A guide to Jewish food in Montreal with the Wandering Chew's Kat Romanow

From the local legends and institutions to new generations, this is your complete guide to the five neighbourhoods holding the keys to Jewish food in Montreal.

Kat Romanow

Kat Romanow

May 23, 2024- Read time: 11 min
A guide to Jewish food in Montreal with the Wandering Chew's Kat RomanowPhotograph: Lester's Deli

Jewish food in Montreal has come to be a jewel in the crown of North America alongside cities like New York and Los Angeles, where it has flourished and become deeply ingrained in the city’s food culture. Wherever it goes, it takes on the flavour of the place it lands in while influencing its food culture.

It's shaped what we think of as Montreal food, with two of the iconic dishes of bagels and smoked meat—but also dishes like matzah ball soup, chopped liver, challah, knishes, and rye bread—brought here by Jewish immigrants. Simultaneously, Jewish food in Montreal continues to be a way for Jews to connect with their identities over a meal.

As Jewish food in Montreal is largely concentrated around five neighbourhoods, this guide’s organised around them: The Plateau and the Mile End are home to many of the well-known and oldest Jewish food businesses in the city; in Saint-Henri, restaurants opened in the mid-2000s by young Jewish chefs serve Jewish food with a modern twist; finally, Cote-des-Neiges and Côte Saint-Luc are primarily home to bakeries and take-out counters, with the exception of a beloved Jewish deli.

A short history of the Jewish community in Montreal

To understand Jewish food in Montreal, it helps to know about the history of Jews in Montreal. The two are intimately tied: Jews first arrived here in 1760, with the conquest of New France by the British army. The community living in Montreal remained small until the arrival of Eastern European Jews, also known as Ashkenazi Jews, who began to arrive in large numbers in the 1880s.

Photograph: / Flickr

These newcomers were Yiddish speaking and largely working class. They settled in the neighbourhoods of the Plateau and the Mile End, with the streets between Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Parc Avenue becoming a densely populated beating heart of the community of the time.

The streets were lined with businesses of all kinds from bakeries, markets selling produce alongside live chickens and small grocery stores that sold pickles in barrels to fishmongers, delis, and family-run restaurants serving homestyle meals. Although most of these have since closed, some remain with iconic statuses that speak to these neighbourhoods’ histories.

Photograph: / Flickr

The Jewish community remained in these neighbourhoods until the 1960s, at which point they moved to the western neighbourhoods of the city, where much of the community is concentrated today—now numbering more than 90,000.

Photograph: Tourisme Montréal / Madore / Daphné Caron

Another important wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in the city in the late 1950s, largely from Morocco and other countries in North Africa. Known as Sephardic Jews, this community settled in the neighbourhoods of Saint-Laurent and Côte Saint-Luc.

They brought with them a completely different Jewish cuisine based on the ingredients, flavours, and cooking techniques of North Africa, including cumin, cinnamon, preserved lemon, garlic, tomatoes, eggplant, slow cooked dishes, and stews. Their food may not have made it into Montreal’s mainstream food culture in the same way that Ashkenazi food has, but it remains an important part of Jewish food in Montreal.

The Mile End and Plateau: The historic heart of Jewish food in Montreal

The streets here hold a tremendous amount of Jewish Montreal history. Walk the streets with someone who knows its stories, and you’ll be surprised about how much of it invisibly surrounds you.

Although the community has largely moved away from these areas, some iconic businesses remain. One of the most famous of these is Schwartz’s Deli, where you’ll regularly encounter line-ups for their smoked meat. Opened by Reuben Schwartz in 1928 slightly south of its current location, the space it now occupies has been there since 1940.

Reuben was Jewish-Romanian, and brought the process of curing and smoking brisket with him from that country, where it had been introduced by invading Ottoman-Turkish armies. The classic order here is a medium smoked meat sandwich with a pickle, fries, and a can of Cott’s black cherry soda. Another nod to the Romanian roots of the restaurant, yet little known, is the rib steak on the menu. Grilled meat was another central part of Romanian-Jewish cuisine, and this is now the only place that upholds this tradition in the Plateau.

Photograph: Scott Usheroff / @cravingcurator

If you don’t want to wait in line, you can head up to Lester’s Deli on Bernard, which has been serving smoked meat since 1951. You can also visit Deli 365 for a kosher smoked meat sandwich, cholent on Fridays, or chopped liver with herring.

For breakfast or lunch

Beautys is an essential stop. Founded by Hymie and Freda Skolnick in 1942, who met and fell in love while working at a nearby garment factory—their faces grace a large mural on the restaurant’s exterior wall.

Its interior pays homage to the Beautys that many people grew up with, where blue leather seating, an aluminium back bar, and formica tables feel familiar yet new at the same time. Named after Hymie’s bowling nickname, earned because he bowled a beauty of a ball, the restaurant is now run by Hymie and Freda’s son Larry along with his daughters Elana and Julie.

Beautys is famous for its Beautys Special, a bagel sandwich filled with cream cheese, lox, sliced tomato, and thinly sliced red onion, and its Mish-Mash omelette of chopped beef hot dogs, salami, green pepper, and fried onion (both of which were created by Freda). Years ago, when interviewing Hymie, he described her as having a pair of golden hands that made everything she touched delicious.

 This restaurant has fed generations of Jewish Montrealers, who’d agree with Julie when she says “it’s a feeling in here as opposed to a traditional Jewish deli.”

Around the corner is the bakery Hof Kelsten, opened by Montreal native Jeffrey Finkelstein in 2013. A trained chef who worked at top restaurants around the world, he uses this training to make French and Jewish inspired baked goods of superior quality. His menu reflects the Jewish foods he grew up with, including caraway-rye bread, rugelach made with a butter and cream cheese dough, challah, and cinnamon-raisin Danishes.

The streets between Fairmount and Bernard in the Mile End are the core of where Jewish food businesses are concentrated. Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel are a must for fresh Montreal bagels—make sure to ask which bagels have just come out of the oven, and get yourself a dozen of those.

Another long-standing restaurant is Wilensky’s Light Lunch. Founded in 1932 by Moe Wilensky, it has become a neighbourhood institution where not much has changed, and walking in feels like stepping back to the 1930s, when the neighbourhood would have been filled with numerous small businesses serving the Ashkenazi community.

The menu is limited, but this doesn’t matter since the Wilensky Special is the star of the show: A beef salami and bologna sandwich served with mustard on a pressed kaiser-like roll with cornmeal, it is never cut in two, always served with mustard, and can be served with either Swiss cheese or a Kraft single. A soda, made with in-house syrup that is poured into the bottom of the glass and topped with seltzer that streams out of an old-style spout, is the perfect accompaniment.

Photograph: Paul Shio

The visible presence of Hasidic Jews in the Mile End, who practice a strict interpretation of Judaism, have opened their own businesses in the neighbourhood. Boulangerie Cheskie is one which is beloved by Jews and non-Jews, founded in 2002 by Cheskie Lebowitz who moved to Montreal from Brooklyn to marry.

After settling here, he opened this kosher bakery which is modelled after one opened by his brother in Brooklyn. They sell some of the best chocolate and cinnamon babka in the city, as well as traditional yeasted rugelach that you can buy filled with chocolate, poppy seeds, jam, and cinnamon. The kokosh, a denser and flatter cousin to babka, speaks to the Hungarian roots of the family. The cheese crowns are the highlight of any visit to the bakery, filled with a sweet cheese filling surrounded by a soft, crown-shaped dough.

The new Jewish restaurants of Saint-Henri

In the 2000s, young Jews across North America began to reclaim the traditional food they grew up eating, opening businesses around those dishes with updated techniques and ingredients. Arthur’s Nosh Bar fits into this category. Opened by Reagan Steinberg and Alex Cohen in 2016, the restaurant is named after Reagan’s father who passed away in 2006. She credits her love of food to him and says that Arthur’s was created as a tribute to his legacy.

They serve Jewish food comfort food with a modern twist, including syrniki (cottage cheese pancakes), a latkes smorgasbord, a salmon tower of lox and gravlax, and the McArthur schnitzel sandwich on challah. It has become one of the most popular brunch spots in Montreal and is equally busy for breakfast and lunch during the week.

Photograph: Scott Usheroff / @cravingcurator

Close by is Sumac, opened by Raquel Zagury and David Bloom in 2014. They serve plates and sandwiches of falafel, sabich (an eggplant, egg and amba-filled pita invented by Iraqi Jewish immigrants to Israel), and shawarma. Their salade cuite, a slow-cooked dip made with tomatoes, roasted peppers and garlic as well as the spicy carrot salad seasoned with preserved lemons and cumin speak to Raquel’s Moroccan-Jewish heritage.

Côte-des-Neiges and Côte Saint-Luc: Diverse Jewish foods

Behind an unassuming facade on Queen Mary Road is R.E.A.L Bagel, where you can buy fresh, hand-rolled bagels that are baked in a wood-fired oven and deserve a place as some of the best in the city. They also sell everything you need—lox, capers, cream cheese—to host a bagel brunch.

Côte-des-Neiges and Côte Saint-Luc are also home to various bakeries where you can find excellent challahs, the braided bread traditionally served at Friday night Shabbat dinners. These include Kosher Quality and Boulangerie Snowdon (technically in Montreal West, but worth the detour).

A specific pastry that is worth seeking out is the cheese bagel. They’re horseshoe-shaped pastries with a flaky, strudel-like dough filled with a sweet farmer’s cheese—mostly unknown outside of our city’s Jewish community. They come plain or topped with coarse sugar crystals, and are traditionally served with sour cream and jam. A nostalgic treat for anyone who grew up in Montreal’s Jewish community, you can find them at the bakeries mentioned above, as well as at Fressers.

Photograph: @dshiffty / Instagram

Snowdon Deli is a Montreal institution beloved by generations of Montreal Jews. It’s truly an intergenerational spot, opened in 1946 by brothers Abe and Joe Morantz and now owned and run by family members of the original owners, Ian Morantz and Hart Fishman, plus Sophy Agelopoulos whose father was also part owner and her husband Yanni Papoulis.

Snowdon Deli is one of the few sit-down delis that still exist in Montreal. Their smoked meat is a must-try, but there are other dishes that are worth ordering, from chopped liver topped with deeply golden caramelised onions and served with slices of rye, cold borscht served with sour cream, or iceberg salad topped with scoops of tuna or egg salad. Never leave without buying a box of their party sandwiches at the takeout counter that lines one side of the restaurant.

Photograph: Scott Usheroff / @cravingcurator

While Moroccan Jewish food is an equally important part of the Jewish food traditions of the city, it’s primarily cooked and served in the homes of members of the community, and less available in restaurants around the city. However, La Marguerite’s Catering is where anyone can taste this food without having to be invited to Friday night dinner.

For over thirty years, the kosher catering company has been supplying foods for events. Their storefront offers gourmet takeout where you can find Jewish Moroccan dishes like Moroccan salmon with peppers and olives, fish balls cooked in tomato sauce, honey chicken tagine, vegetable tagine, and salade cuite.

Photograph: Rachel Holly Cheng / @rachelhollycheng

Kat Romanow is a writer, cook, and Montreal Jewish food expert. She co-founded The Wandering Chew, a non-profit that tells the diversity of Jewish stories through food with a focus on the foods of Jewish Montrealers, and gives hands-on cooking classes and demos.

Shalom, Montreal.

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