The stories behind the two bakeries that make up Montreal’s bagel-loving
Montreal’s bagels are world-famous. Hand rolled, bathed in sweetened water (using honey or malt syrup), and baked in a wood-fired oven, each bagel is made with love and care. Although they can be found in bakeries across the city, most locals will tell you that the best Montreal bagels are those from St-Viateur Bagel or Fairmount Bagel, located just a block apart from each other in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood.
Fairmount is Montreal’s first bagel bakery, opened in 1919 by Jewish Russian immigrant Isadore Shlafman. He named the shop “Montreal Bagel Bakery,” and it was located on St-Laurent Boulevard, until it moved to Fairmount Avenue in 1949, when Isadore renamed the bakery to “Fairmount Bagels” with the help of his son Jack. Currently, Isadore’s grandson Irwin Shlafman runs Fairmount.
“Being in a family business, you’re always under the watchful eye of the founder, and you can never do anything that is going to award a pat on the back, but you can always do something that will award a kick in the butt,” Shlafman said in the short documentary Bagels in the Blood.
St-Viateur Bagels came along 40-some years later, founded in 1957 by a Jewish immigrant from Poland named Myer Lewkowicz. Lewkowicz arrived in Montreal in 1953 after having survived the Holocaust, where he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
“At Buchenwald, all I dreamt of was a piece of bread,” Lewkowicz once said while speaking to a high school class.
Originally, Lewkowicz started his career working at Montreal Bagel Bakery alongside Isadore and Jack Shlafman, but decided to open up his own bagel shop on St-Viateur Street a few years later. Currently, St-Viateur is run by Joe Morena, who has worked at the shop since he was 15 years old. Morena ended up partnering with Lewkowicz later on in his career, and bought the shop after Lewkowicz died in 1994.
To this day, many stay loyal to St. Viateur, as a way of honouring Lewkowicz’s legacy.
“St-Viateur is important to the Montreal community because they are a heritage of our wave of Jewish immigrants,” Olivia Farley, U2 Arts, said. “I live in Laval, so before a St-Viateur bakery opened here, we would drive 40 minutes to go get them. It’s such a big part of our family that my aunt living in Ontario makes us pick up three dozen when we go visit her and she freezes them to conserve them.”
Millions of people have visited Fairmount and St-Viateur as they are both considered food staples in Montreal. However, the two shops are not only famous for their bagels, but also for their close-knit community of loyal customers.
“I am personally a bigger fan of Fairmont bagels but mostly because they are the ones my family has eaten my whole life,” Maddie Coombs, U1 Arts, said. “Whenever I think about going to get bagels, Fairmont is the first place that I think to go to. I think of going with my dad, getting bagels and a little tub of cream cheese, and finding somewhere to sit and talk. Going to get bagels makes dealing with bad weather and school easier, it’s a nice break and a nice thing to share with friends.”
Although uncontestedly popular among those in Montreal, St-Viateur and Fairmount bagels are so prized that often people who move away from the city still crave the taste of the bagel.
In fact, in 2008, astronaut Gregory Chamitoff (a Montrealer who also happens to be Irwin Shlafman’s cousin) took 18 Fairmount bagels with him to the International Space Station, unable to go six months without his bagels. Fairmount bagels became the first bagels in space.
In the end, however, the debate between Fairmount and St-Viateur doesn’t really matter. When pushed about the St-Viateur versus Fairmount debate, Shlafman equates it to boxing’s Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier rivalry.
“They’re the two top contenders in the world for that particular position so I don’t see that being an Ali fan as opposed to a Frazier fan makes you wrong,” Shlafman said.