Montréal is known for a few quintessential dishes, and aside from poutine, bagels and smoked meat are unanimously at the top of every list. Both of these staples are perfect examples of the way Jewish food has not only integrated into the city’s popular culture, but become symbols of the city itself.
© Alice Gao/Commission Canadienne du Tourisme
A story of two bagels
Initially an everyday bread for Eastern Europeans, bagels were not seen as the specialty food they are today, but a low-cost way to stretch ingredients and feed families. Often housewives would make extra bagels for their children and husbands to sell on the street and as a means of subsidizing their incomes. There was also a superstition, due to the bagel’s round shape, that it could help ward off the evil eye, and thus became a talisman for protection.
Montréal bagels differ from other varieties in texture and in taste. Due to their unique production process of boiling dough in honey water and baking in wood-fired ovens, Montréal’s bagels are markedly denser and sweeter.
The two most popular bagel bakeries today are St-Viateur and Fairmount Bagel. While the two are often viewed as competitors, with loyal patrons that pledge their allegiance to one over the other, the two stores have a common ancestry—the Montréal Bagel Bakery. Opened in 1919, this institution was the meeting place for Hyman Seligman and Isodore Shlafman, the future owners of St-Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel respectively. Seligman and Shlafman went into business together, opening Fairmount Bagel in 1949. However, their partnership was short-lived and by 1953, Seligman opened St-Viateur Bagel just a few blocks away.
Both bakeries are open 24/7, 365 days a year. The classic order at both of these establishments is a sesame bagel, and while other flavours are baked throughout the day, if you order sesame, it’s always guaranteed to be hot and fresh.
© Eva Blue
Schwartz’s smoked meat palace
Schwartz’s is the unofficial godfather of all things smoked meat. While you can find smoked meat at several delis around the city, none rival the authentic pageantry of dinning at Schwartz’s.
First opened by Reuben Schwartz in 1928, Schwartz’s was one of the first delis to popularize the Romanian-style smoked meat that we know and love today. The end product is distinct from corned beef and pastrami because of its slow cooking process, which demands the brisket cut to be cured for 10 to 12 days in a spice mix, smoked for 8 to 9 hours, and then steamed for another 3 hours. The meat is then cut by hand, and served on rye, typically with a pickle and a Cott’s cherry cola.
Schwartz’s has passed through many hands during its storied past, and even Céline Dion owns shares in the restaurant today.
© Alison Slattery
Wilensky’s special sandwich
Wilensky’s Light Lunch is another hallmark of Montréal’s Jewish cuisine. Borne of the working conditions in the Mile End, Wilensky’s provided sustenance to the many employees working in textile factories that were located just south of where the deli stands today. These workers needed fast, filling and easily transportable fare, and so began the tradition of the Wilensky’s special. The special hasn’t changed since its inception and consists of beef bologna with mustard on a pressed roll.
If you do happen to visit, there are two important rules when ordering the special: it’s never to be cut in two, and never served without mustard. In the past patrons could pay 5 cents to have it without mustard (yes, you read that right), but in the name of tradition this policy has been done away with entirely.
Cheskie’s heavenly bakery
Cheskie’s Heimishe Bakery is an essential business for Outremont’s Hasidic community. It was started by Cheskie Leibowitz in 2002 when he relocated to Montréal from Brooklyn to marry his wife and settle down. Leibowitz’s upbringing is evident in certain items on the menu, such as the black and white cookie, which can commonly be found in delis throughout New York.
Be sure to try Cheskie’s Kokosh, a pastry similar to Babka that reflects the family’s Hungarian roots. Kokosh is denser than Babka due to its lack of proofing and rise-time, which leaves it flakier than its Polish counterpart. Here you can find kokosh filled with either the traditional poppyseed or chocolate.
© Musée du Montréal juif
Beauty’s bountiful brunch
Located between what was once the economic hub of the neighbourhood to its east, and the social and organizational hub to its west, Beauty’s has been a central meeting point for residents of the Plateau for the better part of the last century.
Founded in 1942 by newlyweds Hymie and Freda Skolnick, the diner was initially known as the Bancroft Snack Bar. Formerly a destination for gathering and sustenance to the neighbourhood’s working class, today the diner persists as one of the most popular brunch spots in the Plateau, amongst locals and tourists alike.
Be sure to try the Beauty’s Special, a bagel with cream cheese, smoked salmon, tomato and thinly sliced red onion. Their giant salad topped with a scoop of chopped liver is also a delicious way to taste a Jewish classic.
© Alison Slattery
Hof Kelsten’s next-level bakery
Opened in 2014 by Jeffery Finkelstein, Hof Kelsten is a bakery and lunch counter that’s indicative of Montréal’s “new Jewish food movement”. Finkelstein opened Hof Kelsten to reproduce the foods he grew up with, applying the techniques he picked up working in Michelin-star restaurants around the world.
Here you can find a modern approach to the classics: borsch, brisket and rugelach to name a few. But you can also find more obscure dishes like the oft-forgotten bialy. Originating from Bialystok, Poland, this bread is a close relative of the bagel, sharing an approximate shape and dimension. Whereas the bagel is boiled and baked, the bialy is simply baked, and has a shallow divot instead of a hole, typically filled with some combination of garlic, onion and poppy seeds.
© Two Food Photographers
Sumac’s savoury kitchen
Located in Saint-Henri and opened in 2014 by restaurateur David Bloom and chef Rachel Zagury, Sumac’s menu boasts a beautiful array of shawarmas, hummus and falafels with tell-tale signs of distinct Jewish influence.
The spice mix za’atar, which adorns several dishes across the menu, originates from North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Fertile Crescent, and exemplifies the long history of cross-pollination between Jewish and Arab cuisines.
For an authentic experience of Jewish Moroccan fare, be sure to try their Salade Cuite. Consisting of roasted red peppers and tomatoes, you’ll be hard pressed to find this dish at many other restaurants in the city.
Montréal at its tastiest
The Jewish food available in Montréal does more than provide diversity to the palate of visitors and residents alike. It gives diners a delicious entry point into a rich local history of migration, adaptation and collaboration, of perseverance and triumph. These foods are, in other words, a taste of Jewish culture as well as an invitation into a world of cultural exploration and warm hospitality. Welcome to flavoursome Montréal!