Unearthing Montreal's hidden gems

Sarah Lolley shares 17 years of Montreal discoveries, from stumbling upon Open Da Night as a newcomer to the city to the place she ends up when she wanders the Main just after dawn with a fussy baby.

From stumbling upon Open Da Night as a Montreal newcomer to being 1st in line at a Plateau bakery at dawn

The Mile End café's real name is clearly spelled out on the new awning, but for Montrealers in the know, this will always be 'Open Da Night.' (David Gutnick/CBC)

I had only been living in Montreal for a short while when I discovered it: the world's coolest café.

It was located a few neighbourhoods away from my newfound home in the McGill ghetto and, unlike the coffee shops there, it was devoid of university students or recent graduates like me. This was a real local's spot.

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The decor was sparse. The barista took orders by way of raised eyebrows, then worked the espresso machine at a breakneck pace with a bored expression.

There was no loyalty card, no fancy names for the drinks.

The coffee was so incredible, it took my breath away.

The espresso at Café Olimpico in Montreal's Mile End is said to be the best - anywhere. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Even the café's cryptic name, written on the glass transom over the door, was cool: "Open Da Night".

I held my glass of caffé latte with both hands and gazed out the window at the foot traffic on Saint-Viateur Street, the beverage warming my fingers, the discovery warming my heart.

A sense of belonging

Like many Montrealers, I was born elsewhere.

I emigrated to La Belle Province as a 23-year-old with no experience of big city living, and the grit and pulse of Montreal excited me.

I signed a lease and bought a Metro pass. I learned about shish taouk and bagels.

But it wasn't until I was able to make a good recommendation to someone who knew the city even less than I did that I started to feel a sense of belonging here.

Being able to say, "I know this great little place" was like suddenly having an inside joke with a new friend.

If you'd slipped into Montreal's Café Sarajevo in 1995, you may have heard a young Rufus Wainwright at the piano. (CBC)

Not long after I arrived in Montreal, my friend Sarah and I ventured through a nondescript door on the sparse end of Clark Street, down a flight of poorly lit stairs and into the bohemian bar Café Sarajevo.

A gypsy band played its heart out, patrons drank red wine from tumblers, and we were made privy to the vaguely illicit-feeling requirement that we order food if we wanted to drink alcohol.

Sarah and I exchanged the beaming smiles of people who can't believe their luck.

Another gem, made shinier by the unexpectedness of its discovery.

More you explore, more you discover

The more I explored the city, the more wonders I found.

In Chinatown, I stumbled upon a tiny store where an old woman with deft fingers pulled little clouds of Dragon's beard candy.

On the mountain, I located the running trail with the best scenery and fewest tourists.

On the Plateau, I discovered the discreet sophistication of weekend breakfasts eaten at the counter at L'Express.

Take the first laneway north of Laurier Avenue off St-Laurent Boulevard, and you'll find a wall-sized graffiti image of a Habs goalie that's a tribute to Serge Lemoyne's iconic painting of Ken Dryden.

All's Good Crew's Ken Dryden mural, inspired by artist Serge Lemoyne (All's Good Crew/Vimeo)

Study the wall in front of you as you ascend from the Saint-Henri Metro station, and you'll see an homage to Gabrielle Roy, the neighbourhood's most famous author, in a tile mosaic that reads: Bonheur d'Occasion.

When the Saint-Henri Metro station was built in 1980, artist Julien Hébert used glazed bricks to reproduce the words Bonheur d’occasion, a reference to Gabrielle Roy's novel about working-class life in Saint-Henri 40 years earlier. (STM)

There are hidden gems of knowledge, too.

The name of that cool café I found in Mile End? Turns out it's actually Café Olimpico.

"Open Da Night" is just what was left when the "y &" faded from the sign displaying the café's hours of business.

Rocco Furfaro owned and operated Café Olimpico in Montreal's Mile End for 36 years before handing over the reins to his daughter, Victoria Furfaro, who runs it today. (

Gems hiding in plain sight

This year marks the 17th anniversary of my move to Montreal.

Some of my gems have hit the mainstream: Café Olimpico is now so popular it has a five-star rating on Trip Advisor and a second location in a boutique hotel in Old Montreal.

Other gems have disappeared forever, like the Café Sarajevo, shuttered for five years now.

You'd think that after so many years of exploring the city, some of them as a travel writer, there'd be no gem left uncovered.

And yet.

Last spring, my toddler started waking insanely early and refused to fall back to sleep.
When her daughter awoke predawn, Sarah Lolley found the two of them prowling Saint-Laurent Boulevard, where Boulangerie Guillaume opens its doors at 7 a.m. (Sarah Lolley)

I killed time in the pre-dawn hours, fitting her into the backpack carrier and taking long, purposeless rambles through the neighbourhood.

Up and down the Plateau streets I went, glancing bleary-eyed into storefronts, turning corners at random.

One morning, as dawn was breaking, I took a turn just three blocks from my house and suddenly found myself in unfamiliar territory.

To one side was a red brick building, to the other a butter-yellow, wood-panelled dwelling with doors and window trimmed in forest green.

In the middle was a strip of lush foliage flanked by flagstone paths. Fern fronds and hosta leaves reached out invitingly. Ivy meandered about. There was a water feature with a decorative bridge and a lending library in a repurposed bird feeder.

Was this private property? I double-checked, but there it was, plain as day: a municipal street sign that read "rue Demers."

I walked the street's entire length — three blocks — marvelling at its charm.

How could I have lived around the corner for ten years and never found it? It was like a Plateau version of Brigadoon.

Another Montreal gem, hiding in plain sight.

Do you get that feeling, too? That sense of belonging that an inside scoop imparts? What are the gems that stand out like push pins in your mental map of the city?  

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Sarah Lolley

2017 CBC/QWF writer-in-residence

Sarah Lolley is a medical writer and essayist who also writes fiction. Her yoga-themed children's picture book, Emily and the Mighty Om, was published in 2014. She has a master's degree in experimental medicine specializing in biomedical ethics from McGill University. Lolley has a passion for cryptic crosswords, and she's a mother of two young children.