Isn’t it strange to think that McGill University in Montreal, often ranked as Canada’s best, might fail the test when it comes to great coffee? In a town where chefs and restaurateurs have created a bold food scene with a style that draws equally from old local traditions and a rich multiethnic diversity, the coffee scene has been slow to catch up in many neighbourhoods, including here. Vibrant and lively, full of young energy and bright minds? The area around McGill has had that for centuries. A really fine cup of coffee? This is a recent development.
Pikolo Espresso Bar opened in 2011, and should rightfully be looked to as a leader in specialty coffee culture in this part of town (indeed throughout Montreal, along with the key influencers at Cafe Myriade). Humble Lion opened early last year, signaling a continuing evolution in the way that the students, staff and neighbours of the second oldest university in Québec think about coffee. And with other daring owners following the path, the McGill crowd can now choose from many interesting cafés in which to cram, meet, fuel their studies, or simply hang out. Here is a quick guide to the most popular and essential places.
Marie-Ève Laroche is as near as you can get to a Montreal coffee scene’s Godmother. After starting out as an actress, she spent a year in Australia learning about coffee, working in plantations and shops in order to, one day, create a place where she could control everything, “from the plant to the cup”.
That day arrived in 2011 when she opened Pikolo Espresso Bar on Parc Avenue, in the middle of what locals semi-affectionately refer to as”the McGill ghetto”. With its industrial look, mezzanine and modern feel, the place quickly filled with a mix of students and workers who were drawn by the incredible coffee. They never left, and Pikolo remains one of the most popular third wave cafés in Montreal.
Laroche and her right-hand-man Mitchell Simon serve coffees from Phil and Sebastian, a Calgary roaster with whom they have developed a close relationship. You're also likely to find rotating “guest coffees” here from other fine roasters, including Counter Culture Coffee on a recent visit. They use a beautiful custom-made Mirage espresso machine, a reminder of Marie-Ève's artistic background. Most of the pastries are baked on-site.
Pikolo Espresso Bar–3418B, Parc Avenue, Montreal. Hours daily from 7am weekdays, 9am weekends, and until 7pm. (514) 508-6800
Jason Malo is a big hockey fan! It takes a lot to distract him from an important Montreal Canadiens game–something as big as the Canadian national Brewers Cup, as happened recently. Jason had worked in the industry for years before deciding to open a café with his partner, Yvan Marcoux. Right in front of McGill’s main campus on Sherbrooke Street, Humble Lion has quickly established itself as a neighborhood mainstay for espresso, filter coffee, and light food.
Working with a La Marzocco Strada EP espresso machine (Malo represented the company in Quebec before opening Humble Lion), using Intelligentsia coffee and serving the pastries of neighbours Godley & Crème, the café draws a crowd of students and many workers from office towers around the area, making for a diverse seating area equally comprised of suits and hoodies.
A few tables in the back are often filled with students working on their projects or homework, but the vibe always remains lively. And in spring, when the National Hockey League playoffs are in full swing and the Canadiens are still in there, you'll find the owner himself behind the La Marzocco, talking Habs.
Humble Lion–904 Sherbrooke Ouest, Montreal. Hours daily. (514) 844-5466
An offshoot of Furco Bar next door, Café Parvis welcomes the morning crowd in what used to be the ‘Fur District’ of Montreal. The bare, open space is filled with cheap tables and chairs from the ‘70s that fill quickly at lunch time, when the café turns into a pizzeria.
Eric Bélanger, the supervising chef and co-owner (with seven associates!), explains that the first idea was to use the Furco space, but the success (and very late closing hours…) of the bar allowed them to rent the adjacent abandoned store. After mostly structural renovations and minimal decoration, they opened Café Parvis in February of 2014.
Working on a classic La Marzocco FB80, the shop uses beans from Montreal’s Kittel Coffee, a local micro-roaster who has made giant leaps in very short time since opening in 2011. The pastries and breakfast sandwiches are made in the vast open kitchen that fills the back of the café.
Cafe Parvis–433 Mayor Street, Montreal. Hours from 7am until 11pm weekdays, 5:30pm to 11pm Saturdays. (514) 764-3589
Created by Montreal designer François Beauregard, Kitsuné (wich means “fox” in Japanese) presents itself as an “Espresso Bar Artisanal”. Aside from coffee, the manager Richard John is a cycling and music aficionado, and you’ll find both a bike rack and an old turntable inside by the coffee counter.
The place has an edgy design, highlighted by the Kitsuné name in lights on the back wall, and the furniture made of steel and reclaimed barn wood. The large communal tables welcome the students (there’s wi-fi and electric outlets), but also the workers of the many St-Laurent Street shops, right around the corner.
Kitsuné–19 Prince Arthur Ouest, Montreal. Hours daily. (514) 507-2055
Chrissy Durcak has been a fixture of Montreal’s coffee scene for many years now, though she’s still quite young. Her calm and débonnaire demeanor hides a rare knowledge of her craft. Chances are she will remember your exact order, even if your visits are months apart.
In the last two years, Durcak has mainly worked in her Dispatch Café Mobile truck, a tough mission in a city where street foods and beverages are still considered an experiment. Finding her way through the permits and the (mostly) silent hostility of the neighbouring cafés owners, Chrissy has kept her cool, and continues to serve some of the best coffee in town.
She prepares beans from Parlor Coffee (her friends from Brooklyn) and serves typical European pastries from Boulangerie Hof Kelsten. Her white truck will be parked right in front of the main campus of McGill University every Friday until October 31th.
This feature was developed through our talks at Barista Nation Montreal. The next Barista Nation event happens July 26th in Denver, Colorado.