at that, seem to be dominating Montreal's fancy-coffee landscape at the moment—surely a call to Quebeckers to fire up the gas themselves and raise the bar in this realm of coffee, too?
Before Myriade, specialty coffee in Montreal was something you had to package with a piled-high brunch plate or restaurant, not a drink that could stand on its own merits in a supremely serious (coffee theorist/author Scott Rao has a stake) but warm environment. Myriade changed all that, bringing progressive brewing science and exceptional quality to a little retail space in the ground floor of a Concordia-area apartment building.
Led by gracious owner-barista Anthony Benda, the shop's focus on careful preparation—halogen-heated syphons among them—put it a cut above anything else in town, where it remains. Coffees revolve through the roasters of the current mode, like Portland's Heart and LA's Handsome, but you'll always find Canadian strongholds 49th Parallel on the shelves as well. Also offering quality local baking, and a finer than average selection of teas. A particularly lovely place to be during Montreal's warmer months, when the coffee shop spills out onto the terrasse in mild summer chaos.
Pikolo Espresso Bar
Not quite a year old, adorable Pikolo emerged from the McGill mish-mash into the growing pocket of boutique bourgeoisie at Parc and Sherbrooke as one of Montreal's most handsome cafes. It's a compact, but sunny space (owing to the incredible industrial-era windows that let in some mysterious, architecturally stolen sunshine), with friendly service and great coffee. Serving Phil & Sebastian beans out of Calgary, this place gets nearly everything right and does it with a smile—they even have business cards for other great Montreal cafes on the counter along with their own.
Pikolo Espresso Bar
Months-old Le Couteau is a sleek addition to a slightly quieter part of St-Denis, a handsome corner cafe from a former Myriade-r, Chris Capell. (Capell takes a few cues from his alma mater, but like I said—everyone in town seems to have bought the same Mirage espresso machine!) The space works not only as a venue for excellent coffee, but anthropologically—tables are more convivial than laptop-friendly, and sightlines are social rather than cluttered. Try a brew from 49th Parallel and relax for awhile before strolling down the hill. Closed Mondays!
Short on decor but long on variety is new Square Victoria outpost La Différance, where enthusiastic, yet somehow apprehensive, baristas will prepare you coffee from boutique roasters like Grand Rapids, Michigan's MadCap, or Boston-area roaster Barismo. Though a wide menu of whole bean coffee exists, don't expect a full-service manual brew bar. They'll offer you the feature they're currently brewing; the other selections are presumably for you to make yourself at home. It's a shop both ambitious and quizzical, but the coffee is good and the location near Old Montreal is ideal for something aiming for quality and...difference.
This shoebox-sized space in the Plateau is long on location and short on service, but serves decent espresso drinks (and tasty pastries) out of its petit boîte near the Mont-Royal metro stop. Rotating roasters have included Stumptown, Chicago's Metropolis, and new Victoria, BC roaster Bows & Arrows. (The shop is an offshoot of Café Névé on Rue Rachel, which has a much larger, studenty vibe and is more dominated by laptops and the smell of soup.) Definitely pay a visit if you are near, but it's more "worth a shot" than "worth a special trip".
Honorable mentions are also worth noting for Mile End's très charmant Cafe Sardine, serving Phil & Sebastian espresso drinks alongside exquisite donuts, Entre le Café et la Plume, doling Verve coffee to Plateau denizens, and the extremely iconoclastic Cafe Saint-Henri Micro-Torrefacteur, roasting in scenic St. Henri.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop later this year.
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