Montreal’s food scene is more than just poutine, bagels, and smoked meat. It’s French, only grittier. It’s New York, only cheaper. And as a longtime magnet for immigrants from around the globe—you’ll find influences from Europe, North Africa, South Asia, and beyond—it’s essentially Disney World for foodies.
Few know this better than chef Emma Cardarelli, a Montreal native who got her start in the business in the early 2000s. Known for being an early advocate for change in the restaurant industry’s ongoing reckoning with toxic workplaces, she’s spent the better part of the last decade running two of the city’s most talked-about restaurants: Nora Gray, a cozy Southern Italian date spot in the Griffintown neighborhood, and Elena, a funky, fun neighborhood pizza and pasta joint.
At both spots, Cardarelli has prioritized not only great meals, but a great working environment for her employees—an attitude that’s paying off not just at her restaurants, but at restaurants around the city. (Sarah Maude Huard, chef at new Villeray Italian sandwich and gelato joint Rose, says Cardarelli is the one who inspired her to run a “feminist” kitchen).
With a long-renowned, delicious reputation and chefs like Cardarelli working tirelessly to raise standards even further, Montreal’s restaurant scene only gets better each year. Here, Cardarelli gives us an insider’s look into the city’s best restaurants—including her final say on the top bagel in town. May the best roll win.
For one flavor-packed bite after the next: Damas
While it doesn’t get cred from poutine-focused tourists, Syrian/Persian restaurant Damas has been listed as one of the best restaurants in Montreal since it opened in 2010. Get a tasting platter and tell me everything isn’t delicious. TELL ME. Plus, Damas has a great atmosphere. “The dining room just emanates fancy,” Cardarelli says.
By all counts, Mile End taco bar Maïs was a hit—but unfortunately, the co-owners decided to shut it down. Then, during the pandemic, they opened this new gourmet sandwich shop and wine bar in the same spot and subsequently knocked it out of the park yet again. “This restaurant recently went through a total makeover [and] the food is also so delicious and inventive,” Cardarelli says.
If you’re looking for a place with uniquely immaculate vibes, Cardarelli admits that it’s a toss-up between her own restaurant, Elena, and Little Italy wine bar Mon Lapin. “The buzz in the room is undeniable. The service is exquisite and the food sublime,” she says of the latter.
“Owner Marco (Marc-Olivier Frappier) is constantly setting the bar for the best, most interesting food in the city,” Cardarelli adds. “There’s always a little whimsy to the menu ideas here. I kick myself often that he has thought of something that I haven’t. This team has such a solid grasp on classic Italian and French cooking that when they are easily able to play and bend the rules in such an intelligent way.”
Much like Cardarelli, chef Dyan Solomon has been outspoken about the need for more women-run kitchens. That, plus the damn good food, makes her cafe/restaurant Olive et Gourmando a must-try. “Olive et Gourmando: forever the tastiest sandwiches and the heartiest soups,” Cardarelli says.
For breakfast sammies and small plates: Larrys
Waiting in line for brunch in Montreal is practically a sport, and Cardarelli says Larrys does it best. Try the breakfast sandwich—homemade English muffin, salty and tangy sausage, extra old cheddar, sunny side up egg, and mayo. And be sure to come back for dinner. “Larry’s—all day, all night, all fun!”
There are two ways to start a fiery debate in Montreal: Ask a local about their favorite neighborhood, or ask about their favorite bagels. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. For Cardarelli, St-Viateur trumps Fairmount. “Hands down the best. For me, there’s no competition.”
Don’t look now, but it looks like Montreal is coming for Toronto’s crown as the Canadian king of Caribbean cuisine. Cardarelli loves the Jamaican patties and roti at Boom J’s, but Kwizinn, Tropikàl, and Kamúy are also doing delicious and wonderfully spicy meals.
Feel free to skip the line at Schwartz’s and head to Smoked Meat Pete in the West End, says Cardarelli. “Though I don’t eat there personally, it’s the only one I ever hear people bragging about visiting.”
Yes, Cardarelli listed Elena again—and again, we struggle to disagree. “At Elena, the vibe is cool kids in cool clothes with fun music and colorful decor,” she says. “The quality of ingredients and love that goes into production are bar-none.” Other worthy options include Pizza Toni, Adamo, and Gema.
Newcomer Thai spot Pichai is helping to revive St-Hubert Plaza for a new generation. (Check how cool the street looked in the 1960s). “Cool food, cool kids, cool merch—cool, cool, cool,” Cardarelli says.
“Intimate, low lighting, good wine, great food,” Cardarelli says of her prized Griffintown restaurant.
“Cornichons, baguette, and butter sandwiches FTW,” Cardarelli says. “Seriously, my mother took me [to L’Express] for the first time when I was 16. I go back all the time for the same dish, the ravioli, which at the time I had no idea was made with veal brains.”
For a classy night out, the neighborhood to be in is Old Montreal, and Tiers Paysage is at the center of the ritz. “The dining room is very modern and warm. The service is impeccable. The food is thoughtful and inventive,” Cardarelli says.