Here is what I miss about Montreal when I’m away:
The smells from the wood-fired oven rush at me even before I step inside Fairmount Bagel. I barely squeeze through ceiling-high racks of bagged bagels, lining up along the fridges full of cream cheese and spreads, listening to the happy chatter of the bakers. When my turn comes, I’m sweating from the oven heat. The girl at the counter picks up a handful of bagels, fresh from the oven pile. When she hands me the bag, it’s nearly too hot to hold.
Outside, the breeze flushes away the steamy air, but the smell lingers. I take a bagel out, holding it at fingertip, careful not to burn myself, and bring it to my lips.
I close my eyes.
I’m a Montrealer, and we’re proud of our bagels. Eastern European Jews brought it with them a century ago, and the recipe found a new home in the multicultural area known as Mile End.
Mile End today stands as a testament to Montreal’s cultural diversity. Order an espresso at Italian café Olimpico, and sit at the window: outside on rue St-Viateur, you’ll witness the peaceful coexistence of Greek workers, hip, young videogame designers, hijab-clad mothers, and Hassidic schoolboys. Mile End doesn’t assimilate its immigrants: it celebrates them.
It’s no coincidence that Mile End is home to a staggering number of Montreal food institutions. Within walking distance of one another, you’ll find the Wilensky Special with its mandatory dash of mustard, Olimpico’s old-school cappuccino, Serrano’s mouth-watering Peruvian rotisserie chicken, Clarke’s sandwiches, and New Navarino’s delicious baklava. And then there’s bagels: a mere five blocks separate Montreal bagel legends Fairmount Bagel Bakery, and St-Viateur Bagel Shop.
A Tale of Two Bagels
The question of whether St-Viateur or Fairmount offers the best bagel in town is under intense debate. The truth is, there are more similarities than differences between the two.
The Montreal bagel is a distant cousin to the New York bagel, their differences owing to regional preferences back in Eastern Europe. The Montreal bagel recipe produces a sweeter, smaller and less doughy bagel, typically covered in either sesame or poppy seeds.
Whether you buy your bagel at St-Viateur or Fairmount, you get a chance to observe the wood-fired oven in which the bagels are baked. The expert bakers hand-roll the dough at the shop, then poach them in honey-sweetened water before baking them in the deep oven to a golden finish.
According to Jewish historian Joe King, the first man to bake a Montreal bagel was Chaim Seligman, who sold his bagels on the Main from the back of a horse-drawn carriage. Seligman went in business with two men, Myer Lewkowicz and Jack Shlafman. Seligman and Lewkowicz founded St-Viateur Shop; Shlafman went on to found Fairmount Bagel. Fairmount Bagel’s sign pays hommage to Seligman’s practice of stringing bagels together for sale by the dozen.
The St-Viateur Bagel Shop, at the corner of avenue du Parc, has changed little in its fifty-two years existence. That is not to say that the business itself hasn’t adapted to Montreal’s unique beat.
Love for the fresh bagel reaches eastward out of Mile End, to the heart of the posh French-speaking district known as the Plateau. Once the home of immigrants, artists and students, the Plateau’s thrift shops and discount pizza joints have mostly given way to French-inspired restaurants and sophisticated cafés.
St-Viateur Bagel & Café adapts the St-Viateur formula to a Plateau crowd. In this cozy café setting, the smells of fresh ground coffee mingles with that of baked dough.
The café offers toasted bagels with a variety of spreads for breakfast, and tasty grilled bagel sandwiches for lunch and dinner. To sit at St-Viateur Bagel & Café is to appreciate a great quality of Montreal: how the city can remain true to its roots, yet blend them all into a joyous art de vivre that is at once simple and sophisticated, Quebecois and Jewish, old world and new.
Home of the Bagel
As I finish my fresh Fairmount bagel, I brush the sesame seeds from my fingertips. The area pigeons, grown for generations on a sesame diet, crowd me for an impromptu snack.
Eating that one fresh Fairmount bagel is my required ritual every time I’m in town. The simple, wholesome taste brings to my mind the beauty of tradition, and the richness of Montreal’s roots. It reminds me that we are stronger when we celebrate our differences than when we try to stamp them out.
But above all, it reminds me that wherever I might live on the planet, as long as the Mile End ovens bake their bagels, I will call Montreal home.
Fairmount Bagel Bakery can be found at 74 avenue Fairmount Ouest, near rue Clark. It is open 24/7, and since it bakes bagels for customers as well as wholesale, you can always catch a bagel fresh out of the oven at any time of the day.
St-Viateur Bagel Shop is located at 262 St-Viateur Ouest, at the corner of Avenue du Parc. It is also open 24/7.
St-Viateur Bagel & Café can be found at 1127 avenue Mont-Royal, near avenue Christophe-Colomb, as well as in NDG, at 5629 avenue de Monkland.
Wilensky’s Light Lunch is located at 34 avenue Fairmount Ouest, one block east of Fairmount Bagel. New Navarino can be found at 5563 avenue du Parc. Olimpico, Boulangerie Clarke, Serrano, and many other amazing shops, restaurants and cafés are all located on rue St-Viateur, between avenue du Parc and St-Laurent.
If you have a Mile End favorite that I forgot to mention, please enlighten me and this blog’s readers by sharing it in the comments section!