Ever since my son was little, I’d take him for outings to museums, festivals, shows and many other cultural events in Montreal. These trips allowed us to share time together, talk and build good memories. But as my son got older, it became harder to find activities that pleased him. By the time he hit his teens, staying home to play on his X-box seemed to win out every time over an outing with mom.
But I did notice that my son would never refuse a trip to our neighbourhood diner. I felt like I was bribing him with poutine to find out how his day had gone. But teens and moms don’t share the same metabolism — or tastes. And the greasy food just wasn’t doing anything for my middle-age body or taste buds.
Then I came up with an idea: why not take him out to a new restaurant every week? Instead of tucking into calorie-laden, gravy-covered fries, we would eat our way around the world, sampling cuisines from various countries at different Montreal restaurants. One week I would choose a spot; the next time it would be his turn. Our golden rule: you couldn’t complain about the restaurant selection, you just had to give it a try.
Since then, we’ve sat cross-legged at low tables in Mile End and feasted on Mauritanian stews. We’ve sampled Basque blood pudding – with some trepidation – and even nibbled on Tunisian pastries as a bejewelled belly dancer spun round and round, a fiery sword balanced on her head.
These Friday dinner dates have helped us step out of our culinary comfort zone and learn about other cultures. We may start out talking about the menu, but eventually the conversation turns towards the important, silly or just plain interesting things that make up our lives. It’s a time to reconnect.
If you are looking for a different dining experience for your family, whether you have teens or not, here are our favourite local spots. They all welcome families and you’ll be surprised at what you find on the menu. Bon appetit!
5908 Sherbrooke St. W. • (514) 487-1712
Open from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday
Around $15 per person, including tip – the winner for value.
This N.D.G. resto is always packed with local families and the staff is on the ball. The proof: our waitress remembers my son’s order from our last visit over six months ago. The décor is simple and unpretentious, with fun touches like framed traditional silk baby clothes from Korea hanging on the wall. You whet your appetite by nibbling on the complimentary bean sprouts and kimchi (pickled cabbage and turnip). The fare is wonderfully comforting and healthy. My bibimbap arrives sizzling – the steaming rice, fresh greens, lean beef strips and a freshly cracked egg continue cooking at the table as I stir them in their hot stone bowl. I feel a bit like a magician with chopsticks when it’s all combined and cooked to perfection. My son’s udon soup is loaded with veggies such as zucchini, lettuce and mushrooms too, as well as fishcake balls and his favourite ingredient: long, thick noodles. Cue slurping noises!
La couscoussière d’Ali Baba
1460 Amherst St. • (514) 842-6667
Open Sunday to Thursday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. from Wednesday to Friday. Belly dancing performances begin around 8 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays only)
Five-course table d’hote menu costs $27.95 per person.
You might be taken aback at first by the gold-painted faux stalactites of this cavernous hideaway, but your kids will love dining out in a shimmering cave. Go with it! On show nights, belly dancers perform between the tables – don’t be surprised to see swords and fire incorporated into their acts. While the eyelash batting and undulating arm movements are coquettish, the vibe is by no means salacious, and families with young children in tow sit among grown-ups celebrating birthdays or corporate nights out. People of all ages get up and wiggle in the long narrow aisles between courses, even my son for a moment, and the mood is festive. The staff are warm and well able to weave their way past the entertainers, balancing steaming plates of tajine or platters of crisp baklava pastries. Fresh mint tea is poured from up high so it froths in the cup to round off the Arabian Nights experience.
142 Fairmount St. W. • (514) 948-9993
Open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday
Table d’hôte, which includes an appetizer, main course and ceremonial tea, costs $25 per person.
Sitting on patterned, silk-covered, floor cushions at a sturdy low table under a draped ceiling strewn with lanterns, you feel every bit the Mauritanian nomad dining here. Our waiter is eager to tell us more about the small North African country of Mauritania and at one point beckons us over to locate it on a large framed map on the wall. The house tipple is child-friendly hibiscus juice: a refreshing, organic homemade drink that tastes something like a cranberry and grape juice cocktail. We begin with a hearty lentil soup and for our main course tuck into stew: chicken for my son, lamb for me. The meat is cooked until tender in a mildly spicy sauce and served on a bed of couscous; sticky prunes and green olives add texture and flavour. Gentle West African music punctuated by djembe beats sets a laid-back tone, and it’s incredibly relaxing to stretch out your legs as you dine – makes for a whole lot less squirming with younger kids.
256 Roy St. E. • (514) 844-0222
Open Monday to Saturday; from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Also open for lunch Wednesday to Friday; from noon to 2 p.m.
Pinxtos (small plates) range in price from $4 to $10. Expect to order five to seven pintxos per adult diner, fewer for children.
This Basque restaurant with its chic white linen tablecloths might not seem like the obvious spot to bring your kids — but the small-plate format gives them a chance to sample all kinds of appetizing Mediterranean goodies and is perfect for smaller appetites. Lively artwork on the exposed brick walls (such as grazing bulls in rich, earthy tones) sets a cozy tone. And if you’ve ever been to Spain, you’ll know how the waitstaff fuss over little ones, making dining out a low-stress experience for the whole family. Adventurous kids (with a macabre streak) can try blood pudding with apple chutney, poached octopus carpaccio or sautéed wild mushrooms with snails. I’m astonished at the weird and wonderful ingredients my Kraft-dinner devotee devours during our visit. Fussier eaters can fill their bellies with comfort foods like fluffy scrambled egg and cod or the mild, slightly sweet duo of Spanish cheeses.
Russian and Eastern European
5184 Côte des Neiges Rd. • (514) 738-6555
Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
Around $30 per person for three courses, including tip.
Warning: vegetarian parents may not appreciate the extensive taxidermy collection in this homely spot. Little kids, however, can’t stop themselves from running over to stare back at the cigar-smoking puffer fish by the cash register, the bear and moose heads grimacing down from the walls, and the wonkily stitched fox and racoon hanging out by the stage. On Fridays and Saturdays from 8 p.m., you’ll be entertained by Russian folk singers with a penchant for Western pop covers. Reserve on those evenings and make like a regular by getting up mid-meal to dance off the dumplings. My son insists on ordering “Mother-in-Law’s Tongue” as an appetizer: an enormous pile of pickled gherkins and chopped cow’s tongue. I gingerly sample it, for research purposes, and confirm his comparison of the meat to tuna – only not so flakey. Our main dish is a shared mixed plate starring delicious Ukrainian sausage, cottage cheese-stuffed blini (thick, rolled crepes), an assortment of pierogis and an enormous spicy cabbage roll. There is plenty of sour cream and spicy sauce for dipping too, then cherry blinis for dessert. This is comfort-food Nirvana. By the end of the meal, we decide we’re moving east.