Quebec City has long been on my list of favorite destinations, brimming with great restaurants and shopping, some fabulous hotels, and numerous art galleries and antique shops. History buffs will delight in the city’s preservation of its colonial-era streets and architecture, and those who want to go even further back in North American history can visit the First Nation and Inuit exhibits at the Museum of Civilization. Quebec is located about two and a half hours east of Montreal. Visitors from the states will not actually have to drive all the way north to Montreal, but head east on Route 20 along the St Lawrence. The trip takes about four hours from the Central Adirondacks.
As in Montreal, Ville de Quebec shopkeepers and hotel / restaurant workers are typically bilingual, and will greet you with a “Bonjour – Hello!” – and wait for your response – before deciding how to proceed with the conversation. Apparently my “Bonjour” is as unimpressive as it is unpersuasive, my respondents immediately convert to English. Regardless of your linguistic talent, I offer a small word of advice: always say Hello (or Bonjour) when entering a place of business. All shopkeepers will greet you as you enter their store, a delightful French custom, and it is considered rude not to offer a greeting in return.
I have been visiting Quebec City for years, as it is located approximately midway between our home in the Adirondacks, and my favorite fishing destination on the Gaspe in eastern Quebec. We frequently overnight there to split the trip up, which affords us the opportunity to visit some of the city’s spectacular restaurants. That is exactly what we did last week.
If you plan on spending most of your visit in “Old Port”, the historic section of town down near the wharfs, I recommend that you stay at one of the historic inns in that vicinity. The historic district is divided into two sections – an upper and lower level. The lower city is directly on the water, and many of the buildings are actually built on the old wharfs, which were extended out into the river as the city expanded. It was a working district – with docks and shipyards and warehouses lining the cobblestone streets. One of those streets is “Petit Champlain“, one of the prettiest streets you will ever see. It is run by a collective of Canadian artisans, and the shops are full of locally made clothing and crafts and art work. It looks like it is a tourist trap but it really is not. You will find many beautiful Quebec crafted items for sale. The city’s upper level is reached by a series of stairs or the funicular railcar. That historic area houses the government offices, the Citadel, the colonial era cannons and protective ramparts that shielded the residents from marauding hordes during the French and Indian (7 Years) War. This is where you will also find the world famous Chateau Frontenac, one of the most beautiful hotels in North America, and certainly one of the top choices for luxury accommodations.
Our new personal favorite inn is the Auberge St. Antoine, a boutique hotel in Old Port that is part museum, part hotel, and home to one of the finest restaurants in Quebec, Panache. The intimate, ninety-five room hotel was built on the old colonial era riverside wharf, and hundreds of the historical artifacts that were excavated during construction are on display throughout the building. In addition to the main dining room, there is a cozy lounge and cafe for small plates or a late night cocktail, where the hotel provides live music nightly. The rooms were spacious and thoughtfully designed. Importantly, the hotel also provided secure off street parking for a nominal extra charge. Auberge St. Antoine is by far the best hotel experience we have encountered in Quebec.
If you are a student of colonial-era history and architecture, splurge and hire a guide to show you the city as only a professional guide can do. I have been to Quebec on numerous occasions but our guide last weekend – Judith from Tours Voir Quebec (418-694-2001) made us feel like we were seeing the city for the first time. A half-day tour for four people was $160 (plus tip).
If you travel to Quebec just to dine at one of the city’s premier restaurants, you will not be alone. I’ll limit my list of favorites to the Old Port historic district, which will overlook some popular favorites like iX Pour Bistro (where it is next to impossible to get a seat, anyway). Le Lapin Sauté is a regular stop for me and my fishing companions. If you are shopping along Rue Petite Champlain, you will pass by the restaurant, which stays open all day, and offers a very nice outside patio for an afternoon cheese plate and a bottle of local wine. As the name suggests, rabbit is the house specialty, but the menu is not limited to “lapin”.
For traditional Canadian fare like caribou and bison, try Aux Anciens Canadiens, located in the upper level near Chateau Frontenac. If you have not had an opportunity to try caribou, do try it here. This may not help, but it tastes like a cross between moose and elk – milder in flavor than deer, but slightly more assertive than beef.
Le Continental is also across the street from the Chateau, and offers one of the best traditional “white linen” dining rooms in the city, complete with tableside flambés prepared by black-tied waitstaff. For a similarly refined presentation with a much more modern setting and menu, Restaurant Initiale will not disappoint. Located just a block away from Auberge St Antoine, this very popular destination spins classic French ingredients with updated modernist techniques to produce an evening’s worth of surprises. Tasting menus are offered in five or seven course presentations, in addition to an a la carte menu.
We were introduced to a new favorite on our last trip – Echaude on Rue Sault-au-Matelot – a short walk from Auberge St. Antoine. It was a casual bistro, not classic French but with a French accent. An appetizer of potato gnocchi with bits of local lobster and freshly harvested spring morel mushrooms will give you an idea of how the kitchen thinks. Add a nice bar and a nice wine list and we’ll definitely be back on our next trip.
I’m saving the best for last. My favorite cuisine is classic bistro. Classic as in Slow Food fare, prepared the way it was prepared one hundred years ago, before microwaves, and sous-vide machines, and refrigerators for that matter. It was affordable blue collar family fare: lesser quality cuts of meat that had to be braised all day to tenderize, offal like the liver and kidneys and brains and sweetbreads that the butcher sent home with the help, or priced for quick sale to working class customers.
Before refrigeration, ducks and geese were prepared by rendering the fat at a very low temperature for hours in the oven, and preserving the fowl in a crock of that same heavenly elixir – confit. That was, and is, the menu of a classic French bistro. And that is the menu that you find at Cafe le Saint-Malo at 75 Rue St. Paul. At the top of the list is the cervelle de veau, sauteed with burnt butter and capers. This dish all but disappeared from menus in Paris after the mad cow scare, but you can still find it here, and it is as good as it gets.
At this writing, Trip Advisor has the restaurant listed at #30 (of 1155) most popular restaurants in Quebec. I will suggest to you that when the kitchen staffs from restaurants #1 through #29 go out for a real French bistro meal, they come here. It doesn’t get any better, or any more authentic. Monique runs the place with her son Georges and she has been running the place for thirty-three years – and she acts the part. She has the best deal in town and she knows it. Her banter with customers will remind you of your favorite waiter at New York’s Carnegie Deli with all of the charm and deference you would expect from same. Fellow Carnegie fans will know that I say that with all due affection and appreciation. Monique should feel the same way.