One night this summer at Le Vin Papillon, the superlative Montreal wine bar, a laughably simple and absurdly fresh plate of chicken and heirloom tomatoes was served. The chicken was a whole leg, from the top of the thigh all the way down to the claw, tightly curled like a baby’s hand. Cooked on the outdoor grill by a young woman who exuded strength and sex appeal, its appearance provoked the sort of tickled gasps a naughty joke might elicit. The tomatoes, flawless bursts of sunshine, were dressed with little more than good sea salt. Wine was poured by a young man with a scruffy beard who, when his guests were pleased, pumped his fist like he’d scored a goal. The restaurant’s upstairs neighbors sat on their tiny balcony overlooking the scene below, smoking cigarettes and sipping wine out of tumblers. English, French and at least three other languages were being spoken at once. There were children running around. The effect was one of hanging out at some fabulously cool friend’s backyard barbecue on a perfectly calibrated night.

Le Vin Papillon is one of the establishments in the Joe Beef empire, a trio of restaurants all set on the same strip in southeast Montreal. Joe Beef was opened just over a decade ago by two idealistic chefs, Frédéric Morin and David McMillan, in what was then the sketchy neighborhood of Little Burgundy. One of the chapters in the pair’s 2011 cookbook, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef, is called “Building a Garden in a Crack Den.” Today, the neighborhood is a veritable dining destination. The thoroughfare on which Joe Beef and its sister restaurants are located is home to other chic restaurants and cafés. While it’s impossible to trace a neighborhood’s gentrification to a single event, there is little doubt that the opening of Joe Beef ushered in a new era.

David McMillan (far left) and Frédéric Morin (far right) have built an empire of their own in Montreal.
David McMillan (far left) and Frédéric Morin (far right) have built an empire in Montreal.

Named for Charlie “Joe Beef” McKiernan, a late-19th-century canteen owner who was known to offer food and lodging to the down and out, the restaurant quickly found a following. Its early success led to the opening of Liverpool House, serving slightly more casual fare, in 2007. McKiernan, a luncheonette, followed. It closed in 2011 to make room for a Joe Beef expansion. Le Vin Papillon, which debuted in 2013, also expanded last year. Morin and McMillan bought the building to make it happen, evicting beloved café Lili & Oli in the process. (It moved two blocks away.)

Today, Joe Beef, Liverpool House and Le Vin Papillon attract visitors from around the city and beyond. They come to snap photos of the food, which is at times whimsical, like the beclawed chicken, at times an unveiled commentary on the preposterousness of foodies, like the Foie Gras Double Down. The two men who started it all, burly and foul-mouthed in interviews, are known to express their exasperation at foodie culture and celebrity chefdom. Years ago, they stopped attending major food events, like the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen. Last year, they stopped speaking to the media. At the same time, they can seem genuinely concerned with what people think. “I truly fucking get devastated when someone didn’t love it here,” McMillan told Vice earlier this year.

Luckily, most people do love it. Big-name chefs like David Chang and Anthony Bourdain have proclaimed their undying love for Joe Beef. It’s probably the hardest reservation to get in Montreal. But McMillan is the first to say that it isn’t his superior cooking skills or innovative recipes that are at the root of the empire’s success. It’s the city itself. A die-hard fan of his hometown, he has been quoted repeatedly referring to the sophistication of Montrealers’ palates. He can serve them kidneys, sweetbreads, whelks, whatever he pleases, and his customers don’t bat an eye. “I serve horse!” he told The Montreal Gazette. “We could never take Joe Beef to San Francisco…never New York.”

The wine list in all three restaurants is outstanding, funky, very wine-geeky.

Dishes are designed to have a sense of humor, but they can also be acutely familiar — peasant stuff my parents grew up on, like liver or pig’s feet, or the simple grilled chicken with a side of tomato salad I had at Vin Papillon. Other unforgettable meals I’ve had within the Joe Beef empire include a deep-fried soft-shell crab sandwich so rustic that the animal’s beady eyes smiled back at me as I bit into it, a smoked sturgeon salad served with a squid ink–dyed fried pastry that had the texture of McDonald’s apple pie and a plate of transcendent raw root vegetables. The wine list in all three restaurants is outstanding, funky, very wine-geeky.

In many ways, it’s the quintessence of foodie culture. McMillan and Morin peddle their own brand of celebrity as anti-chefs. But if McMillan is right about his diners, that’s the point. Montrealers were foodies before the term existed; even 150 years ago, canteen owners could be local legends. The way the natives eat a plate of tongue while ordering a glass of natural wine in Frenglish is part of the city’s appeal. Long after foodies around the world have found a new obsession and celebrity chefs have been replaced by whomever the next new rock stars will be (potters? mindfulness gurus?), Montrealers will continue to eat with savvy. And with any luck, they’ll be doing so under the reign of Joe Beef.