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Time Out Montreal Best of the City Award 2021
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Revealed: Time Out Montreal's 2021 Best of the City award winners

These are the cultural makers and shakers, restaurants, bars, and key players Time Out Montreal wants to recognize in 2021.

JP Karwacki
Written by
JP Karwacki
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Do you remember the feeling when the headline-making lockdowns and curfews across Quebec began to end? When permissions to go out and enjoy Montreal the way it was meant to be enjoyed—long evenings at dinner tables, on picnic blankets, at outdoor shows—started coming back?

We do. Sure, reopenings have been staggered, but the summer and fall of 2021 leading up to now have felt fucking magical in a lot of ways. When Montrealers were bundled up for drinks on terrasses the moment outdoor dining was permitted? When we could go see movies in theatres again? When interregional travel was allowed? This city was rejuvenated, and it knew it. There was so much happening and so much to do day in and day out that if you didn't already have plans, it was constant case of FOMO.

We want to celebrate that feeling, that energy that Montrealers brought to their love for their city and the people who make it great. Aligned with all the other Time Out teams around the world, we’re announcing our Best of The City award-winners for 2021. These are the scrappy entrepreneurs who push forward on their ideas no matter state of the pandemic, new and innovative events, and the old favourites worth revisiting among a constant influx of what's new.

Want to feel great about the future of Montreal? Read on… 

Disagree with our choices? You can still vote for your favourite venues in our Love Local Awards right here until December 17.

Food & Drink

Nada Abou Younes and Sean Murray Smith's personal phoenix project carved from the old Les Deux Singes De Montarvie restaurant in the Mile End has been through a pandemic and back again; what sets them apart is how they did it. With intricate tasting menus, they weren't able to flip as easily to takeout, but instead bided their time and did amazing casse-croûte pop-ups during the summer up until they could unlock the doors on their dining rooms. Today, they're still keeping the bar amazingly high for dining in this town, and they're keeping it accessible by keeping prices below restrictive points. That's worth a lot of praise in our books.

Has the Barroco Hospitality Group ever really stumbled? Not for us. If anything, they've consistently upped the ante for what a bar can be in this town. Who ever said you couldn't combine jungle terrarium skylights with vaporwave accents? To do bartending flair but keep it classy, smooth, and cool while you're at it? We'll admit we've had a soft spot for cocktails since the government draconically wouldn't allow them for takeout (what's the hold up???) but impeccable service and the flavour play delivered on the menus at Milky Way gives them the top spot in 2021 for the best bar in town right now.

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Spacious, well-lit, and delicious coffee: Whether you're stopping by quick for a quick drink and pastry, looking for somewhere to sit peacefully while reading a book for hours, or scouting out spots to work for all day? This is the perfact spot to do it, and it's nonprofit to boot: Every dollar spent here goes to nearly 900 artists, 250 employees, and over 50 researchers and teachers tha all form part of a wonderful space for the city. During the summer, their selection of homemade iced teas and kombucha made with ingredients harvested from its rooftop garden were the best, as were snacks from Labo culinaire.

Bringing a little taste of Romania to Montreal, Mici d'Ici is just the thing we thought Saint-Laurent Boulevard needed. Sure, there's $2 chow mein, but when you're craving a nice sandwich that's quick and just the right kind of greasy—forget the crowded No Man's Land of fast food joints—there was little you could find. So how's a juicy $7 sausage slider topped with sauerkraut, fried onions and mustard sound for a change? Maybe a sausage lollipop? It's a taste of the streets of Bucharest, now it's here, and it is delicious.

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Mokili is a newcomer in Villeray that's brimming with dishes from across the African continent, including the likes of Senegal, Kenya, Ghana, Morocco, the Congo and Mali in its menu that's a welcome addition to a neighbourhood that's got more Eurocentric leanings. Aromatic plates of maafe peanut stew, Congolese grilled goat, and sorrel juice to wash it down? And it's fuelled in part by the 10-acre specialty farm AgriTropiQ out in Île-Perrot? Owners Baka Serkoukou and Epepe Tukala Vuvu have opened a brilliant introduction to demystifying an often-homogenized part of the world, and it celebrates Africa's grand diversity through food.

We'd call it a new bar, but it's so much more than that: Located in the heart of the Plateau, Projet Pilote is a new arrival on the bar scene that offers a unique concept: Housing both a micro-brewery and a micro-distillery under one roof, owner and distiller Guillaume Drapeau has secured a commercial license for his operation, which means that Pilote can serve customers its own gins and fruit-based eau de vie (and eventually whiskey) that's all freshly distilled and made into cocktails in-house. Once you throw in chef Léon Buser-Rivet in the kitchen making seasonal menus that include harvests from the building's own rooftop garden? This is hands-down the best new bar in Montreal.

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An absolutely smashing arrival this summer, Bazart's massive Mediterranean bar, restaurant and NFT gallery combo totally stole the show for a month—and that's saying a lot when considering the bevy of new projects that opened up in Montreal this year. The crown jewel of the place was its terrasse though, with one bar section curated by sommelier Maxime Laliberté (Maison Boulud) and mixologist Laurence Picard (Nectar & Co.), as well as the mezze plates and charcoal-grilled menu put together by Massimo Piedimonte (previously of Le Mousso) as a consulting chef, acting chef Athiraj Pharsavath (Mercuri), and Guillaume Daly (Soubois). It was beautiful, and we're crossing our fingers that it does an encore performance in 2022.

Culture & Entertainment

Theatres have had a supremely difficult time getting through the pandemic, and we're glad to see that institutions like the MainLine have made it through, however scuffed up they are in the process. Our favourite bilingual spot for improv, theatrical performances, and a major anchor for the city's Fringe Festival, it's a theatre that is near and dear to our hearts.

Montreal gallerist Juno Youn has been on the Montreal scene for a while, and we're happy to see that his eponymous contemporary gallery survived its move to Old Montreal during the pandemic. Not only that, but he and his curation of artists have innovated their offerings extensively bewteen the physical and digital—and don't even get us started on how they brought their best and brightest to art events in the city this past year.

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The art world has struggled a lot with how best to weather the pandemic ever since it struck, forced to innovate quickly and in ways it couldn't have predicted. Centre Phi has been leading the pack: Artist residencies that catch attention and provoke discussion, fascinating curations and installations, and virtual reality work that the city—if you ask us—needs to be paying WAY more attention to, and it all comes together in one multidisciplinary space? What a gem.

Impérial was a shoe-in for our choice of best cinema since over a month ago; it was a done deal when considering how they've hosted so many great events, and are a prime example of the city's robust film festival culture, despite everything they've had to struggle with alongside every other theatre in the city. Also, it's just gorgeous on the inside? Like, really gorgeous? 

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After launching their terrasse this past summer of the same name with all of its massive fishbowl cocktails and Tulum décor, our vote for best nightlife venue is easily handed over to NewHaĹ«s. An intimate, speakeasy-style club may not be everyone's idea of fun right now with mask restrictions, but the people behind this place are pure innovators on the scene and the curation of music is twice as good.

Bookstores have been an unsung hero of the pandemic, keeping us company with their wares during the darkest of times. That includes this relatively new name on the scene, a bilingual spot in NDG that specializes in all kinds of fiction, graphic novels, kids' books, and a wonderful regular lineup of events. We wish them all the best, and highly recommend them for your next book to cozy up with.

City Life

Montreal has a long history of pedestrianizing its streets and locals love to show up for it, but beyond those long lines for paella and slices mango on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, it's not all that common to see whole strips of the city come together toput on street markets. Then the organizers of Yatai MTL and Japan Week come together with their planning savvy, throw together a massive fair that runs the entirety of Montreal's "second Chinatown" by Concordia University, and BAM: Immediately it's our favourite place to get together to stroll the streets. There was a corgi party, a giant boombox, public performances...? More please!

Outsiders looking into Villeray normally see a densely residential neighbourhood. So why do people flock to Villeray? It's almost—save for the amazing local businesses—Jarry Park: In the summertime it looks like festival grounds (or it actually is festival grounds for the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal) with how many people pack on its sprawling green with BBQs a-cooking and people playing baseball and beach vollyball matches if they're not already enjoying the pool or some petanque. If it's winter, you're still going to see folks flocking in for the sliding hill, skating on the pond, hockey, and cross-country skiing. There's a lot to do here, and you can do it all.

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The city was full to bursting with street art this year, but one of our favourite projects was Le Germain Hotel's major mural makeover downtown: Dolled up by Canadian artist Michelle Hoogveld, this 171-foot tall brilliant mural called "Dazzle My Heart" is a kaleidoscopically cool piece that's made up of 80 different colors. Downtown is full of a lot of drab colours, and this is one colorful ray of hope for what the city could look like if we gave more and more breathing space to our artists.

Events & Parties

It's one thing to throw an event over a single weekend, but eight of them? And it acts as a great cross-section of a nieghbourhood's culinary offerings? It goes without saying that this year's Marché de Nuit de Montréal was an absolutely smashing success, full of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino cuisines to name a few and found below the beautiful installation from La Pépinière. Montreal was on a roll when it came to street food events in 2021, and this one led the pack.

We know, this is double-dipping, but Marché Shoni truly was amazing in how it occupied so much of Sainte-Catherine and had its shit together from day one of operations! It's far too often that an event gets promised to Montrealers and it all falls apart somewhere along the way—not, like, Fyre Festival bad, but it can get awful at times. This event, however, is a case study in being prepared for a huge influx of people, provided resources like hand sanitization stations, maps, and standardized signage and promotion for all of the businesses involved.

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It might not be news to Montrealers that MURAL Fest was amazing in 2021, but when you consider all of the amazing things that happened at this year despite all of the restrictions that had been put in place? This festival killed it: Impromptu terrasses with menus from some of the city's best, drag shows, dance parties, and turning the city into a veritable public gallery worth exploring—it was a huge step up from the (sorry not sorry) humdrum online stuff we got stuck with for so long.

Taking place 6 days a week, 7 hours a day, for 30 days, Montreal artist Victor Pilon moved the equivalent of over 144 tonnes of sand from one mound to another over the course of more than 360,000 steps in a free and public marathon performance at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. While the city made the most of its liberties during the summer and fall, this was truly one of the most heart-wrenching and inspiriing public works of art we saw this year. Not bad for the first museum activity to be held within the walls of the Olympic Stadium in 45 years.

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It was amazing and breathtaking while it lasted: Showing views that only astronauts can experience, The Infinite brought the world's largest virtual reality experience to date right here to Montreal at Arsenal Contemporary Art, thanks to a collaboration of Felix & Paul Studios and PHI Studio.

Now it's off to Houston, Texas, but while it was here? This combination of virtual reality, augmented reality and projections took users on an immersive, hour-long trip aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for an hour-long experience: 35 minutes of free-roaming VR spread out over 12,500 square feet of rooms. Then there were mirrored corridors, and the digital room-sized artwork by Ryoji Ikeda called The Universe within the Universe, a piece that was created exclusively for the experience. It was without comparison in 2021.

Best nightlife event: All of Montreal post-lockdown
Photograph: JF Galipeau

Best nightlife event: All of Montreal post-lockdown

Montreal, you brought your A-game to your street when curfews and lockdowns ended. There were some tough times—and some really tough times (remember those assholes who got impatient and went smashing windows in Old Montreal?)—but when we made it out the other side, we embraced our local businesses like there was no tomorrow, and we did it together.

It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty great.

Sustainability

It's a unanimous decision over at Time Out Montreal that this zero waste pub deserves recognition for everything that it does: Its prioritization of Quebec products both on the plate and from the taps; using its huge space to host cultural gatherings, in-house syrups for the cocktails; and seriously snack-worthy menu... All of that makes this place the complete environmentally-friendly package. 

Honestly, we don't think that this event gets nearly the amount of attention it deserves year after year. You don't have to be the kind of person who's willing to strip down and ride a bike to appreciate it: The event is chiefly a protest against the consumption of oil and its impacts on the environment. By drawing attention to bicycles, the organizers have said that they hope to aid in the promotion of alternative, greener forms of transportation like cycling. That's worthy of praise.

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It's something a lot of locals in the area won't stop touting: Verdun sports its own beach, and it only seems to get better with every year. Opening officially in 2019, it gave Montrealers another spot to dip their toes in some sand and surf—apart from flocking to Jean-Doré on Parc Jean Drapeau every summer—and it's a modest place to do so. The season usually runs from June to September, and it's a great place during the day for families and a (literally) cool spot to go for older crowds in the early evening when the sun's still up.

Special Awards

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A lot of things went Montreal's way this year, but we needed a lot of wake-up calls, too: That's why we're choosing local journalist and opinion writer Toula Drimonis as our top pick for this year. Her words have brought attention to systemic racism in the province, calls for diversity, calling out the government on its bullshit, the need for climate action, and even hotter takes like getting rid of Canada Day celebrations and getting rid of the curfew. Even as we're listing everything she's written about, we feel like we're only scratching the surface. Thank you, Toula!

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Ever since it was first announced, we fell in love with the idea of a street market-style event that would bring together businesses from across multiple boroughs in a celebration of one of the city's best and brightest sceneries: Setting up alongside the Lachine Canal behind Arsenal Contemporary Art center, Sudbest  brought together culinary and artisanal works side by side, and they even invited more businesses to join them as the event went on. We can't wait to see additional incarnations of this as the years go on.

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Le Monastère has been spreading the good word about the circus at its new digs inside St. Jax Montréal, a repurposed Anglican church. Featuring artists who have earned their big-top stripes from performing with troupes like Cirque du Soleil and earning medals from France’s World Circus Festival, these events are fantastical places for spectators to watch dazzling feats of acrobatics after grabbing a drink at the on-site bar. This past summer is when it truly shone, though: Outdoor shows with a bar and space for picnicking? It was fantastic.

Green star: City of Montreal
Photograph: © Espace pour la vie (Raymond Jalbert)

Green star: City of Montreal

Plans to go zero waste, to ban plastic, to build out some of the largest urban green spaces in North America; it's all happening here. Greenhouse gases are being reduced, access to public services and infrastructure that help make that happen are increasing, and making choices to clean the air, reduce the urban heat island effect, and improving biodiversity are all underway. We're not just becoming a major world player in sustainability; we're becoming a leader.

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