A generation ago, most Montréal and Québec City restaurants served only French food. A few temples de cuisine delivered haute standards of gastronomy, while numerous accomplished bistros served up humbler ingredients in less grand settings and folksy places offered the hearty fare that employed the ingredients long available in New France -- game such as caribou, maple syrup, and root vegetables. Everything else was considered "ethnic." Food crazes of the 1980s focusing on Cajun, Tex-Mex, and fusion didn't make much of a dent at the time.
The 1990s recession put many restaurateurs out of business and forced others to reexamine their operation. In Montréal, especially, immigrants brought the cooking styles of the world to the city.
Restaurants are colloquially called "restos," and they range from moderately priced bistros, cafes, and ethnic joints to swank luxury epicurean shrines.
One thing to always look for are table d'hôte meals. These are fixed-price menus, and with them, three- or four-course meals can be had for little more than the price of an a la carte main course. Even the best restaurants offer them, which means that you'll be able to sample some excellent venues without breaking the bank. Table d'hôte meals are often offered at lunch, when they are even less expensive; having your main meal midday instead of in the evening is the most economical way to sample many of the top establishments.
Remember that for the Québécois, dîner (dinner) is the noon meal, and souper (supper) is the evening meal. In this guide, the word dinner is used in the common American sense -- the evening meal. Note, too, that an entrée in Québec is an appetizer, while a plat principal is a main course. Fancier places may offer a complementary pre-appetizer nibble called an amuse bouche.
Many higher-end establishments now offer tasting menus, with many smaller dishes over the course of a meal to show a sampling of the chef's skills. Gaining popularity are surprise menus, also called "chef's whim," where you don't know what you're getting until it's there in front of you. It's becoming more common to find fine restaurants that offer wine pairings with meals, as well, where the sommelier selects a glass (or half glass, if you ask) for each course.
Local Food Highlights
Be sure to try regional specialties. A Québécois favorite is poutine: French fries doused with gravy and cheese curds. It's ubiquitous in winter.
Game is popular, including venison, quail, goose, caribou, and wapiti (North American deer). Many menus feature emu and lamb raised north of Québec City in Charlevoix. Mussels and salmon are also standard.
For sandwiches and snacks that cost only a few dollars, try any of the numerous places that go by the generic name casse-crôute. Menu items might include soup and chiens chaud (hot dogs).
Québec cheeses deserve attention, and many can be sampled only in Canada because they are often unpasteurized -- made of lait cru (raw milk) -- and therefore subject to strict export rules. Better restaurants will offer them as a final course. Of the more than 500 varieties available, you might look for Mimolette Jeune (firm, fragrant, orange), Valbert St-Isidor (similar to Swiss in texture), St-Basil de Port Neuf (buttery), Cru des Erables (soft, ripe), Oka (semisoft, made of cow's milk in a monastery), and Le Chèvre Noire (a sharp goat variety covered in black wax). Québec cheeses pick up armfuls of prizes each year in the American Cheese Society competition, North America's largest.
Cheeses with the fromages de pays label are made in Québec with whole milk and no modified milk ingredients. The label represents solidarity among artisanal producers and is supported by Solidarité Rurale du Québec, a group devoted to revitalizing rural communities. It's also supported by Slow Food Québec, which promotes sustainable agriculture and local production. Information is available at www.fromageduquebec.qc.ca.
Beer & Wine
Alcohol is heavily taxed, and imported varieties even more so than domestic versions, so if you're looking to save a little, buy Canadian. That's not difficult when it comes to beer, for there are many regional breweries, from Montréal powerhouse Molson to micro, that produce delicious products. Among the best local options are Belle Gueule and Boréal. The sign BIERES EN FUT means "beers on draft." The Montréal beer festival, the Mondial de la bière (www.festivalmondialbiere.qc.ca), is a giddy event. The 18th edition in 2011 was held at Place Bonaventure, where 136 breweries presented their ales, 26 of them representing Québec.
Wine is another matter. It is not produced in significant quantities in Canada due to a climate generally inhospitable to the essential grapes. But you might try bottles from the vineyards of the Cantons-de-l'Est region (just east of Montréal). Sample, too, the sweet "ice wines" and "ice ciders" made from grapes and apples after the first frost. Many decent ones come from vineyards and orchards just an hour from Montréal.
One popular wine is L'Orpailleur, Seyval (www.orpailleur.ca). L'orpailleur refers to someone who mines for gold in streams -- the idea being that trying to make good wine in Québec's cold climate requires a similar leap of faith in the ability to defy the odds.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.