Foodies in Canada have a small victory to celebrate today, as Montreal has lifted its half century ban on street food. This is a good idea, for though Montreal does have an astounding food scene, it is much less astounding if one doesn’t have a fist full of money. In my student days my trips to Montreal too often featured plates of Lebanese food (good, but hardly earth-shattering), and the odd pastry from chain bakeries. The “grand cuisine” of Montreal was off limits to the student budget. Food trucks and carts could go a long way towards bringing Montreal’s cuisine literally to street level.
But before we all celebrate too much, I have to caution that Montreal is unfortunately not diving into a Portland style street food experiment. They are only granting ten licences, and the city will regulate what is served, much as has been done in Vancouver and Toronto. For some reason Canadian municipal politicians don’t seem to think people who know about food should be trusted with menu creation. What is much worse is that they are limiting the initial licences to people who already have restaurants or food businesses, and most food preparation will have to be done off site (because every French chef knows food must be prepared in a suburb and trucked in to a city). So though we might see a few really interesting trucks selling excellent food, it is a small step at best, and there is a real danger for a repeat of Toronto’s disasterous first attempt to introduce a food cart program.
A vibrant street food scene matters. Cities were purged of street food in the twentieth century as part of a misguided notion that streets were best left to cars and zoning should strictly separate workplaces and residents. What we were left with were zombie downtowns, devoid of life and interest. The return of the city in the 21st century has made life in North America much more interesting, and as part of that we want street food.
So I will raise a small glass of champagne to Montreal’s initiative, but it seems that no Canadian city is quite ready to trust the free market in the way Portland does. Portland’s carts set their own menus, can locate almost anywhere private land owners will let them, and cost of entry is so low that budding chefs can begin a career with a street cart. Plus, there are hundreds of carts, so people enjoy an amazing array of food, most of which is cheaper and healthier than industrial fast food. And, of course, it is cooked on the spot. Vancouver is coming closest to the Portland model, and Toronto has learned from its mistakes. Hopefully Montreal can build this first step into something bigger.