Montreal Bagels: A New Yorker’s Take


It isn’t every day you’re treated to a historic culinary spectacle while waiting for breakfast—and yet that’s what you get every time you walk into St.-Viateur Bagel in Montreal. There’s the aproned employee rolling out the dough, effortlessly forming each piece into the telltale skinny ring. There’s another one briefly boiling each in hot honeyed water. When he’s done he puts them on a long, narrow wooden slab with a handle, which acts as a giant spatula to deposit and later retrieve the bagels from the antique wood-fired oven. From there they’re deposited on a chute, where they await, hot and fresh, for the next customer. And so on, again and again. Twenty-four hours a day.

The bagel operation at St. Viateur Bagels in Montreal.

Montreal bagels at St.-Viateur

Much has been said, and written, about Montreal bagels versus New York City bagels, as those cities are the twin centers of production in eastern North America (both have turn-of-the-20th-century Eastern European Jewish immigrants to thank for many of their most iconic foods). But aside from their clear distinctions in taste—an area for which, I’ll admit, I prefer New York and its use of salt—there exists two other differences that will forever endear Montreal bagels to me. The first is that the city’s bagel elite are open 24/7. The second is that the shops’ bagel-making methods are totally transparent, there in the back for the world to see.

Bagels are a fixture of the neighborhood in Montreal. If you live in Mile End—home to St.-Viateur and Fairmount Bagel, another popular, iconic 24-hour shop—there’s no way you’re not stopping for a hot, fresh bagel every now and then on your way home at 2am on a Saturday, around the same time we in New York might crave a greasy slice of pizza. (Clearly, Montreal’s residents win on the calorie front, at least until poutine enters the picture.)

A skinny sesame bagel from Fairmount Bagels, in Montreal.

A Fairmount bagel

Bagels in New York are mostly a breakfast/brunch thing, and even then, there are no dedicated bagel-production shops in New York. We have restaurants and shops devoted to meatballs, roast beef, and (thankfully, still) pickles, but nothing that’s all bagels, all the time. The Montreal shops are really bagel factories, more akin to Philadelphia’s early-morning pretzel makers than anything else. Bagels are basically all they make—even schmears (i.e., cream cheese) are sold on the side only.

In New York, there are lots of just-average bagels. Bagels may be rolled by machine, not by hand, and we may not even know it because we don’t get to see how the bagels are made. There are still a bunch of hand rollers, to be sure, but even when you buy a fresh bagel, it’s not necessarily just out of the oven. And speaking of, antique ovens are used only for pizza making here.

When I walked into St.-Viateur Bagels my first morning in Montreal, I saw the bagel-making process for the first time in my life, and I saw it the moment I walked in the door. Immediately I sensed the strong respect for tradition in the place, and I loved it so much I almost didn’t taste, in that first bite, the missing salt my palate wanted. Almost. No matter—it didn’t stop our group of four New Yorkers from eating a bagel every day during our stay in Montreal…mostly at 2am, on our way home.

*Jan. 2024 update: Since 2020, St.-Viateur’s flagship location has not been open 24 hours; it opens at 6am and closes at midnight. Fairmount Bagel remains open 24/7.

Published On: July 3, 2012

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