Who among us doesn't like to have the inside scoop -- whether it's knowing what's hot and what's not, when to dump that ImClone stock, or the best shortcut to I-89 when traffic is crawling. Capitalizing on our desire to be know-it-alls, Canadian publisher Arsenal Pulp Press recently released Montreal: The Unknown City. It boasts offering "a lesser-known take on the remarkable places, wide-open spaces and world-famous faces that make the city unique." The book does provide scads of quirky stories, bizarre facts and oddball recommendations you'll never find in a typical guidebook to any city.
So, having read the book, what do I know that you don't? Well, I know why there's a street in Montreal named St-Zotique, even though, as a good Catholic girl like me realizes, there never was a St. Zotique. (Answer: The former landowner's name was combined with "saint.") I know the intersection where the first pedestrian death in the city occurred, and which intersections are still the most dangerous for bipeds. I know about the "Most Unforgettable Fires in La Belle Ville."
But do I really want to know these things? Though some of the anecdotes are charming, others are downright silly. Such as one about a '63 Plymouth Fury that a cabbie drove for 2.5 million kilometers, a world record that still stands. But there's a lot to wade through if what you really want is to find your way up, down, around and inside this fascinating city. The chapter on Transportation, for example, reveals commuter shortcuts and how the Metro was built, but offers neither a map nor a mention of how to buy an inexpensive day pass for the transit system.
Two chapters in Unknown City, however, do serve a useful purpose: Shopping and Dining. Unlike the other chapters, these zero in on where the best duds and deals can be found. I can vouch for the Dining chapter from my own experience. For example, Ganges Restaurant is at the top of the list for Indian cuisine in Montreal. For some of us, it's at the top of the North American list!
The guide to shopping takes you building-by-building through Chabanal, Mont-real's garment district, and lists good fripperies, where stylish, previously owned clothes pack the racks.
My husband and I are Montreal aficionados; we've rented apartments in the city over the years and spend every holiday, U.S. or Canadian, that we can up there. So when a book devotes page after page to buildings, memorials, parks and streets that no longer exist, we can at least picture what it would have been like to see an oil well on that corner along Sherbrooke.
But those who visit the city just a couple times a year need more than facts and fancies and tidbits of history. They need recommendations on what to see, where to go and how to get there. Unknown City does contain fun and interesting stuff, but to appreciate most of it you have to be an insider already.
Also new on the tourist bookrack is the latest version of Cheap Thrills: Great Montreal Meals for Under $15. I bought the first edition of this book back in 1996 -- when the meals were actually "Under $10" -- and it's been a bible for good eating. The editors and their friends, foodies all, do the reviews. Restaurants are added or removed by acclamation. To qualify as a "cheap thrill," a restaurant must offer "a reasonable selection of meals in the under-$15 price range (before taxes, tip and alcohol)." And, they add, "of course the food has to be excellent, not just cheap!"
Financial realism hit this year when the guide raised its upper limit to $15; my husband and I noted this with the same chagrin we felt when Europe could no longer be done on $5 a day. But don't forget: With the exchange rate still hovering around 65 cents on the dollar, the increase was only $3 for us U.S. citizens.
Perhaps more telling of the changes in Montreal since 1996, however, are the types of restaurants featured. The first edition we bought introduced us to many of the tiny French bistros and the less touristified Italian, Greek, Asian and Middle Eastern spots. That guide gave us the impetus to leave the Ste-Catherine/St-Laurent axis and move into the neighborhoods. We tested the authentic tastes of Ethiopia at Messob d'Or, and what turned out to be our very favorite place, the aforementioned Ganges in NDG on the western side of the city.
But more than inflation has changed Cheap Thrills. The 2003 edition is an introduction to recent Quebec immigration policy and the desire of people from around the world to leave former French colonies and land in Montreal. Back in '96, there were eight "bistros" and six "cafes." Eight Italian restos and six Vietnamese. African listings were limited to three from the north, one West African and one Ethiopian, and there were no restaurants tagged "Caribbean."
In the new edition it's pretty clear that the face of Montreal is now very different: There are as many Caribbean spots as bistros, and the African restaurants serve food from the Congo, Senegal and the Ivory Coast. New immigrants from Poland, the Republic of Georgia, Sri Lanka, Mauritania, El Salvador and Peru also have started restaurants. Cheap thrills to us in the First World are just home cooking in the Third World.
And tasty it is. If you don't have the time or means to travel the world to expand your cultural IQ, visiting a Peruvian restaurant at the corner of St-Hubert and Jean-Talon can be a good substitute. Surround yourself with the smells of new ingredients and the music of other peoples. Order from a waitstaff whose first language is neither French nor English. This is the stuff of learning how to be a better global citizen. It's a bonus that you leave with a full stomach. As my husband puts it, "Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, and make sure they bring their recipes!"