Montrealers speak about food with gusto, with festivité. Watch them talk about seasonal local vegetables and Prince Edward Island fish at one of many markets surrounding Montreal’s Old Port and neighboring downtown. Their energy envelops you, it invades you. And when you smile their eyes light up as if you’ve entered a secret society of French foodies who speak the language of Quebecois cheeses, syrups, foie gras, smoked meats and fresh baked patisseries.
Four of the year-round markets are especially popular on this glorious, sunny Saturday morning when locals arrive en masse to buy their weekend groceries: Atwater, Maissonneuve, Lachine and Jean-Talon, the largest open-air fresh market in North America. For meeting planners, all you need to do is show up with your group. The Frenchmen (and women) behind the many stalls will take care of the entertainment.
“A lot of Montrealers live downtown so there’s always a sense of going out and enjoying life, living life,” says Danielle Crête, president of Visites de Montréal DMC. “It might be a cliché but we really do have this joie de vivre, and going out with friends for wonderful food is a very important part of that.”
In the markets, Crête’s professional guides show attendees how they should season New Brunswick oysters and choose the best cuts of Kamouraska lamb, a variety of meat produced by nine farmers in the valleys surrounding this city of 1.7 million on the St. Lawrence River. Or the guides will break groups into 15-member teams for walking tours through Little Italy, where Jean-Talon Market is located, to visit family-run cider, wine, chocolate and cheese shops.
“It’s about touching and tasting good food, and it’s a great way to meet people,” says Ron Poiré, Visites de Montréal’s chief gastronomic guru. “We visit Little Italian places like Elena Faita’s, who taught Montrealers how to make tomato sauce 30 years ago.”
Ron, anything an American visitor should know about dining in Montreal?
“For me as a French Canadian, going to a restaurant is entertainment. So if you want to be served quickly then you need to express that, because if I get served a salad 30 seconds after the soup, that to me is bad service. I need some time with the food, and with my friends.”
MONT ROYAL, MUSEUMS + MEETING MILIEUS
For adventurous groups, I like the idea of assigning teams to shop through the markets separately for produce, meats, desserts, wine, etc. Then take everyone up to prepare a sumptuous picnic lunch at The Chalet du Mont Royal atop the city’s “mountain,” with its prominent vantage point from the Belvédère terrace. The historic building has a wonderful view of the downtown core, St. Lawrence River, Biosphere and southeastern mountains.
“It is one of the most beautiful places to meet in Montreal for large groups,” says Crête.
She also recommends The Museum of Fine Arts for 250-person banquets followed by private museum tours. The Mount Stephen Club is an Italian Renaissance-Revival mansion built in the 1880s, with a wine cellar, billiards room and dining hall for 100. And be sure to look into Le Windsor, Canada’s first grand hotel. It has since been converted into one of the city’s most envied gathering places for upscale meetings and gala events.
CALL ME A GREEN MEETIN’ BIXI BABE
Montreal is one of the first cities in North America to introduce the BIXI System, a self-service rental bike project. Literally hundreds of biking stations with thousands of bikes are located around the city, so anyone can grab two wheels and go with the swipe of a credit card. You can return the bike to any station.
We biked into one of the more visited neighborhoods in Montreal called Le Plateau. The eclectic residential borough is filled with historic row houses, travel bookstores, chic vintage boutiques and a gazillion French cafes, smothered under the scents of fresh coffee and fresh baked bread.
A new initiative of late, homeowners in Le Plateau have banded together with city officials to spruce up and pave the alleyways between homes. Many residents have planted flowers and painted walls, converting the former service ways into delightful mini-gardens. Several walking and bike group tours are available to learn about the history of the artsy area. Also stop by Les Chocolats De Chloe to pick up the most delicious chocolates I’ve ever tasted. There’s a slight nutty flavor attributed to Quebec’s famous maple syrup used in the baking.
It’s an invigorating bike ride part way across the river to the island of Île Sainte-Hélène. Amid a lushly treed landscape, the Biosphere Environmental Museum sits perched inside a towering metal lattice sphere originally built for the American Pavilion at Expo ’67. A host of permanent installations and temporary exhibits focus on sustainability, including U-TURN which examines “the impact that personal vehicles have on the environment and public health.”
The exhilarating feeling of standing in a 200-ft high dome made of steel triangles looking out over the St. Lawrence and Old Montreal suits events well. Imagine a stunning young harpist and her accompanying keyboardist playing mystical music while waiters in tuxes serve champagne and mushroom cappuccino topped with rosemary cream. I’d add mesmerizing avant-garde performers swinging high above. And after a scrumptious meal of local delicacies is served, bring in a stunning multi-media presentation under the theme of the “Four Elements”—earth, water, air and fire—to stimulate discussion of green meetings.
Looking up from the splendid courtyard café and gardens at Le Saint Sulpice Hotel Montreal, you can see the outline of the Gothic Revival-style Notre Dame Basilica anchoring the old port city, Vieux Montréal. The 108 loft and traditional suites are extra large with kitchenettes, ranging from 500-1,500 sf, with big French windows that open to let in fresh air. The interior design is reserved, elegant and contemporary, while the executive suites come with fireplaces, leather couches and private terraces. The level of service is at once familial and focused, like the decor, creating an overall ambience resembling the private residence of a young Parisian with means. A selection of small meeting rooms host 80 people with full A/V capability.
Also by Notre Dame, Le Place d’Armes Hotel & Suites offers 135 delightful rooms within three regal buildings dating back to 1870. One of this planner’s most memorable dinners in Montreal is a savory dish of local cooking at the hotel’s Aix Cuisine du Terroir restaurant. The Kamouraska Lamb Noisette, cocoa beans and sausage with a rosemary pesto are a gourmand’s delight representing the best of French Canadian cuisine. Book private dinners for up to 60.
After my meal, I head upstairs to the hot pink lights and urban chic decor of the new, group-friendly Suite 701-Lounge. The space is part of a new $12 million expansion, recognized as the place to be for sophisticated nightlife and brasserie-style nibbles. Also good for groups, the rooftop terrace features incredible views of Old Montreal.
The brand new, 454-room Le Westin Montreal is just a few blocks from Old Montreal and right next door to the Palais de Congrès convention center. The Westin is half housed within the historic ex-Montreal Gazette newspaper building, while the other half is a striking, streamlined new-build. Meeting space is 40,000 sf, including an outdoor terrace that’s “become the place for entertaining visitors and clients in Montreal,” says Mylene Gagnon, director of sales/marketing.
She adds that the attraction of the hotel, besides its location, is the mix of historic and contemporary ambience blended seamlessly into a convention hotel—“that doesn’t feel like a convention hotel.”
John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous BED-IN in 1969 took place at Fairmont Queen Elizabeth, the “Queen E” to locals. When Montreal’s Grande Dame opened its doors in 1958, it was specifically constructed with the “bold objective of being the ideal hotel for conventions.” The 1,037 rooms include 100 suites, supported by 50,000 sf of meeting space.
The hotel is what you would expect from the brand in this destination: exceedingly courteous, clean and efficient, with an updated residential room product. Downstairs, the Beaver Club restaurant is legendary in Canada, regarded as one of the best tables nationwide. The clubby room is warm and inviting, as was the intent of French and Scottish fur traders who founded the animal trapper’s club back in the 1700s. Only the best foie gras with forest mushroom ravioli and truffle broth is served in this traditional milieu—just a lovely salute to the old country in this progressive, modern and magical city.