by Fiona O'Connor
As any local will tell you, coffee shops come a dime a dozen in Montreal.
The city's reputation as being an oasis of European culture and style in North America is undoubtedly well-founded: the province's distinct language, history and political identity have shaped a culture immeasurably different than it's English-speaking federal counterparts, whether neighbouring Ontario or far-flung British Columbia.
But for many of Montreal's visitors, the parts of the city which most strongly exemplify it's cosmopolitan make-up and European flare remain out of sight, lying just off the tourist's standard charted course of Old Montreal, Crescent and St-Catherine Streets, or the ever-intriguing yet somewhat culture-lacking attraction: the "Underground City."
While Montrealers are no different than other North Americans in their active participation in mass-consuming coffee culture (we have our Starbucks, Second Cups and Tim Hortons on every downtown street corner just like you!), an exploration of the city's smaller neighbourhood-based cafés will reveal a layer of culture, community and class that's all but obsolete when it comes to the mainstream purveyors of modern society's favourite drug.
Unsurprisingly, the best window into Montreal's café - not coffee - culture, is Little Italy and the spattering of Italian and Portuguese-run shops and social clubs that spill into the adjacent Mile End neighbourhood.
Now, if you're like me, you favour establishments that serve not only the best coffee, but provide an ambiance which also makes the experience of consuming that strong espresso or frothy latte a unique, authentic and unpretentious experience...Basically, the antithesis of what you get by downing a Starbucks' super-size-skinny-mocha-frappuccino on the go...if such a beverage even exists.
The café which draws the biggest crowd and whose clientele seems an even mix of Mile End hipsters and musicians as well as true coffee aficionados (ie. Italian Montrealers) is Café Olimpico, located at 124 St-Viateur West. Not only because baristas Vito and Vinnie know my name and my preferred caffeine fix, but because at this community hub the coffee is superb, as is their sizeable outdoor terrace and flat screen TV- a strong selling point especially in times of key sporting events.
A typical scene outside St-Viateur's popular Café Olimpico.
Just one block east is Club Social which, in the social aspect, is similar to Olimpico but with sandwiches, a full liquor license and a more regular presence of octogenarian, card-playing Italian men. Also priding itself on its excellent terrace (I have to say I prefer Social's- more shade and a better seating arrangement), this café is an another great spot where coffee and conversation is the trade of the day. Club Social is at 180 St-Viateur West.
Heading north, we arrive in Little Italy, where it becomes practically impossible to detail every establishment with a good bean to boast. So, in the interest of keeping those trip-planning, coffee-impaired attention spans focused on the task at hand, here are a couple of gems:
Caffé Italia (6840 St-Laurent Blvd.) reigns supreme as the quintessential Italian café in Montreal, where the decor hasn't changed in the 50 years of its existent, and neither, seemingly has its clientele. While I've never been to Italy, frequenting the many Italian cafés of Buenos Aires allowed my imagination to run wild with pictures of what Italy might have been like some decades ago. Caffé Italia allows me to reclaim this experience, two blocks from home, with a perfect allongé in hand.
Caffé Italia: a little Italy in Little Italy.
Recently taking advantage of a sunny afternoon off, I strolled along rue Dante in Little Italy. Just past the beautiful, tree-lined Parc Dante is the rather nondescript Café Concha d'Oro. Now, when I talk about a place being unpretentious and no-frills, this is it, and while I'm pretty sure businesses nowadays can't legally exclude female patrons, I got the feeling I might have been the first gal to cross Concha d'Oro's threshold in recent memory. Now I'd be surprised if their coffee shared any similar fame to those places I've already mentioned, but so simple, sunny and straight-forward was my visit to this spot that I recommend it to you anyway. Concha d'Oro, its dog-eared pin-ups and faded Goodfellas posters, can be found at 184 Dante East.
No doubt a men's club at some point in its history, Concha d'Oro offers a fine iced latte and an even better chocolate biscotti.