High, low or deeply dive-y, the cocktail scene is très magnifique
The Montreal bar scene has always been one of Canada’s best. But it was hit harder than most by the toughest COVID restrictions in the country. The city is rebounding with a number of great new cocktail spots that take us back to the future.
The beloved Dominion tavern—with roots going back to the Roaring Twenties—rises again. This time with classic cocktails by Andrew Whibley (Cloakroom) and a full raw bar from Pablo Rojas (Provisions Boucherie & Bar à Vin). The building’s stately bones, including original wood-beamed ceiling and tiled floor, remain intact. But the tables have been elevated to bar height for extra conviviality. Treat yourself to a dirty Martini with a touch of sage and olive leaf, a Tuxedo No. 2 infused with black tea or a Ramos slushie. The drinks have all been slightly tweaked for the better and pre-batched to perfection. Close to the Bell Centre, this is the downtown boîte to hit before a Habs game—or any occasion that calls for stylish imbibing.
Bar Bisou Bisou
Like a kiss of Mediterranean sunshine off the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, the whitewashed, azulejo-tiled Bisou Bisou specializes in apéritif, low-ABV and spirit-free cocktails. The semi-basement snug is lighter, brighter and more spacious than its renowned siblings across the way: The Coldroom and the nine-seat El Pequeño Bar. Kevin Demers has teamed up with NYC’s Gregory Buda (former director of education and training for The Dead Rabbit) for a complex menu that will appeal to adventurous drinkers. Sherry lovers will be in seventh heaven with savoury sippers like the manzanilla-and-anise-laced Stoneflower. For a vegetal punch, go for the Campobasso Highball with Cynar, red bell pepper and green olive.
Montreal has a special place in its heart for dive bars. And this Saint-Henri hole-in-the-wall, made to look like a pawn shop from the front window, has curated the cheap-shots-and-bottled-beer experience through a fun, goofy, neon-lit, ’90s lens. Think free popcorn, bubble guns, a leopard-print pool table and Shania Twain on the jukebox. The concept comes from the Barocco Group (Atwater Cocktail Club, Milky Way) so the cocktails are better than average. But they’re shaken with a dash of camp—the Raspberry Sour Puss Margarita, for instance, or the Miami Vice (with Malibu) slushie. Mix it up with a high-low boilermaker: Labatt 50 in a brown paper bag chased by a $20 shot of Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
Double’s Late Night
If Bon Délire is a pop-crossover dive bar, Double’s Late Night in the artsy Mile End is its grunge cousin—replete with a Dave Grohl sighting this summer. The graffiti-strewn storefront, scuffed red-vinyl floor and padded elbow rests on the bar channel a dark-’90s vibe, when the city really was down in the dumps. Iron Chef Danny Smiles, slumming it on a side hustle from his main gig at the Auberge Willow Inn, has created a double-patty, brioche-bun burger that already ranks as one of the city’s faves. Order it with a Budweiser by the bottle. Beyond a small selection of import wines, a classic Martini is as fancy as it gets.
At Antonio Park’s modern-Japanese YAMA restaurant in the newly renovated Vogue Hotel, Justin Daigle has created extraordinary cocktails inspired by the room’s sumptuous textures. Clay is a fresh take on the Margarita, mixed with house-made orgeat, activated charcoal, cricket bitters and a dehydrated almond powder, giving it a sandy mouthfeel that pays homage to Venetian plaster walls and Turkish travertine floors. The lavish Leather combines Japanese umami bitters and a gochujang sweet-and-sour syrup in a Rémy Martin VSOP and red vermouth split base, which is flamed and thrown over a piece of A5 Wagyu. The drink is filtered and chilled tableside for an à la minute fat wash. And, yes, you get to eat the meat, too, which is served with a side of red wine.
Although it hadn’t yet opened at press time, this Lebanese-inspired speakeasy underneath HENI Restaurant will be one worth seeking out. Émile Archambault, whose gastronomic cocktails at Le Petit Mousso won the 2019 Lauriers Award for Mixologist/Bartender of the Year (and a rave review from then-Montreal Gazette critic Lesley Chesterman), will be behind the bar. We tried his drinks last spring at the short-lived Bar Emil (now Jules Bar à Vin) and they were phenomenal. Look for Dizzy Lips (an elevated amaretto sour with a Sichuan-peppercorn buzz) among his new creations, which will incorporate rose, honey and za’atar. Archambault promises a chill vibe and a superb, vinyl-spinning sound system.
—by Alexandra Gill