Up until fairly recently, if you mentioned Québec cuisine to any gourmet, images of heavy, rib-sticking meals designed for people who worked in the bitterly cold outdoors would come to mind. Pâté chinois, the regional version of the classic shepherds’ pie is an example. It was created to cheaply feed Chinese workers imported to construct the cross-country railroad and it became a staple of families throughout the province. Made of chopped beef, mashed potatoes and creamed corn, it is tasty and filling but not four star fare.
In more recent times, however, Québec City, the charming capital of French America, has become a destination of choice for serious foodies. Many of the wide variety of restaurants which line its picturesque streets can be compared favorably with the best places throughout the world.
26, rue Saint-Louis
Almost at the top of the hill which overlooks the city and close by the landmarked Château Frontenac, Le Continental is superb. Resolutely old-fashioned, the courtly waiters here are impeccably trained and formally dressed. And they really come into their own with the dramatic table-side service of flaming delights like peppercorn sirloin flambé and cherries jubilee. Located in an 1845 mansion, the restaurant, opened in 1956, was one of the first to elevate the standard of dining in the city and is still the place to go for traditional French cuisine of a very high order. Just ask Rod Stewart, who recently dined here. Next door, sibling Conti (32, rue Saint-Louis, 418-692-4191, www.conticaffe.com) is a smaller Italian restaurant popular with local business people. It’s good but not in the same league as Le Continental.
Le Café du Clocher Penché
203, rue Saint-Joseph Est
Named for the leaning bell tower of Notre-Dame-de-Jacques-Cartier across the street in the emerging Saint-Roch neighborhood, Le Clocher Penché is located in a former bank (you’re reminded of this when seeking out the restrooms—they’re in what was the vault). At the sensational weekend brunch and at other times as well, this can prove to be one of the most popular places in town and this popularity results in a (sometimes) noisy ambience. Putting up with enthusiastic chit chat, however, is a small price to pay for sampling some of the city’s most creative and delicious offerings. Well worth trying: the salmon tartare with a hint of grapefruit and, for those not deterred by a shy palate, the robust tarte au boudin noir served with roast potatoes.
36, Côte de la Montagne
Often disparaged by locals and mostly popular with tourists, this venerable restaurant was another of the first places to introduce Québec City to serious French cooking. Alfred Hitchcock, a great fan, filmed scenes from his 1953 thriller I Confess here and it has retained much of its period charm. No longer a temple of haute cuisine, and open only from May until October, Le Vendôme nonetheless is worthy of attention. It offers delicious French basics (the moules are particularly noteworthy), caring service, and modest prices. The locals should get wise.
Weather-permitting, the garden courtyard of this small restaurant is one of the prettiest places in the city to enjoy a leisurely meal. Located in a boutique hotel on a cobble-lined backstreet in the oldest part of town, the ambience could not be more romantic. The menu is creative and experimental with a heavy emphasis on local produce and seared foie gras.
(Simple Snack Sympathique)
71 rue Saint-Paul
Owned by the same team as Toast!, SSS is more casual but in some ways it has outdistanced its older relative. The kitchen and staff here both maintain an impeccably high standard and the sidewalk tables afford a good opportunity to watch the world go by. Well-worth trying: the crab cakes, steaks, and even the simple hamburgers. All are lip-smackingly delicious.
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac
1, rue de Carrières
The restaurant overlooking the Saint Lawrence river in this world famous hotel is generally good, but it would hardly be worth mentioning if it were not for the amazing brunch. For those few hours, the elegant dining room becomes the setting for the most sumptuous and grand brunch buffet I’ve ever come across anywhere. Limitless quantities of excellent Beef Wellington, superb sushi, perfect smoked salmon and just about anything else you can think of are offered and served up beautifully by an attentive and professional staff. With only two weekly seatings (at 10 AM and 1 PM on Sundays), reservations should be made well in advance. And it would be a good idea to have fasted. The quantity and variety of taste-treats is enormous and it would be absurd to arrive with a full stomach and not be able to indulge.
Les Frères de la Côte
1190 rue Saint-Jean
A bustling and noisy restaurant on one of the busiest streets in town, Les Frères de la Côte is another place which is understandably popular with both locals and visitors. The varied menu offers a wide variety of options from simple but delicious pizzas to multi-course meals reminiscent of the best of home-cooking.
Le Buffet de L’Antiquaire
95, rue Saint-Paul
If you’re intent on really experiencing traditional Québec cuisine, this might just be a good place to try it. The blackboard in front frequently announces specials such as tourtière (meat pie), cipaille (a deep dish pie with poultry, pork, or seafood), the area’s classic pea soup and even, sometimes, the aforementioned Pâtè chinois. But Le Buffet de L’Antiquaire offers a lot more. It is a local institution, known for its very low prices, cheerful service, substantial portions, diner-like atmosphere and tasty fare. Breakfasts are particularly popular—the homemade strawberry jam is fantastic and available for sale in jars that look like they came straight from a farm kitchen.
1045 rue des Parlementaires
Open to the public since 1968, the dining room in the magnificent Parliament building boasts one of the most impressive interiors in town. It’s a natural place to share with first-time visitors to the city offering as it does well-priced and pleasant lunches along with regular glimpses of local politicians. Be advised: ID required to enter this government building.
This selection of eateries should give anyone who is interested an excellent sampling of the readily available and exquisite fare. If more choices are needed, I can suggest these other worthwhile casual destinations:
…Le Fannie Gourmet is the wonderful cafeteria at Le Marchè du Vieux-Port (160, Quai Saint-Andre, 418-692-2517, www.marchevieuxport.com), which has a patio facing the city’s boat basin and a menu that includes homemade soups and a sensational salmon burger.
…the little cafe tucked in the back of J. A. Moisan (695, rue Saint-Jean, 418-529-9764) where the daily luncheon specials are as delicious as you might expect in this, the city’s most venerable and prestigious èpicerie.
…the innovative and healthy buffet at Pain et Passion (85, rue de Saint-Vallier Est, 418-525-7887, www.painetpassion.com) another impressive gourmet shop—this in the St.–Roch neighborhood.
…the student-friendly Chez Temporel (25, rue Couillard, 418-694-1813), in the city’s Latin Quarter, which specializes in delicious soups and salads. In summer, the gazpacho is fantastic.
…and Brynd (two locations: Brynd Maguire, 1360, rue Maguire, 418-527-3844 and Brynd Saint-Paul, 369, rue Saint-Paul, 418-692-4693, www.brynd.ca), the pair of excellent and deservedly popular destinations for those seeking over-stuffed and scrumptious smoked meat sandwiches and a wide variety of beers.
In truth, it’s almost impossible to go too wrong searching for a repast in Québec, the oldest city in Canada. You can enjoy a spectrum of varied and delicious meals here, eating well for days without ever returning to the same place. Truly, the city is a gourmet’s paradise. If you’re not on a diet, go and enjoy it. And if all else fails, you can always act like the young couple who approached me while I was walking my dog along the ancient ramparts that encircle the oldest part of town.
“Excuse me, do you speak English,” they asked.
I admitted that I did.
“Could you tell us where we can find a McDonald’s?”