Exploring the Montreal That Leonard Cohen Loved

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The Parc du Portugal, where a plaque commemorates the arrival of Portuguese immigrants.CreditAlexi Hobbs for The New York Times

In the jacket copy of his 1961 poetry collection “The Spice-Box of Earth,” a 20-something Leonard Cohen wrote, “I have to keep coming back to Montreal to renew my neurotic affiliations.”

Soon, the city’s cherished son followed his inclinations toward music, and would eventually achieve global-icon status thanks to his signature talent for such pensive sentiments. The brooding vocals and philosophical lyrics of anthems like “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah” earned him nicknames like the “godfather of gloom” and the “poet laureate of pessimism.”

Somewhere along the way, though, Mr. Cohen’s hometown anxieties softened into affection. “I feel at home when I’m in Montreal — in a way that I don’t feel anywhere else,” he told an interviewer in 2006. “I don’t know what it is, but the feeling gets stronger as I get older.” Proof of that can still be found today along the streets of Montreal’s Little Portugal, which served as his hometown headquarters for the latter half of his life.

Artists and immigrants (first Jewish, later Portuguese) have shared this sliver of the greater Plateau neighborhood for close to a century. Today, locals still trade anecdotes about spotting Mr. Cohen at his favorite restaurants or having a friendly chat with him along The Main, Montreal vernacular for Boulevard St.-Laurent, the Plateau’s cultural artery.

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The songwriter and poet in 1973 in Manhattan.CreditLibrado Romero/The New York Times

True to his dust-jacket proclamation, the nomadic Mr. Cohen returned to Montreal sporadically throughout his adult life, and so, until his death in November at the age of 82, if your timing was fortuitous, you might have seen him on the steps of the gray stone triplex he purchased just off The Main in the early 1970s. With his often-present laptop perched on his knees, it’s where he exchanged pleasantries with neighbors he’d known for decades or called out to acquaintances lingering in the pocket-size Parc du Portugal across Rue Vallières.

During a recent attempt to retrace Mr. Cohen’s relationship with my adopted home city — spurred on by the fact that, until his death, I had not known that we were such close Plateau neighbors, living only a 15-minute walk apart — I discovered that the best evidence that he reveled in Montreal’s comfortable clasp was found on his feet.

“One day he was in back of me at the bakery,” Ida Ponte, a manager at the J. Schreter apparel store on The Main, told me as she recalled her visits to another St.-Laurent staple, Les Anges Gourmets. Like many Little Portugal mainstays, Les Anges offers a cross-cultural array of goods, as renowned for its French patisserie as for its Portuguese egg custard tarts, pasteis de natas. “I didn’t know he was there and he just leans over and whispers to me, ‘You’re the only one who knows I’m wearing slippers.’”

Mr. Cohen’s preferred footwear for padding around Little Portugal — always the same Foamtreads slippers, purchased at J. Schreter — illustrated his rapport with the middle-class neighborhood that served as his Montreal home base after a childhood spent in the tonier Westmount enclave. Sotto voce and sly-humored, polite and without airs, Mr. Cohen exuded a big-hearted bonhomie for the people and for the places he loyally patronized.

“That’s the thing that stands out more than anything else for me: He liked to wear a very comfortable slipper as a shoe,” said Steve Schreter, who now owns the business, founded by his father’s cousin. “It didn’t prevent him from walking around the street.”

In fact, little did. When in town, Mr. Cohen was a creature of habit, returning to a string of family-owned businesses found along The Main, all easily reached by foot. (“Suzanne,” his most famous example of Montreal-set songwriting, references the city’s Old Port several miles away.) His favorite locales are, as he was, Montreal institutions.

Mr. Cohen’s days routinely began with a freshly pulled espresso at Bagel Etc., a 35-year-old diner and cafe where vintage mirrors, signage and art run amok on the brick walls. You might assume the décor was inherited from the antiques shop that once occupied the southern half of Bagel Etc.’s double storefront, but as Simon Rosson, an owner, told me, “some of it’s from a funeral home.”

Beyond bagels — one or two varieties, delivered from nearby Fairmount Bagels — the breakfast-and-lunch menu builds on the appealingly scattershot feel of the place. Its famous huevos rancheros are offered alongside sweet and savory blintzes, knockwurst and pepperette, and for dessert, strudel — which, when I ordered it in December, was charmingly if incongruously accompanied by a tuft of canned whipped cream topped with a single red grape.

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The Montreal triplex Leonard Cohen bought in the early 1970s and to which he returned.CreditAlexi Hobbs for The New York Times

Mr. Rosson got into the habit of opening early for Mr. Cohen when he starting working at the shop in 2001. “I was smoking my cigarette outside one morning, and he’s peeking through his window to see if I’ve actually opened the doors,” he said. “I know he’s not going to eat anything, so it doesn’t matter if I don’t have anything prepared. I can make the guy an allongé” — a tall espresso. “So I wave him down, like, ‘Leonard, just come on.’”

When he was occupying his preferred stool at the counter, television, of all things, became a favorite topic for Mr. Cohen. (Brass nameplates honoring regulars line several booths at Bagel Etc.; Mr. Cohen’s stool marker was presumably swiped by a fan years ago.)

“He was always on his laptop. He was talking about Project Free TV, this website to get free TV shows,” Mr. Rosson recalled. “He says, ‘Brother’ — always ‘brother’ or ‘friend’ — ‘have you seen “John From Cincinnati”?’” (Mr. Cohen was referring to a short-lived HBO drama starring his onetime fiancée, Rebecca De Mornay.) Ms. De Mornay, he said, had called Mr. Cohen and asked his opinion of the show. Mr. Rosson then told him, “Give me her phone number, because I want to phone her and say, ‘What the heck’s going on in this show?’” (He used a bluer expression than “heck.”)

Farther south along the boulevard, Mr. Cohen (who was a vegetarian for a few years in the 1960s) indulged his love for Montreal’s acclaimed smoked meat, or viande fumée, a local specialty made from high-fat beef brisket that’s typically salted and cured for a week before being smoked, steamed and hand-sliced to order. “I like this place because it’s open all night,” he told the now-defunct Montreal Daily News in 1988, referring to Main Deli Steak House, a scruffy Jewish deli he famously frequented (a newspaper clipping is displayed near the door). “The smoked meat tastes great, too, especially after five months on the road.”

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At Bagel Etc., Leonard Cohen got his morning coffee.CreditAlexi Hobbs for The New York Times

Indeed, the menu appears tailor-made for the ravenous, after-hours crowd; you can get a jumbo hot dog or a 20-ounce “jumbo rib steak,” as well as dauntingly hearty dishes like spaghetti with smoked meat. A traditional viande fumée sandwich served on mustard-soused slices of rye, however, makes for a decadent lunch on its own.

If Mr. Cohen felt a kinship with local proprietors based on common geography and ancestry, another quality they shared was an ability to self-reinvent. When J. Schreter opened in 1928, its customers included peddlers who resold their no-frills apparel to farmers and similar clientele. When Mr. Cohen posed for a photo with the family outside the store in 1986 — “Can I come into your picture?” Mr. Schreter recalls Mr. Cohen asking as he walked by — their sign still noted “Gros et Detail” (wholesale and retail) merchandise.

Today, J. Schreter’s attractive racks of clothing, shoes and accessories come from fashion-forward brands known for classic styling, like Ben Schwartz Oxford shirts, Tom’s shoes and Herschel backpacks.

Nearby, Quincaillerie Azores, where Mr. Cohen purchased items for small home repairs (many executed free by the Pereira family, which owns the business), tells a similar story. Gabriel Pereira arrived in 1956 from the Azores archipelago off the Portuguese coast. In 1968, he opened his hardware store and began serving the construction trade.

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Moishes Steakhouse, where Leonard Cohen ate regularly. Credit Alexi Hobbs for The New York Times

These days, under the management of Mr. Pereira’s five adult children, the store has become Quebec’s largest seller of roosters of Barcelos. Tour groups schedule stops at Azores to pick up the vibrantly hued, ornamental birds traditionally given in Portuguese culture as good-luck presents for weddings and housewarmings. “There used to be a lot of Portuguese families that lived here, but I would say toward the end of the ’80s, you would see less,” said Kevin Pereira, one of the second-generation owners. “The Plateau started to be pricey, more expensive. We adapted.” Housewares and gifts occupy the window displays, including fine examples of Portuguese clay pottery.

At 79-year-old Moishes Steak House, a well-known establishment where Mr. Cohen dined several nights a week, the modifications are more subtle. Graffitied canvases contrast with the sumptuous leather, velvet and brick textures of the interior, while an after-9 p.m. menu introduced about five years ago brings a younger demographic through the doors.

Moishes also boasts a back story that Mr. Cohen would have appreciated: After immigrating from Romania in the 1920s, Moishe Lighter worked at the restaurant, then called Saffrin’s, when he won it from Mr. Saffrin in a poker game in 1938.

Mr. Cohen would always arrive at Moishes with company and greet its current owner, Leonard, one of Moishe’s sons, with the same jovial if mysterious hello: “They’re never gonna get us, Leonard. They’re never gonna get us.” He would request lamb chops and a red Bordeaux. “He loved our lamb chops. He called them Silence of the Lamb chops. ‘I’ll have an order of the Silence of the Lamb chops.’ That was really his character,” Mr. Lighter said.

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Quincaillerie Azores in Montreal sells an array of Portuguese pottery. CreditAlexi Hobbs for The New York Times

“We always have celebrities come in, people from everywhere; when they were in Montreal, they ended up here and still do. It was different with him. He was a Montrealer, and he was here. He lived in the neighborhood. He was just Leonard Cohen from Montreal.”