It’s easy to consider Montreal’s Mile End as the center of an important ‘indie’ movement, but the neighbourhood is much more than that. The arrival of video game giant Ubisoft in 1997 in an old garment warehouse sparked a remarkable shift in the area. Today, a young and hip crowd cohabits with an important Hassidic Jewish community and old world European immigrants. Always a magnet for artists—from Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen to members of the Arcade Fire and Xavier Dolan—Mile End is also, unsurprisingly, full of cafés.
The neighbourhood’s vitality has caught the attention of Montreal third wave coffee leaders like Anthony Benda and Luke Spicer, the first of whom recently renovated his Café Myriade counter while the second recently opened a Mile End outpost of his successful Plateau shop, Café Névé. Curiously, both coffee bars are located in men’s clothing stores.
We’ve put together this guide as a starting point for exploring the rich coffee scene of Mile End, from exciting new-comers to stalwart veterans.
When he decided to create a second Café Myriade, Anthony Benda says he wanted to create something different. The Mile End district was his destination of choice, but the neighborhood was already filled with good coffee spots and he had a smaller project in mind. An offer from Matthieu Savoie, owner of men’s “general store” Savoie Fils, gave him the opportunity he was looking for in early 2013. This spring, after a year of working in a cramped space, Anthony and his associate Keaton Ritchie completely transformed this coffee counter. The superb custom-made Kees Van der Westen Spirit espresso machine is still the ‘pièce de résistance’, and is now joined by numerous slow-brew devices. The staff works with Vancouver’s roaster 49th Parallel, and offers a small selection of pastries, highlighted by the creations of Saint-Donuts.
The most recent addition to the neighborhood, Névé Mile-End opened in mid-June in a large warehouse ground-floor space within the Frank and Oak men’s clothing store and barbershop. Australian-born Luke Spicer, who also created Café Flocon and the original Café Névé, co-owns the new café with his associate Gabriel Rousseau, another figurehead of Montreal’s coffee scene. The café has quickly established itself as a top destination in that part of Mile End.
“There are many quality cafés in that area, east of St-Laurent Street, but they all do things differently than us,” explains Spicer. “We are good friends with Anthony (Benda) and we wouldn’t have gone on the other side of St-Laurent, near Café Myriade.” (In fact, his Kees van Der Westen Mirage espresso machine came from Myriade.) Spicer prefers to focus on Canadian roasters, and launched the Mile End café with offerings from Toronto’s Cut Coffee and Nova Scotia’s Anchored Coffee.
Caffè In Gamba
Jean-François Leduc was once a promising lawyer with a passion for coffee. A one-year stay in Italy—where he tested espressos in 34 towns—altered his life’s course. Back in Québec, he forfeited his comfortable paycheck, started working as a barista for minimum wage and learned everything he could about coffee. Caffè in Gamba opened in 2007 on busy Avenue du Parc, and Leduc set up his café as ‘La Maison de l’espresso’, with the idea to offer some of the best espresso coffees from a huge amount of North American micro-roasters.
Seven years later, you can still find coffees from Intelligentsia, Metropolis, Klatch, Counter Culture, 49th Parallel and other quality roasters, plus Leduc’s own St-Henri micro-roaster located across town. Even though Jean-François now owns four cafés and his own roasting business, Caffè in Gamba is still the closest place to his coffee roots. The old Faema E61 espresso machine, panettone and other Italian pastries, even the souvenirs from that trip in Italy, all evoke the feeling that we are in Roma or Milano.
Café Sardine is another of Mile End’s polyvalent spaces that serve different functions. Co-owner David Schmidt, a mastermind of the local food scene, has tried different formulas for Sardine’s nightly incarnation, the latest one being Iwashi, a pop-up Japanese izakaya. But it’s in the morning, when the sun shines through the large bay windows that the tiny place fills up with coffee lovers, literally packed like ‘sardines’ in a tin box. A spacious, dark wood bar seems to take up half the place, but nobody cares. Since its opening in early 2012, the café has been blessed with a succession of outstanding baristas who work on a small Nuova Simonelli Appia 2 espresso machine. The coffees are from Canadian roasters: Vancouver’s 49th Parallel, Calgary’s Phil & Sebastian and Montreal’s own Kittel. Café Sardine is also renowned for its donuts, from inventive flavors like Smoked Sugar to Menthe et Bourbon, homemade in the small kitchen, the selection changing regularly with the mood of the chef. All in all, it’s hard to find a cozier café in the Mile End.
There is a mix of Tokyo, Paris, and Montreal in Café Falco, a little gem hided in an otherwise generic warehouse building on a side street near the east end of Saint-Viateur. Yuko Toda, who owns the place with her husband Frederick, serves cuisine of her native Japan, and has taken inspiration for the decoration from her years of graphic design studies in Paris. The style is definitely industrial in its aesthetic, and the details—an old sewing machine, a large seamstress table, a textile rack— are reminders of the past occupants. Add to that a few bikes, large reclaimed wood tables, cast iron chairs, many syphon coffee makers (the only process offered at Falco) and you have a good idea of this café’s atmosphere. Yuko and her team work with beans by Wisconsin’s Kickapoo and Montreal’s own Saint-Henri (owned by the aforementioned Leduc). The coffee selection is quite simple (there is also a cold brew in summer), but this is a wonderful place to discover syphon processes coffee, if you haven’t already.
Located in a quiet part of Mile End, one street north of Saint-Viateur, Arts Café is the kind of place where people can stay for hours…and many of them do! Even though the café has been there for years, it’s only since Diane Leclaire took over in 2012 that it really became the trendy spot that it is today. True to its name, the café set itself apart with colorful decor, a cheerful lighting and a creative vibe that translates in the menus.
The café serves great brunch and lunch, prepared with quality local products and the staff is both welcoming and knowledgeable. There was also a marked upgrade in the coffee service when Leclaire took over: the baristas now work on a silver La Marzocco GB/5 and they prepare coffees from 49th Parallel and Kittel roasters. The nice side patio gets shades in the afternoon, and is the perfect spot to stay (and be) cool on hot summer days.
Opened in 2012 by two musicians, Martin Heslop and Colin Power, Café Résonance has quickly become a popular spot with its mix of creative music, good food, and quality coffees. The Mile End is a hot-bed of Montreal’s indie music scene, and there are shows almost every night at Résonance with no cover. The café is quieter during daytime, but the menus draw those who like vegan and vegetarian quality meals. The coffees are prepared on a La Marzocco Linea machine and the baristas use beans from Pilot Coffee Roasters in Toronto. A bit dark, the café occupies a long and narrow semi-basement space with the back used mostly for live shows. There are tables, counters and seating spaces at the front, and customers take advantage of free Wi-Fi and cool subterranean temperatures in the morning.
Olimpico and Club Social
If Myriade and Névé represent cutting-edge specialty coffees, Olimpico and Club Social are two old-style cafés in the Italian tradition, complete with soccer posters and flags. For decades, these Mile End institutions have drawn a crowd of artists, intellectuals, poets, and dreamers who share space with the old card-playing Italian immigrants and the soccer fans; all that’s missing today is the indoor fog of cigarette smoke, now a relic of the 20th century.
The coffee, prepared with a secret mix of quality beans is always good, always the same, always uncomplicated, which are precisely the reasons both cafés are usually packed. At Olimpico, still owned by the Furcaro family who opened it in 1970, the baristas work on two aptly named Faema No-Stops. At Club Social, Jay Lucifero and his staff prepare their coffees on a Nuova Simonelli Euro 2000. Located one block apart on the busiest part of Saint-Viateur Street, both cafés also offer something extra: patios! On sunny summer days, they become the epicenter of the Mile End with a mix of coffee drinkers as eclectic as the neighborhood itself.
Close Enough To Make A Detour…
Three of Montreal’s best independent coffees are located on the south, east and north edges of the Mile End. They all deserve a detour. They are Café Plume, at 123 Mont-Royal Ouest, who serve coffees from Santa Cruz’ Verve Coffee Roasters, with whom they share a certain way of life. Quick bites and good music are also in abundance.
Just east of Mile End is Le Couteau, a quiet St-Denis outlet in the tradition of the original Café Myriade (indeed, owner Chris Capell learned his trade there.) Le Couteau is at 4627 St-Denis.
Finally, don’t miss Café Odessa at 65 Beaubien Est, a charming annex of Le Vieux Vélo restaurant, with white wooden walls and a marine blue counter, inspired by the Ukrainian port city that gives its name to the place. Enjoy coffees from Toronto’s Pilot Coffee Roasters on their La Marzocco Linea, and pastries from nearby Patisserie Rhubarbe.
Michel Marois is a sportswriter for La Presse, and a Sprudge.com contributor based in Montreal. Read more Michel Marois on Sprudge.