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City of style

Metropolitan mecca for interior design reflects a cutting-edge spirit

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / October 10, 2010

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MONTREAL - The elation that I’m feeling as I dawdle along Rue Amherst is something akin to Christmas, my birthday, and the tangy first bite of pineapple upside-down cake, all in the form of a giant butterfly that is knocking around in my stomach with glee.

As a self-professed design junkie with a fondness for midcentury style and Scandinavian simplicity, I can barely contain my credit cards. I have landed in an epicenter of interior design, a place where people care about the way their homes look as much as I do. And even better, they share my retro-tinged taste. Rue Amherst is a vintage shop lover’s dream come to life — and I’m amazed by the reasonable price tags.

Montreal has long been a popular mecca for gay tourists, but not necessarily because of its bountiful furniture and home decor shopping. In fact, the city famously housed North America’s first official gay business, which was started by an industrious Montrealer named Moise Tellier. He opened an apple and cake shop in the 1860s. However, according to records from the time, Tellier’s business was known as more of a gathering place for men interested in the company of other men rather than apples and cakes.

The liberated spirit that made Tellier’s emporium so popular is the same that exists today, drawing gays and lesbians to the city’s rainbow flag-dotted gay village, simply known as Le Village, along Rue Sainte-Catherine.

I spend a boozy evening in the Village watching drag queens perform “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’’ from “Sweet Charity,’’ but otherwise I save my Canadian dollars for the shops. From the architecture, to restaurants and bars, to those amazing vintage shops, cutting-edge design of all eras is what makes Montreal a destination.

“We have a lot of people who come from New York and Boston to shop,’’ the owner of the well-curated midcentury vintage store Couleurs on Rue Saint-Denis tells me my first day in the city. “They are usually very surprised at what they find.’’

“Toronto is the New York of Canada,’’ says Charles Pease at the interior design store Maison & Objet. “Montreal is more like Paris, I think both cities have a lot of things to offer. But our design sense is more European. We’re fixated on interior design.’’

With my meager budget, Montreal is filled with too many temptations, but I appreciate the value of window shopping — at least temporarily. A few doors down from Couleurs on Rue Saint-Denis is Re Design, another shop filled with 1950s and 1960s treasures. I spy an abstract 1960s painting that I fall in love with immediately. It could have been lifted directly from the set of “Mad Men.’’ It’s more than 3 feet long, and the price tag is under $300. It’s a steal. I make a pact with myself: If the painting is there at the end of my stay, and I haven’t spent all of my Canadian loonies and toonies on local delicacies such as beaver tails and poutine, I’ll buy it.

There is no shortage of design eye candy in this city. Every time I walk into a store and ask for recommendations, I find myself in lengthy discussions with chatty shop owners who provide me with a lengthy list of hotels, restaurants, and shops that I must visit. I could easily take another week to lollygag through all the locations that are suggested.

There is a tremendous sense of pride here about Quebec-based design and products. Several stores, such as Interversion, carry all Quebec-made furniture from local artisans. I’m wondering why more people are not renting U-Hauls and traveling here to furnish their dwellings.

My favorite all-Canadian design store is easily Jamais Assez. The sleek store in the Mile End neighborhood features everything from modern chairs to cat houses (don’t laugh, they’re adorable), plus housewares, lamps, bedding, and a sweet old collie napping in the corner.

I spend the first long afternoon of my extended weekend walking through Le Plateau and Mont Royale, winding neighborhoods filled with architecturally diverse buildings and stores.

Throughout the trip, I’m continually amazed at the well-edited shops. From Zone, the massive three-level modern home store on Saint-Denis, to Les Touilleurs, the award-winning kitchen store on posh Laurier Avenue (where a crew is filming a cooking show when I stop by), it seems that there is an emphasis on stocking unique goods.

Marathon shopping calls for a drink, and I continue the design theme into the cocktail hour with Kir Royale at Baldwin Barmacie, so named because the stylishly minimal space once housed a pharmacy. During happy hour ($6 cocktails!) the genial bartender maps out still more stores and restaurants that I need to visit. I’m now thinking I need about a month here.

To break up the shopping — and to save myself from impending financial ruin — I’ve set aside a day to see some of the city’s architectural highlights. My boyfriend and a pair of friends from New York join me as we traverse the city on Bixis, the public bicycle system that the city recently established. Rent a bicycle at one Bixi station ($5 for the first 90 minutes), and drop it at another. It’s convenient, inexpensive, and a great way to see the city.

It is surprisingly easy to bike to the Biosphere, which was built for Montreal’s Expo 67 on Ile Sainte-Helene. The mammoth futuristic dome is now the sight of an environmental museum. Unfortunately on the day we visit, a deafening NASCAR race is taking place nearby.

We grab our Bixis and continue to another architectural highlight of Expo 67, Habitat 67. These are apartments stacked liked a series of boxes — each with a private garden. Architect Moshe Safdie envisioned it as a model of how people would live in the increasingly crowded future. Although I’ve seen the complex from a distance while speeding by in a car, I have never seen it in close proximity. Conveniently enough, there is a bike path nearly the entire stretch of the trip.

The other luxury afforded by riding bicycles is the excuse to talk about how many calories you’ve burned. If you’re going to indulge, there is no shortage of bakeries here. My favorite is Patisserie de Gascogne, a local chain of bakeries that sells sandwiches and sublime sweets.

Biking also helps to reduce the guilt of the long, multi-course dinners that are a necessity. For our first group dinner, we try to eat at the wonderfully decadent Au Pied de Cochon. But even at a late hour, we are unable to get a table and instead end up at a stylish 24-hour diner called Rapido. When we attempt to order in French, the cranky waitress croaks, “I’m not here to teach you French. Just order!’’

We have slightly better dining experiences on subsequent evenings. One of my New York friends finds an out-of-the-way restaurant called Kitchen Galerie where the chefs prepare a different menu every evening based on available ingredients and inspiration. Our late-summer meal is near perfect.

My favorite meal of the trip is at Le Chien Fumant (the Smoking Dog). The fact that the wallpaper features pigeons, fire hydrants, and rats is enough to make me happy. But the restaurant also has a menu of Quebecoise specialty dishes and locally produced food. At one point, the bartender even comes over to our table and makes a drink that involves a blowtorch.

Having mostly behaved during the trip, I am ready to spend the last day shopping again. A trip back up Rue Amherst reveals treasures at stores such as Le 1863, where I find a 1960s Norwegian tea set that I have to fight very hard not to purchase. My reasoning: I don’t drink tea.

The amazingly-named Bikurious sells and repairs bikes, and offers lesbian haircuts. I continue to hold on to my wallet at L’Antiquité Curiosité and Philz Twentieth Century Design.

Before leaving, I return to Re Design, and as fate would have it, the painting that had I eyed the first day is still there. Carrying it to the car is a two-man job. And it barely fits in my Mini Cooper. When arriving back in the United States, the customs agent at the border takes a good look at the giant painting and says, “What is that?’’

I tell him the story of my bargain artwork. However, I resist the urge to tell him about the drag queens performing the number from “Sweet Charity,’’ and those flaming cocktails.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

If You Go

Montreal style blogger Marie-Eve Best, whose website, www.lakejane.com, tracks fashion and interior design, theorizers that vintage shops thrive in the city because they offer residents a chance to stand out from the crowd.
“Montrealers are known for their unique style,’’ she says. “I think that has more to do with their ability to create a personal style rather than fitting in with the trends.’’
Where to shop
There are dozens of both vintage and modern interior shops in the city. A few favorites include:
Couleurs
3901 Rue Saint-Denis
514-282-4141
www.couleurs.qc.ca
Re Design
3881 Rue Saint-Denis
514-845-2282
www.redesignmobilier.com
Jamais Assez
5155 Boulevard Saint-Laurent
514-509-3709
www.jamaisassez.com
Interversion
4273 Boulevard Saint-Laurent
514-284-2103
www.interversion.com
Bikurious
1757 Rue Amherst
514-313-7521
www.bikuriousmontreal.com
Le 1863
1863 Rue Amherst
514-816-8111
Headquarters Galerie
& Boutique
1649 Rue Amherst
514-678-2923
www.HQgalerieboutique.com
Les Touilleurs
152 Avenue Laurier Ouest
514-278-0008
www.lestouilleurs.com
Where to eat and drink
Kitchen Galerie
60 Rue Jean-Talon Est
514-315-8994
www.kitchengalerie.com
Le Chien Fumant
4710 De Lanaudiere
514-524-2444
www.lechienfumant.com
Baldwin Barmacie
115 Avenue Laurier Ouest
514-276-4282
baldwinbarmacie.com
Au Pied de Cochon
536 Rue Duluth Est
514-281-1116
www.restaurantaupiedde cochon.ca
Boris Bistro
465 Rue McGill
514-848-9575
www.borisbistro.com