Arguably the most famous restaurant in Montreal, and perhaps all of Canada, no trip to Montreal (gastronomic or otherwise) is complete without a visit to Joe Beef, featured not once, but twice in the filmed travelogues of Anthony Bourdain, America’s patron saint of global degustation. You want a table for four, at 7pm? Make your booking at least 4 weeks out, or more like 6-8 if you’re planning your visit for a Friday or Saturday night. But as a solo diner, you might well get lucky to be seated immediately on a Tuesday night at one of Joe Beef’s eight bar seating options in the cafe’s second dining room, located in the antechamber between the main dining room and the elegant outdoor patio (made marginally less elegant when under a meter of fluffy Quebec snow).
Qualified food writers have expounded, indeed, committed full acts of journalistic exegesis on the dining experience at Joe Beef, but for an unlicensed casual visitor–say, a coffee writer that drifts in alone on a Tuesday night around 9:30–well, the best case scenario involves putting yourself in the hands of Joe Beef’s eminently qualified staff, and accepting their suggestions (wine pours and all) in the form of a de facto tasting menu. Massachusetts oysters to start, with Cuvée Joe Beef white wine from Ontario. An absolutely outstanding jellied egg, lobster, and root vegetable salad paired with a Loire Valley white. Low-proof Italian red matched up expertly with a somewhat comme-ci-comme-ça veal belly pinwheel, with just-a-shade-too-salty mustard, rice, and stock sauce.
But the service! The service you experience while dining at the Joe Beef bar is one of North America’s very special food things.
And then. The coffee.
There’s little that inspires more boot-quaking than that moment between a charming server at an exceptional restaurant clearing your final dinner plates and asking, “Would you like a coffee?” at the end of your meal. That moment when, when the customer is a coffee-lover, nay, a coffee professional, nay, a total and incredible snob, that customer pauses. When that customer really wants a coffee after all, and moreso that customer, who, even more, wants so badly to know how they do on the coffee at this place, pauses timidly, and gulps out, “Sure.”
The coffee that came at the end of this particular beautiful meal was roasted by Cafe Union, a local Montreal joint that’s not served at any of the top Montreal cafes, but is being served at Joe Beef. Coffee service here has been through a bit of an evolution: it was once patrolled by the renowned Café Myriade, who supplied the restaurant with training and coffee from roasters across North America, before Joe Beef reached the decision to work with coffees roasted locally by Union.
My server, Max, was able to tell me every last detail about every dish, drink, and service detail of the experience at Joe Beef. In contrast, his knowledge of the restaurant’s coffee program was admittedly average, but in a world where Heston fucking Blumenthal serves Nespresso pods at The Fat Duck, an average bank of coffee knowledge is really above-average, frankly. And the shot itself–served allongé, a Montreal espresso shot phenomenon weighing in at around 4 ounces–was actually highly tasty. No information on the blend was provided, and the server himself admitted candidly that the coffee program seemed to be a bit of an afterthought, but the cup itself was deep, deceptively sweet, and quite refreshing.
That shot fueled me back up for a deeply bizarre no age statement, no distillery statement French Scotch whisky, followed by a splash of recommended eau de vie. The restaurant closing around us, the staff multitasked their closing duties to chat with me about food, coffee, and life—the latter of which being an epochal sort of thing that changed greatly for the staff at Joe Beef after Anthony Bourdain’s landmark 2011 episode of The Layover featured the restaurant. “After that, I didn’t speak French for a year,” my server Max told me, as a way of demarcating the way Joe Beef lost its regular clientele to an influx of tourists from Nebraska and Arizona in the months following Bourdain’s feature. (Max, it should be noted, is originally from California.)
But the big point here is in the headline to this feature. The coffee at Joe Beef does not suck, but it very well could. The standard for great coffee at restaurants like this is set very low, and the restaurants *like this* that dare to care about coffee are few and far between. I could give you a little list of top restaurants doing nice coffee around the world, but I assure you, dear reader, that it would be a very little list.
I almost expected the coffee at Joe Beef to suck; perhaps that would have made for a better article. But the truth is more blurry, bi-lingual, complicated and multi-faceted, much like the city of Montreal itself. A point I kept bringing up with the staff at Joe Beef is that Montreal’s coffee scene, while comparatively quite small for a city of 4 million people, is currently home to a half-dozen or so world-class cafes (including the aforementioned Myriade). Folks in Montreal nod in agreement when you make that statement, in affirmation of both the scene’s quality and relative petiteness.
“You’re the first coffee writer I’ve ever met,” Max told me. “That’s cool,” I said. “In five years you’ll have one working for you local paper. It’s all a matter of progression.”
I went on, my last drink of the night before me, a rare spirit composed of distilled white wine stems and seeds aged in Burgundy barrels. “10 years ago a restaurant like this could care less about serving good beer,” I tell Max, perhaps a bit expansive now, the courses surely taking effect. “Maybe you’d have a cheeky Labatt or something in the back of the cooler, but nothing nice, nothing you could make a proper margin on. But I bet you’ve got some lovely beer options now, right?”
He nodded in agreement. “Coffee’s just like that,” I tell him. “Restaurants just need to figure out how to make money on it.”
“Hey! You want to try a good beer?”, Max asks me in response, his eyes brightening. “We have our own brewery now.”
Jordan Michelman is an editor and co-founder at Sprudge.com.