There are certain things you want from a neighbourhood bar: good, affordable beer on tap to drown your sorrows or to toast your latest successes; a decent selection of food for those long nights spent talking with friends; and a bartender who, even if they don’t remember your name, at least knows your favourite drink. At Isle de Garde, you get all this – but also so much more.
“We wanted to make a serious place where there is a lot of respect for the product, but there’s also a spark of humour,” said Michaël Ruel, one of the brasserie’s six co-owners.
And in our mind, they succeeded beyond all expectations.
With 24 taps of daily-changing brews, most of them filled with Quebec craft beers, a selection of ciders and a few assorted whiskeys, Isle de Garde is a place that takes its hops, grain and barley seriously. They work with small Quebec breweries to produce their own craft beer recipes, but are always happy to showcase the labours of others. Beer prices range between $5.25 and $7.25. On Wednesday and Fridays, a beer cask is opened and its contents are served to the eager public only until the night ends – or the cask runs out.
Based on Ruel’s recommendation, I tried the Farmhouse Ale, a light, citrusy and effervescent beer with just a hint of bitterness. I also tasted the in-house English brown ale – a bit bitter, very malty, but surprisingly not that heavy, this was truly a beer you drink by the pint. Both were thoroughly enjoyable.
At its core, Isle de Garde is truly a venture borne out of friendship. Its six partners–Ruel, Olivier Dupras, Matthieu Gauthier, Simon Chantal, Marc-Aurèle Lussier and Tristan Coutu–know each other well, and four of them hail from the same small town outside of Quebec. Each has their own area of expertise: Lussier is the chef, Dupras the brewer, and others divide responsibilities for marketing, book-keeping, and daily operations. Opinions and recipes are often solicited from the other cooks, servers – and their families.
“We have a lot of friends, and we’re not shy about consulting with them,” said Ruel.
The experimentation at Isle de Garde is a reflection of the spirit of adventure currently prevalent in Quebec’s microbrew industry. After more than 12 years working for beer companies, Ruel reports that the Quebec landscape of microbreweries and pubs has changed drastically over the last few years.
“In the last five years, we’ve done a very different kind of product. Quebec brewers have been learning from others, and there’s a great deal of cooperation between local breweries,” he said.
“We wanted to make a serious place where there is a lot of respect for the product, but there’s also a spark of humour.”
Despite the focus on beer, the food at Isle de Garde is no afterthought. The brasserie makes most of its own sauces and condiments, smokes its own ribs, pork and cheese, and is not shy about incorporating beer into its dishes. They work with a reputable neighbourhood butcher (Boucherie Le Marchand de Bourg), and all the products used are hand-selected by Lussier. The menu changes often–the result of Lussier’s and the kitchen staff’s experimentation–and there is always an unlisted special available on offer. The prices are very accessible for this level of care, with mains ranging between $10 and $19, and all-day bites all under $14.
The result is food of exceptional quality for a bar that could probably put to shame most restaurants. On my visit, the in-house smoked cheddar Mac’n’Cheese was deep-flavoured and sharp, topped with housemade popcorn that elevated the familiar comfort food to the degree of great restaurant fare. The coleslaw was zesty and full of spark. Both the hot sauces I tried were fantastic, but I kept going back to the smokier, chipotle-based bottle.
There is a true sense of thoughtful play in everything at Isle de Garde. Visually, the space is raw and comforting. Ruel built most of the restaurant himself, using salvaged materials from the venue and from other spaces around Montreal. The tables are made out of reclaimed flooring collected from an old apartment building in the Plateau, and the walls have been stripped of paint, revealing the bare wood underneath. The beer taps were specially designed and installed for the space.
Watching the people streaming into Isle de Garde on a Sunday night, it’s clear why neighbourhood bars become the microcosms of their own community. The bartenders laugh with a few regulars, while a young man continues to work on his laptop at the bar. Ruel’s partner walks in with his daughter, and he stops to lift her up into the air, all the while nodding towards newcomers. With laughter and chatter all around, people settle in for a long evening of drinking and eating. And I couldn’t think of a better place to do it than Isle de Garde.
Isle de Garde is located at 1039 rue Beaubien Est. It opens at 3:30 p.m. on weekdays and runs until 1:30 a.m. on Mon – Wed, and 3:30 a.m. on Thu – Fri. Saturday hours are 1:00 pm – 3:00 am, and Sundays are 1:00 pm – 1:30 am.