Montreal provides an incredible culinary experience that reveals and excels in an array of cultural eats and customs. One way to fully experience the city is through food, of which Montreal has no shortage. However, Mélissa Simard, founder of Montreal’s Round Table Tours, does not think visiting individual restaurants is enough, because each restaurant is only one piece in the city’s puzzle. The diversity of Montreal’s cultural scene and the promise that it brought to the culinary stage therefore prompted the beginnings of the Round Table Tours.
Simard, a 32-year old McGill alumnus, has worked in the restaurant industry for six years before starting her blog “4 Coins de la table,” which covers topics ranging from group cleanses to the various food personalities she meets. This prompted her to conduct cooking workshops for just over three years before starting her food tour initiative in 2012.
Round Table Tours aims to expose participants to the intricate food industry network, as well as the stories and the cultures that both motivate and unite the different food personalities of the city. Each tour is a storytelling experience, using food to showcase the dedication behind each meal made every day. Simard is especially devoted to properly telling these stories because her connections with the industry are not simply business-related.
“It is a definite balance between personal and business connections with each of the stops on the tours,” Simard said.
Currently, there are four tours running: The Iberian tour, the “Summit of Wellbeing” tour, the Food Truck Montreal tour, and the Montreal Jewish Food tour. Simard hopes to add two supplementary tours to the repertoire by the end of this year, perhaps even extending outside of the downtown core.
The Iberian tour explores Montreal’s Little Portugal on foot through a series of tapas. This tour normally runs at $160.00 per person, which may be outside the reach of most student budgets. The least expensive tour is the Jewish food tour, which costs $75.00 per person. Although these prices may seem steep, it is a worthwhile experience. Not only did the Iberian tour expose several fantastic restaurants situated among the plentiful clubs on Saint- Laurent, it also emphasized the Portuguese presence and its history in Montreal.
Simard’s presence is a great help, and the tour attracts tourists and newcomers alike as a secret entrance into the core of Montreal’s culture. According to Gabriel Sirois, who recently moved to Montreal from Toronto, this tour provided an opportunity to learn more about the culture in Montreal.
“[My favourite part of the tour] was actually getting to know the city,” Sirois said. “As a newcomer, it was a really good opportunity to learn some things you wouldn’t learn. It’s nice because it’s easy to browse on the Internet and get information, but actually talking to people creates two-way conversations. Ideas spring up and you get recommendations you wouldn’t find otherwise.”
For students moving to a new city like Montreal, it is difficult to discover the hearts of the different cultures and lifestyles within the city. Backgrounds provided by Simard at each stop on the tour were not only informative, but gave life to what were just four walls with a kitchen mere minutes before. This tour emphasizes the life of the family behind each restaurant scene—moving the business forward while maintaining the authenticity of the food they serve.
Simard believes that the culture of food within a city plays a large part in defining the identity of the large-scale community. Milkyway Sirois, Sirois’ wife, agreed with this sentiment.
“There are a lot more cultural restaurants here, which definitely says a lot about the population,” she said. “I expected there to be more of a French influence, but the amount of ethnic restaurants shows that there are definitely lots of different populations living in the city.”
Overall, Simard succeeds in uncovering the stories behind the food at each of her stops. It is clear she has a passion for the Montreal food industry and the people working hard to maintain its vibrancy. Her tours connect the food suppliers to the retailers and to the restaurants themselves, revealing the true cycle of hard work and determination behind Montreal’s world-renowned culture of food.
Librarie Espagnole/ Épicerie Gourmet, 3811 Blvd Saint-Laurent
This location is the start of the Iberian Tour, a historic landmark that opened in 1964 to a large number of immigrants from Portugal and Spain who settled in what is now known as Montreal’s Little Portugal. Originally a bookstore where patrons could find their favourite imported magazine or newspaper from home, Librarie Espagnole has expanded to a full-sized specialty grocer, importing a variety of items from Spain, Argentina, and Uruguay.
Chouriçôr Inc., 4031 Rue de Bullion
The next stop of the Iberian Tour was a small, white-walled grocery store on the corner of de Bullion and Duluth. The foods in the store were ranged from imported cooking oils to wines. The centrepiece of the store, though, was meeting the butcher in the back room, to which Simard’s tours are granted access. The participants also receive a firsthand run-through of the powerful machines. Each participant also got their own spicy sausage to take home.
Casa Tapas, 266 Rue Rachel Est
Though it was a bit of a hike, getting to try the food at the legendary Casa Tapas was worth it. The waiters and owners were hospitable and kind, all glad to see Simard. Upon being seated, participants received a glass of very sweet white wine that perfectly complemented the spiced shrimp, stuffed eggplant, and baked asparagus placed in front of us. Simard used to work at Casa Tapas, and she explained that the restaurant opened in 1993 as one of Montreal’s premier tapas spots. True to her word, by 6:00 p.m., the restaurant quickly filled up.
Pintxo, 256 Rue Roy Est
Pronounced “pincho,” the name of this restaurant refers to a small snack popular in Spain. Pintxo aims to provide flavour bursts in small doses, so that the consumer doesn’t get bored with just one flavour. Simard explained that when individuals eat, they are really only impressed by the first two or three bites because the brain gets easily distracted. Thus, Pintxo seeks to keep everyone as thrilled as they were with the first bite—they did not disappoint when they wowed participants with seasoned clams and prawns, amongst other dishes. The masterminds at Pintxo perfectly paired their tapas with a full, oaky red wine.
Boca Iberica, 12 Rue Rachel Ouest
At the final stop of the Iberian Tour, Simard took participants to experience tapas, complemented with traditional Portuguese blood sausage. The food was not only great, but the atmosphere was simultaneously warm and modern. With light hardwood floors, dimly lit hanging lights, and wooden tables, the mood at Iberica was definitely memorable. This stop served the most meat, which was tender and cooked to perfection. For dessert, they served a moist pumpkin cake, which found the perfect combination between sweet and nutty, a fantastic way to end the tour.