A few years ago, it became evident that the next big dining trend would be food halls. While their operators might bristle at the description, they’re more or less fancy food courts. But instead of being filled with chains, they offer much higher-quality food, from independent, local restaurants, and replace the sad laminate tabletops with welcoming décor, often in a non-mall setting.
Over the last five months, that trend finally crashed into Montreal at full force. From September to January, three food halls opened in downtown Montreal — Le Central, Time Out Market, and Le Cathcart — together injecting more than 50 new restaurants into the scene.
These are seriously big projects, with major money behind them. But they’re operating in uncharted territory of sorts: Montreal hasn’t had a new food court (high-end or low-end) open in a long time. Plus, the last attempt to do something like this — the long-gone Marché Movenpick in Place Ville-Marie — came and went well before the current trend.
In any case, times have changed, and while Montreal still isn’t a money city like Toronto, there’s probably more room for these kinds of slightly splashy projects to succeed.
So: Which one does the best job? Will these three food halls survive? Or will one of them — or even all of them — go the way of Movenpick?
These are not questions that can be concretely answered: It’s the early days, and there are so many moving parts here that any prediction of success or failure is likely to be fraught. But there are still strengths and weaknesses for each — so while there aren’t definitive winners and losers right now, here’s how things are looking across a few different categories. Let’s go.
Realistically, with 50-something restaurants of all stripes spread across three food halls, there are too many variables for any kind of straight-up review to answer the broad question “Which one has the best food?” In any case, pretty much every restaurant across these halls is operated by competent people with prior experience in the restaurant world, so the quality is (generally speaking) solid.
So, a better question would be: Which food hall has the best lineup?
There’s some solid overlap between the three — all of them have stands dedicated to pizza, burgers, and tacos, for example. Le Central probably has the most diverse offerings, although it has a clear advantage of having far more restaurants (25, instead of 16 at Time Out and 13 at Le Cathcart). It has more options that are unique to it than the others, with dedicated counters for Spanish, Moroccan, and Indian cuisines, plus options for seafood and charcuterie. While more restaurants could mean that business is spread more thinly, it also might draw in groups of people who want to try a wider range of things.
All three halls bring in new outposts for existing Montreal restaurants, although Le Central goes a little further out of the box, with relatively young options like Indian snack bar Le Super Qualité and doughnut shop Trou de Beigne on site. It seemed like some of Le Central’s less-experienced vendors took a moment to find their feet in the opening days, but this doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore.
Meanwhile, Time Out goes for a “greatest hits” approach — new locations of mostly prominent Montreal restaurants. It’s less of a place to explore, and more one for revisiting old favourites (some of which are in new formats, like fine dining outfit Montréal Plaza) — but its restaurateurs have a strong handle on what they’re doing, so it probably has an edge in terms of quality.
Le Cathcart’s approach diverges again — it has a mix of mostly fast-casual counters, alongside three full-service restaurants with designated seating areas. The counters do a bang-up job at everything from fried chicken at Chikin to tasty salads and Italian comfort food from Dirty Greens and Patzzi (which share owners with St-Henri’s Arthurs). Unfortunately, two of Cathcart’s full-service restaurants don’t quite hit the higher expectations: Brasserie Mirabel and Antonio Park collaboration Akio are definitely fine and will likely improve as they find their feet, but it seems they’re undermined by the presence of already very strong food for a lower price just metres away.
Verdict: Le Central has the best range, Time Out has the best quality, but Le Cathcart’s fast-casual options are still worth your time.
A number of online reviews for all three food halls whine that they’re overpriced. To some extent, these people are living in another decade: a trio at McDonald’s will often set you back $10 or more, so $10 for, say, three tacos of much better quality is pretty standard (and remember, this is Montreal — this isn’t much of a dollar-taco town).
That said, Time Out is (on average) a bit more expensive. Some of this is justified: After all, restaurants like Le Club Chasse et Pêche and Foxy are fine dining restaurants — their entire raison d’être is very high-quality food, so a $10 lunch is hardly a reasonable expectation of them.
Le Cathcart’s full-service options are also a little more expensive, but that’s obviously because they’re effectively sit-down restaurants, not counters. The majority of fast-casual options at Le Cathcart and Le Central are otherwise reasonable enough.
Verdict: No clear winner (although Le Central has the widest range of cheaper options if you’re really penny-pinching).
Located just two blocks apart, Le Cathcart and Time Out are direct competitors — but Le Cathcart’s Place Ville-Marie placement has the edge. It has a far larger building connected to it, full of office workers who can hop in an elevator and get there fast. Plus, it’s on the concourse level, directly connected to Montreal’s Central Station, allowing it to scoop up commuters in the breakfast and 5 à 7 hours.
Time Out doesn’t have the same access to office workers (although this is tempered by the easy access to shoppers from the Eaton Centre), and because it’s located up a singular set of escalators (with a less-obvious side entrance), it’s less likely that people will stumble upon it. While it does have close proximity to McGill metro, getting between the two through a maze of Eaton Centre escalators is not overly intuitive. Plus, there’s the lingering concern of whether people want to visit the Eaton Centre for a culinary experience — there’s probably plenty of people who don’t care, but at least a few cool kids might be hesitant to, you know, do happy hour in the Eaton Centre. Lastly, there’s the issue that Time Out is directly competing with the Eaton Centre’s own food court in exactly the same building — another factor that could water down its own customer base, even if it’s not really aiming for the same demographic (Place Ville-Marie still has a few food options outside Le Cathcart, but no full-scale food court).
With its location on the eastern edge of downtown right by Place-des-Arts, Le Central is not really in direct competition with the other two food halls, and is obviously well-placed to draw blockbuster crowds in Montreal’s summer festival season. But even outside summer, it’s a shrewd location — there are numerous big office buildings right there (Guy-Favreau, Complexe Desjardins), and while there are competitors (the Complexe Desjardins food court, Chinatown), it seems that there is a lower concentration of restaurants in the area compared to the heart of downtown.
Verdict: Le Central wins, followed by Le Cathcart, and then Time Out Market.
Design and Atmosphere
Hands down, Le Cathcart has the most appealing space — the huge skylight is an impressive centrepiece, and the biergarten layout, with much of the seating slightly separated from the general hustle and bustle, makes for a fairly pleasant experience, even for a quick lunch. That said, during a busy lunch hour, Le Cathcart’s space does feel a little claustrophobic, but with the hall just a month old and currently riding the wave of being the pretty young thing, this should subside in future (the fact that it has multiple entrances on all sides helps dilute this, too).
On the flip side, Le Central is much more toned down: it’s a simple space with concrete floors and a few splashes of colour from the restaurants’ individual facades. But while it’s not a peacock, it’s very functional: the hall has enough sub-sections and walls that it doesn’t feel like you’re dining in a barn, and there are quieter corners to stake out, like the sub-mezzanine West Shefford brewpub.
Unfortunately, Time Out does seem to fall into that barnhouse situation somewhat — with huge rows of seating and standardized branding for every restaurant in the room, it’s a little too uniform. Sure, they were going for consistency, but too much of that can feel sterile or corporate (that said, despite being in a mall, it has not a trace of mall food court vibes, so: points for that?). Time Out also loses points for one particular design quirk — the fact that alcoholic drinks are restricted to the bar section, squeezing all drinkers into one section of the room while forcing security guards to police the rule. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s the sort of minor annoyance that prompts feisty customers to go write so-so reviews on Google or Yelp.
Verdict: Le Cathcart wins for being both pretty and functional, followed by Le Central for functionality points (although depending on aesthetic preferences, some folks may prefer Time Out).
As major projects, all three food halls indulged in the public relations and advertising game. Time Out Market had the largest hype machine (helped by the fact that it was a pre-existing brand, backed by a media company), including an opening, with ample free food and booze, for hundreds of VIPs, journalists, and influencers. This seems to have paid off: During a Friday lunchtime three months after opening, the place was pretty jam-packed. Of course, there’s a downside here: it can get uncomfortably busy.
Of course, it’s hard to know how much of that crowd is due to promotion or media coverage — on that same Friday, Le Central was doing solid business, with a fairly full (but not jam-packed) seating area, and no shortage of people having a glass of wine or beer with lunch. Le Central had the least advertising and PR of the three halls, and yet is still drawing a solid crowd, five months after opening, well after its initial buzz should have faded.
In the middle is Cathcart — the people behind it certainly played the PR and advertising game, although not to the same extent as Time Out. At present, it’s the most packed of the three, but has been open barely a month, so it’s still riding the novelty wave more than the others.
Verdict: Time Out won the hype game, followed by Cathcart (likely helped by its Instagram-friendly design), then Le Central (though it probably had an advantage by opening first).
It might seem like a cop-out, but there really is no way to declare a clear winner out of these three venues. Time Out went the hardest on promotion and consequently seems to have earned bigger crowds — and while the quality of its offerings is good, it seems to have drawn more blowback over things like prices and layout.
Le Central is the opposite. It seems to be operating more frugally, with less advertising and without extras like a centralized bar service (all its vendors sell alcohol individually), so while it’s not as crowded, the public reception towards it seems warmer.
Le Cathcart sits between: It was more hyped than Le Central and less than Time Out, but appears to have drawn a moderately warm welcome.
Realistically, these are all functional businesses. All of them are competent enough that it feels unlikely that any will crash and burn in their opening year or two. There’s probably room for all of them to survive, if they play their cards right — ultimately, with solid openings under their belts, it’s how they play the long game that’ll determine who comes out on top.