It isn’t every day you’re treated to a historic culinary spectacle while waiting for breakfast — and yet that’s what you get every time you walk into Montreal’s St.-Viateur Bagel. There’s the aproned employee rolling out the dough, effortlessly forming each piece into its telltale skinny shape. There’s another one briefly boiling the soft rings in honeyed water. When he’s done he puts them on a long, narrow wooden slab with a handle, which acts as a giant spatula to deposit and later retrieve the bagels from the antique wood-fired oven. From there they’re deposited on a chute, where they await, hot and fresh, for the next customer. And so on, again and again. Twenty-four hours a day, every day.
Much has been said, and written, about bagels from Montreal versus New York City, the twin centers of production in eastern North America (both cities have turn-of-the-20th-century Eastern European Jewish immigrants to thank for many of their most iconic foods). But aside from the bagels’ clear distinctions in taste — an area in which, I’ll admit, I prefer New York and its use of salt — there exists two other differences that will forever endear Montreal bagels to me. The first is that the city’s bagel elite are open 24/7. The second is that the shops’ bagel-making methods are totally transparent, there in the back for the world to see.
Bagels are a fixture of the neighborhood in Montreal. If you live in Mile End — home to St.-Viateur and Fairmount Bagel, another popular 24-hour shop — there’s no way you’re not stopping for a hot, fresh bagel every now and then on your way home at 2 a.m. on a Saturday, around the same time we in New York crave a greasy slice of pizza. (Clearly, Montreal’s residents win on the calorie front, at least until poutine enters the picture.)
Bagels in New York are mostly a breakfast/brunch thing, and even then, there are no dedicated bagel-production shops in New York. We have restaurants and shops devoted to meatballs, roast beef, rice pudding, and (thankfully, still) pickles, but nothing that’s all bagels, all the time. The Montreal shops are really bagel factories, more akin to Philadelphia’s early-morning pretzel makers than anything else. Bagels are basically all they make — even schmears (i.e., cream cheese) are sold on the side only.
In New York, there are lots of just-average bagels. Bagels that are rolled by machine, not by hand, and maybe we’ll never know which because we don’t get to see how they’re made. There are still a bunch of hand rollers, to be sure, but even when you buy a fresh bagel, it’s not necessarily just out of the oven. And speaking of, antique ovens are used only for pizza making here.
When I went to St.-Viateur Bagels my first morning in Montreal, I saw the bagel-making process for the first time in my life, and I saw it the moment I walked in the door. Immediately I sensed the strong respect for tradition in the place, and I loved it so much I almost didn’t taste, in that first bite, the missing salt my palate wanted. Almost. No matter — it didn’t stop our group of four New Yorkers from eating a bagel every day during our stay in Montreal…usually at 2 a.m., on our way home.
Stay tuned for more on these bagels, plus 20+ other local foods and drinks in Montreal. While that section is in progress, check out our user content for Quebec.