Story by Bruce Sach
MONTREAL, QUEBEC — What candy is made of a maraschino cherry, surrounded by a mix of chocolate, coconut and roasted peanut pieces? If you answered, or have even tasted a Lowney Chocolate Cherry Blossom, then you’ve already enjoyed an indirect connection to Montreal’s Griffintown.
It was the industrial sector of Griffintown that served for decades as a location for many Montreal industries and their workers’ quarters. The area, although close to downtown, would have been easily overlooked even in its heyday, as it was home to dreary row houses and mid- to large-size industrial buildings. Not surprisingly, it is located not far from the Lachine Canal, formally Montreal’s lifeline for shipping items across North America.
The Victoria bridge, the longest in the Commonwealth back when it was built in 1860 is another physical, remaining link to the area. And yes, at the bridge’s base is a huge stone dedicated to the memory of Irish immigrants who died here after surviving famine in Ireland and disease in the boats from Ireland to Canada. Many of the survivors became the first inhabitants of Griffintown, giving it its Irish flavour.
Their church, (St. Ann’s, built in 1854) was the heart of Montreal’s Irish working-class community, serving a parish of 1500 families second in importance only to St. Patrick’s Basilica, Montreal’s main Irish church. Today, all that remains of St. Ann’s are the stones from its foundation as the church was destroyed by fire in 1970.
On the adjoining street at the corner of Montagne and Wellington are a few remaining row houses. At Gallery Square, a public square in the 1930s, a beautiful Art Deco bathhouse has somehow survived, now a print shop. Our guide Stamata indicated that plans to restore it to its Depression-era glory are in the making.
The horse palace, an urban stable since 1862, remains a working stable, and later, thanks to our guide, we saw today’s functioning stable where horses for Montreal’s calèche trade spend the night. You may recall that the city of Montreal temporarily ended calèche trips in early 2016.
Maison Benoît-Labré still retains its original function as a halfway house for the down and out in Montreal. A travelling clinic from Médicins du Monde was parked in front of the building during our visit. This institution on Young Street gives one an idea of the tenement lifestyle, once so common in the area.
And, as a further reminder of Griffintown’s past as a busy commercial area, trains and large trucks still pass through here constantly, making conversation sometimes impossible.
A neighbourhood with so much to offer
The Dow Brewery Company was one of Montreal’s top beer producers back in the day. Today at 355 Peel Street at the corner of William Street, there is a fine museum that displays hockey-related souvenirs linking sports and Dow beer. The final, remaining industrial buildings that can be seen as they were in Griffintown’s heyday are the foundry in St. Ann’s and the adjacent New City Gas building. The former sits empty; the latter can be rented out for social functions.
And, there is, of course the Lowney Chocolate factory building. It was the first industrial building in the area to be converted into condos, starting a trend that now includes dozens of totally new and converted condos. Soon, most traces of Griffintown will have disappeared or be totally transformed. There remains the traffic!
When I first heard the name Griffintown I thought of Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones. But, I was wrong to associate them with Griffintown. Little Burgundy, Griffintown’s neighbour to the west lays claim to those two well-known Montrealers. Griffintown, though, will forever remain linked to Lowney’s Chocolates.
We stayed in Griffintown since it is close to some great current Montreal attractions, that have, in modern times withstood the test of time.
The Just for Laughs Festival, which is on until July 31, 2017 is in its 35th year. Around festival time, comedians and fans alike group around the Place des Arts whose grounds become an enormous pedestrian-only area. The ‘funniest city in the world’, (as advertised on the Just for Laughs website), certainly has no trouble attracting some of the top acts in the world. Headliners this year such as Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Sugar Sammy, David Spade and Rick Mercer.
Squeezed next to the Museum of Contemporary Art in the Place des Arts area is one of the two restaurants by Montreal’s top-rated chef, Norman Laprise. Toqué restaurant’s newest location is in a sleek building in the heart of the Quartier des Spectacles, another name for the pedestrian-free area where the Just For Laughs festival takes place. It is a sure bet for a memorable lunch.
Just 10 minutes by car from Griffintown, at 1 Avenue du Casino, located in the former Expo 67 French Embassy building another treat awaits visitors to Montreal. Located in Montreal’s Casino, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon offers a once-in-a-lifetime culinary, but also a very Montréal experience. Most products served here are local or from Québec and the bread, even gluten-free versions were oven fresh.
We had expert service from the sommelier who explained the dishes and pairings and we enjoyed special surprise visits from head chef Eric Gonzalez, an amiable French chef who’s been working in Montreal restaurants scene for decades.
Although we were seated at the bar just feet from the dozens of cooks, the scene was almost surreal, hardly a sound to be heard, even more surprising when you remember the noisy clamour of slot machines in the casino just steps away. Delightful surprise followed delightful surprise in a menu that showcased the decorative as much as the culinary.
It was almost like we’re watching a movie; well-orchestrated, memorable and gripping – a lovely metaphor for Montreal while it continues to celebrate its 375th birthday.
Like the delicious Lowney cherry blossom. Happy Birthday, Montreal.
MORE ABOUT MONTREAL
Address: 120 Peel St
Just for Laughs
Casino de Montreal Restaurant L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon