MONTREAL — David McMillan, one of Montreal’s most influential chefs, estimates he has eaten at L’Express, the city’s premier French bistro, more than 500 times. His meal is almost always the same: pistachio-studded chicken liver pâté, followed by veal kidneys in mustard sauce.
“I still have this feeling of elation, like it’s Christmas, when I walk into that room,” he said. “Particularly when it’s a snowy Montreal night.”
A French bistro in the classic mold (zinc-topped bar, check-tile floor, standards-laden menu), the restaurant has been leaving an indelible imprint on customers for decades: In the coming year, L’Express will celebrate its 40th anniversary.
Like a handful of American restaurants of similar vintage — Zuni Cafe in San Francisco; Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Ala.; the Odeon in New York City — it enjoys the status of a monument in its hometown, although L’Express has the character of an even older place.
“At the beginning, we wanted people to think that L’Express had been there since 1950,” said Pierre Villeneuve, who opened the restaurant in December 1980 with Colette Brossoit.
David Darrigade, a regular since his father took him there in the 1980s, still feels excitement when the jar of cornichons hits the table at the beginning of a meal. Lesley Chesterman, The Montreal Gazette’s restaurant critic for 20 years, has written that the city would be “unimaginable” without L’Express.
“This is a French city,” said Ms. Chesterman, “and the best place to see that is at L’Express.”
Restaurant professionals, from Canada and elsewhere, are particularly susceptible to the restaurant’s charms, lending it an influence that belies its size (66 seats, not including 15 bar stools) and modest name recognition outside Quebec. An argument can be made that it contains part of the source code for the approachable bistros and brasseries that have transformed American fine dining in the last 25 years.
“When I’m staring at a blank piece of paper, the first thing I see is L’Express’s menu,” said Riad Nasr, 55, the Montreal-born co-chef and owner, along with Lee Hanson, of Frenchette in New York.
Mr. Nasr and Mr. Hanson were the longtime chefs at Balthazar, a definitive American brasserie, and are now working to open a refreshed version of Le Veau d’Or, the Upper East Side bistro that dates back to 1937.
“To say I think about it literally every day wouldn’t be out of line,” Mr. Nasr said of L’Express. “We exist in its gravitational pull.”
Ms. Brossoit and Mr. Villeneuve were young members of Montreal’s fertile theater community when they envisioned an antidote to the stuffy, exclusive French restaurants that dominated Montreal in the late 1970s: a bistro with affordable prices, convivial service and hours — the kitchen has always been open until 2 or 3 a.m. — that catered to artists’ schedules.
“Colette said, ‘It’s impossible that, in a city like Montreal, we don’t have a place to eat well and simply after the theater,’” Mr. Villeneuve recalled of his partner, who died in 2014, at 62. “She wanted L’Express to be a ‘service publique,’ where everyone feels comfortable — the star of the show, who can order his champagne and caviar, and also the roadies.”
L’Express opened on the first floor of a three-story townhouse in the Plateau-Mont-Royal, then a gritty neighborhood on what has traditionally been known as the “French side” of Saint Laurent Boulevard, the unofficial border between Montreal’s French and Anglo populations.
The restaurant was designed by the well-known local architect Luc Laport. The mirrored walls and canonical dishes (céleri rémoulade, soupe de poissons, duck confit) all evoke Paris. But the distinctive Québécois French spoken by so many staff and patrons is, to the trained ear, a signal that you’re in Montreal.
“It’s like a French brasserie where they speak in Canadian,” said Luc Deshaies, 56, a lawyer who has been eating at L’Express since soon after it opened. (He credits his France-based business partner for the observation.)
Yet much of the bistro’s abundant charisma flows from its connection to this beguiling, bilingual city. Mr. Laport’s signless facade — the restaurant’s name is written in tile on the front sidewalk — and rear solarium are among the more obvious features that distinguish the restaurant from the usual template.
Mr. Laport “never wanted to copy a French brasserie,” Mr. Villeneuve said. “We want to make a place for Montreal and from Montreal.”
From Day 1, the founders, whose only professional experience was in staging plays, resolved that the service would help accomplish that mission. “We hired people like a casting,” Mr. Villeneuve recalled, “actors, friends, almost all French Canadian, one French, one Belgian.” New hires were instructed, as they are today, to use the formal “vous” when addressing customers, and to wear traditional uniforms.
“That is the thing that is closer to France, the uniform,” he said. “But you have to be nice, not like a French waiter.”
While L’Express was popular from the start, the food didn’t hit its stride until after Joël Chapoulie was hired as chef in 1982.
“Normal people were coming to see the actors and entertainers who ate here,” Mr. Chapoulie recalled in an interview last month, speaking in a mix of French and English at a sunlit rear table in the narrow dining room. “But the food was not so good.”
Mr. Chapoulie was part of a stream of chefs, born and trained in France, who moved to Montreal after Expo 67, the city’s 1967 world’s fair. He professionalized and expanded the kitchen, affording cooks the space to butcher and make their own pastries and stocks.
“Joël worked in 14 restaurants in Montreal before here,” said Josée Préfontaine, a L’Express owner. “He was able to build a team of real cooks.”
With the hours extended to include breakfast, the menu grew larger, too. Roasted marrow bone, hanger steak and octopus and lentil salad are among the dishes Mr. Chapoulie and others say were new to Montreal when the chef added them to the menu.
“There was a lot of steak” in 1980s Montreal restaurants, Mr. Chapoulie said, “but not the hanger.”
The chef’s efforts to establish L’Express as a serious restaurant were helped by its wine list. When the restaurant first opened, the owners decided they would price all bottles a mere $7 over cost, angering competitors who were generally selling the same bottles for three times as much.
“In Montreal at that moment, you buy a Chateau Latour for $100, you sell it for $300,” Mr. Villeneuve said. “I found that so stupid. It’s the same job to open a Côtes du Rhône as it is to open a Chateau Latour.”
Colette Brossoit’s younger brother, Mario, has managed the bistro’s wine for nearly its entire existence. Longtime customers praise him for championing small producers and natural and biodynamic wines years before they were fashionable.
While prices have risen to account for cellaring costs and other factors, the wine list, which now draws from an 11,000-bottle collection, remains an attraction of its own, both for the quality of its selections, particularly from France, and its deals. Last month, the list featured a Roulot Auxey-Duresses Blanc 2016 and a magnum of Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 2016 for just a shade over their retail prices in New York, after factoring in the exchange rate.
While he says he took classes on wine as a young man, Mr. Brossoit, 64, is not a sommelier. Nor is anyone else on the staff of L’Express.
“At every shift we open a bottle and taste it and talk about it,” said Philippe Michaud who, at 30, is one of the restaurant’s newest employees, though he has worked there 10 years.
A bartender, Claude Masson, 72, participates in those and other tastings, as he has since he started at the restaurant in 1983. “We do not have the vanity of a restaurant in France,” he said. “But we pride ourselves on being able to help you with whatever you need, especially wine.”
Monsieur Masson, as everyone calls him, is famous locally, both for his understated professionalism and his longevity. Mr. McMillan calls him a mentor.
“He’s still funny,” said Mr. Deshaies, a regular who was first served by Mr. Masson when a meal at L’Express cost less than $10. When Mr. Masson was young, he was quite magnetic, Mr. Deshaies said. “You should have seen him shaking the glasses for people’s birthday.”
In the 1990s, L’Express stood as an example of where Western fine dining was heading. Mr. Nasr was in New York, increasingly regarding the restaurant as “the most amazing, romantic embodiment” of the craft he was then honing at Daniel under the chef Daniel Boulud.
“Gastro pub” was working its way into the lexicon in Britain. In 1994, the Michelin Guide restored “bistro” as a category, partly in response to the versions that French chefs like Michel Rostang and Guy Savoy were opening as complements to their multistarred flagships.
Mr. McMillan, 48, credits L’Express for inspiring him to turn away from the ornamental French food he was making in his 20s. The bistro’s humble classicism is in the DNA of Joe Beef, Le Vin Papillon and the other acclaimed Montreal restaurants he went on to open with Allison Cunningham and the chef Fred Morin.
Along with a handful of others — notably the chef Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon, another L’Express regular — the Joe Beef owners are credited with igniting a restaurant renaissance in Montreal. They did so by serving food that creatively blends Québécois and French tradition in small, fashionable, unpretentious neighborhood restaurants. The aesthetic is as refined as that of classic French cuisine, but unique to Montreal.
“I will never stop serving bistro French food. It’s what I do,” Mr. McMillan said. “We’re a French city in Canada.”
In recent years, there was concern here that L’Express’s days could be numbered. The death of Ms. Brossoit, described by Mr. Villeneuve as its “brains and heart,” was difficult. The menu is still written in her handwriting, thanks to technology that made a font out of her cursive.
This came during a time when the restaurant was struggling to fill the void left by Mr. Chapoulie’s retirement in 2012. The food quality dipped, and the chef was ultimately asked to return until an able replacement, Jean-François Vachon, was hired, in 2016.
“L’Express has never been identified with anybody. It’s not the chef’s restaurant, it’s not the owner’s restaurant,” Ms. Préfontaine said. “But customers did notice when Joël left.” She became an owner of L’Express a few months before Ms. Brossoit’s death, as did Mr. Brossoit and Hélène Dansereau, an employee since opening day.
Ms. Préfontaine, 40, who started as a L’Express server in 2005, proposed a solution to what appeared to be an inevitable succession problem. The other owners are in their 60s. None have children, and there was no one being groomed to usher L’Express into the future.
“I said that I wanted to makes sure that L’Express can continue, and that I would like to be the ange gardien” — the guardian angel, Ms. Préfontaine said.
Mr. Villeneuve said he and Ms. Brossoit trusted her not to alter the current property or succumb to the temptation to expand, either of which would violate their original vision of a play that never ends.
“We do it one time,” he said. “We never do it again.”
L’Express 3927 Rue Saint-Denis, 514-845-5333, restaurantlexpress.com.