Edmonton Eateries: Part 3

Lining up for lunch at MRKT in downtown Edmonton

Lining up for lunch at MRKT in downtown Edmonton

After spending 10 days in my birth city of Edmonton, I’m ready for a third instalment of good, affordable eateries, in this case lunch spots. While Edmonton’s roads aren’t getting any better,  the food scene continues to improve, though it’s surprising how many downtown spots are only open Tuesday to Friday for lunch.

The chefs at *Cibo Bistro are noted for serving high-end dishes like seared duck breast, stuffed rabbit leg and house-made pasta with stinging nettles to a discerning dinner crowd. But four days a week, they turn their considerable talents to more affordable lunches at this lofty-ceiling, rustic Italian restaurant along central Edmonton’s busy 104 Avenue.

Fabulous meatball sandwich and golden beet soup at Cibo Bistro

Fabulous meatball sandwich and golden beet soup at Cibo Bistro

Consider my $13 combo, delivered by a most engaging server, Chance. It starts with a luscious bowl of golden beet soup, the small chunks of grapes adding a touch of sweetness to a thick kale base. Then it’s on to Cibo’s first-rate signature meatball sandwich—hefty pork and veal meatballs atop a thin layer of prosciutto and smoked caciocavallo, and tomato basil jam smeared on a toasted baguette. It’s a fabulous, creative lunch and a bargain for the quality, size and execution.

Cibo Bistro
11244 104 Avenue, Edmonton
Lunch Tuesday to Friday 11:30 am-2 pm, dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5 pm-10 pm. Closed Sunday and Monday

Another good lunch bet is downtown’s popular MRKT, where a sandwich/salad and soup combo also goes for $13, washed down with a good pot of French press coffee. My braised, shredded beef sandwich is nicely complemented by caramelized onions, smoked gouda and a Spanish tomato sauce, served on a ciabatta bun. I choose the fish soup, featuring small pieces of scallop, shrimp and basa.

MRKT's downtown Edmonton space is cool and casual

MRKT’s downtown Edmonton space is cool and casual

It’s all good stuff though not quite as flavourful as the ingredients might suggest. The space is certainly interesting—a subway-like tube wrapped in wood paneling, with mostly long and tall shared tables, which are increasingly de rigeur in fashionable, casual eateries.

Braised beef sandwich and fish soup at MRKT

Braised beef sandwich and fish soup at MRKT

MRKT
10542 Jasper Avenue, Edmonton
Lunch Tuesday to Friday 11 am-2 pm, wine bar Tuesday to Saturday 5 pm-late

The corner of Stony Plain Road and 142 Street, in Edmonton’s west end, has been a graveyard for restaurants. Indeed, the most recent resident, Blue Chicago Speakeasy, still maintains its peeling presence a good decade after closing. If and when a nearby apartment tower and western extension of the city’s light-rail transit get built, perhaps the upsurge in area traffic will increase the demand for good eateries.

In the meantime, here’s hoping Cafe Rista, a little place that’s somewhat hidden on a side street a block to the north, has better success than its neighbours. The family-run business has a lot going for it—good Italian espressos, breakfast bagels/sandwiches and a list of fresh paninis, wraps and salads at lunch. My flavourful Italian panini ($8.50) has a generous layering of spicy meats and melted mozza, and the large bowl of the day’s chicken noodle soup is almost big enough to swim in.

Cafe Rista's not kidding about its "large" bowls of soup

Cafe Rista’s not kidding about its “large” bowls of soup

Cafe Rista
14213 103 Avenue, Edmonton
Weekdays 7 am-5 pm, Saturday 9 am-2 pm. Closed Sunday

Had a stressful morning? Just head over to Padmanadi Vegetarian Restaurant, an oasis of calm on the northern edge of downtown Edmonton. It’s a lovely space, with light yellow walls, arrangements of long bamboo stalks, unique triangular chairs and, presiding over all, a beatific jade Buddha.

Padmanadi Vegetarian Restaurant is an oasis of calm in downtown Edmonton

Padmanadi Vegetarian Restaurant is an oasis of calm in downtown Edmonton

Padmanadi carries on the curious custom of vegetarian restaurants naming dishes after the various meats they’re trying to replicate. In my case, it’s the savoury chicken curry, the tofu resembling and tasting very much like, you guessed it, chicken. It comes in a nice, mild sauce with chunks of potato, broccoli spears, a mound of jasmine rice and a couple of crispy spring rolls filling the plate. This $12 meal includes a little bowl of hot and sour soup and chrysanthemum tea, both beautifully presented.

The elegantly presented hot and sour soup is part of the full-meal lunch at Padmanadi

The elegantly presented hot and sour soup is part of the full-meal lunch at Padmanadi

In sum, forget the arguments about faux meat. This is good food, with friendly, relaxed service in a place that allows you unwind for an hour.

Padmanadi Vegetarian Restaurant
10740 101 Street, Edmonton
Tuesday-Friday 11 am-2 pm

In the bedroom city of St. Albert, just north of Edmonton, is The Enjoy Centre. How can’t you love a name like that, especially when it’s dedicated to plants and a food emporium under several acres of glorious glass? The centre is a legacy of the Hole family, whose famed St. Albert greenhouse business lives on here and is hopefully beyond the financial troubles that plagued the centre’s early years.

The Enjoy Centre in St. Albert is a light-infused mix of plant and food

The Enjoy Centre in St. Albert is a light-infused mix of plants and food

Upon entering the building, you walk through a ground floor devoted to the Amaranth Whole Foods Market, a bakery and a deli. Take the long, slow escalator to the light-filled second floor to shop for perennials and enjoy a fine coffee, panini or fabulous, arranged salad at the aptly-named Glasshouse Bistro & Cafe, with views over Lois Hole Centennial Provincial Park. It’s one of those places you just want to linger and, well, enjoy.

A fine roasted veggie and quinoa salad at the Glasshouse Bistro & Cafe in The Enjoy Centre

A fine roasted veggie and quinoa salad at the Glasshouse Bistro & Cafe in The Enjoy Centre

Glasshouse Bistro & Cafe (in The Enjoy Centre)
101 Riel Drive, St. Albert
Daily, coffee bar opens at 10 am, the dining room and counter-service lunch bar at 11 am

Lebanon Lunches North: In Edmonton, Alberta

Cooked-to-order pitas heading into the oven at Edmonton's Al Salam Bakery Deli & Restaurant

Cooked-to-order pitas heading into the oven at Edmonton’s Al Salam Bakery Deli & Restaurant

I’d always pronounced it fell-awful, or, when I was feeling particularly clever, feel-awful. But when I enter *Al Salam Bakery Deli & Restaurant, hostess Ain gently corrects me: it’s roughly fail-aye-fell.

The point is it’s a truly authentic Lebanese place, where my $8 sandwich features large, freshly grilled falafel balls that are light and aromatic, not the dried-out kind one often encounters. What’s equally good is the enveloping, fresh pita; you can watch them coming off the bakery line in the back of the restaurant.

The pita gets puffy, slightly crispy and hot in the oven

The pita gets puffy, slightly crispy and hot in the oven

In fact, I finally follow the lead of regular customers who are ordering baskets of fresh pita—large discs of dough that are placed in a pizza-like oven till they puff up. I dip the resulting hot, slightly golden “bread” in some house-made hummus. But honestly, this soft, chewy treasure is good enough to eat on its own. It’s easily the best pita I’ve ever eaten.

This warm, puffed pita is so good, you can eat it on its own

This warm, puffed pita is so good, you can eat it on its own

Al Salam is half deli—where you can buy bags of fresh pitas and other Lebanese foods and watch sandwiches and plates of shawarmas, kebabs and falafels being assembled. The other half is a sit-down restaurant, with a little brick wall in between displaying hookahs for sale.

Al Salam Bakery Deli & Restaurant
10141 34 Avenue, Edmonton
Daily lunch and dinner
Al Salam Bakery Deli & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Edmonton’s real little Lebanon district is in the northeast neighbourhood of Rosslyn, where you’ll find two strip malls dedicated to all things Lebanese, especially food. There’s Paradiso Pastries, which sells honeyed baklava and knafeh (a syrupy cheesecake) by the kilo. A couple of doors down, Elsafadi Bros. Mediterranean Market carries good olives, cheeses and inexpensive produce (55 cents a pound for bananas, $1 a pound for red peppers). A few blocks to the east is Cedar Sweets and Jomha’s Halal Meat & Deli.

Sunbake pumps out 3,500 pitas an hour

Sunbake pumps out 3,500 pitas an hour

But my principle pilgrimage is to Sunbake Pita Bakery, a family run business that bakes great, inexpensive pitas (some 3,500 an hour). They’re so fresh I can still see condensation in the bags they’re sold in. Behind the counter, Sunbake also makes (mostly takeout) little meals like cheese, spinach or zatar pita pies for the ridiculous price of about $3. For a few bucks more, I get a heftier shawarma loaded with chicken sliced from a rotating spit. The chicken’s a tad dry but is more than offset with a thick blanket of garlicky tzatziki sauce and some pickled veggies, all wrapped in a wonderfully chewy pita. With a Middle Eastern soundtrack in the background and Arabic conversation all around me, I’m momentarily transported away from this never-ending winter.

This shawarma's stuffed with spit-roasted chicken

This shawarma’s stuffed with spit-roasted chicken

Sunbake Pita Bakery
10728 134 Avenue, Edmonton
Sunbake Pita Bakery on Urbanspoon

Edmonton Wakes Up and Smells the Coffee

Ryan Arcand runs the most laid-back, excellent coffeehouse you'll find at Iconoclast in Edmonton

Ryan Arcand runs the most laid-back, excellent coffeehouse you’ll find, at Iconoclast in Edmonton

I almost wish *Iconoclast Koffie Huis doesn’t get a lot more walk-up business. It’s selfish, I know. But in the four times I wander in over a week, co-owner Ryan Arcand shakes my hand, asks if I want my usual Americano or pour-over coffee (accompanied perhaps with an excellent muffin) and embarks on a long, relaxed chat. He greets occasional other customers by name, introducing them to anyone else who’s pulled up to the counter of this ultra-cool coffee bar. Conversations between strangers (new friends?) ensue, in stark contrast to the eyes glued to screens in most contemporary coffeehouses.

I’m sure things won’t always be this leisurely. But for now at least, Ryan seems perfectly happy with his low-key approach to marketing this new, central Edmonton coffeehouse. For one thing, it’s a bit hard to find, on a little side street across from a cemetery, with only a sandwich board advertising its presence. Indeed, Iconoclast’s website doesn’t currently mention the coffee bar, let alone its hours of operation.

That’s because most of its business is roasting wholesale beans for a growing list of discerning local restaurants and cafes. The small-batch roaster is at the back of an old, long warehouse that’s been lovingly refurbished with lots of repurposed wood, especially at the front coffee bar. On nice days, the bay doors might be rolled up, a table or two pulled out and a chessboard set up for an extended game between Ryan and local sculptor/part-time barista Rob Willms, who helped refurbish the place. Like I said, it’s laid back.

Iconoclast's roaster is in back of the coffee bar in this refurbished warehouse

Iconoclast’s roaster is in back of the coffee bar in this refurbished warehouse

While all things coffee course through Ryan’s veins, he’s perhaps most excited about the prospect of roasting cocoa, of all things, for use primarily in his partner’s (Sjoukje Bouma) line of Pinto chocolates. During one visit, he roasts a small batch of cocoa beans and scatters them on the counter for customers to sample. They’re nutty, delicious and addictive, the smoky flavour lingering long after I’ve resumed my more frantic day.

Roasted cocoa beans, anyone?

Roasted cocoa beans, anyone? Taste these gems and you might forsake the usual, sweetened chocolate

Folks, this is what a great coffeehouse is all about.

Iconoclast Koffie Huis
11807B 105 Avenue
Monday to Saturday 8:30 am-5 pm (with longer hours as summer approaches)
Iconoclast Koffiehuis on Urbanspoon

The latest entry in Edmonton’s downtown-area cafe scene is District Coffee Co., an offshoot of Nate Box’s popular Elm Cafe, though slightly larger (two tables!, along with some window seating). It’s already attracting a loyal clientele lining up for espresso-based drinks and a short, ever-changing menu of creative soups and salads, scones and other in-house baked treats. The day’s pot pie ($8) is a steaming mix of pulled pork and Granny Smith apple wrapped in a flaky pastry—a nice, light lunch accompanied by a strong Americano (using Calgary’s Phil and Sebastian beans).

District Coffee is in slightly larger digs than its Elm Cafe sibling

District Coffee is in slightly larger digs than its Elm Cafe sibling

A pulled pork and apple pot pie goes down nicely with a coffee

A pulled pork and apple pot pie goes down nicely with a coffee

District Coffee Co.
101, 10011 109 Street
Weekdays 7 am-5 pm
District Coffee Co. on Urbanspoon

A couple of downtown Edmonton coffee shops have come and gone. But Credo remains a stalwart. The reasons? It’s a smartly-run place, with two espresso machines and a little line of pour-overs pumping out good Intelligentsia coffee to a steady stream of caffeine seekers. What really makes it stand out is the seven (seven!) types of fresh muffins pulled regularly from its oven, along with house-made granola bars. It’s the details that matter, and Credo checks every box.

Credo's house-made granola bars help make it stand out from the usual coffeehouse

Credo’s house-made granola bars help make it stand out from the usual coffeehouse

Credo
10134 104 Street, Edmonton
Weekdays 7 am-6 pm, Saturday 8 am-6 pm, Sunday 10 am-6 pm
Credo Coffee on Urbanspoon

Cheap Calgary Breakfasts: Part 2

Danny Korduner delivers two fruit-covered bowls of made-to-order oatmeal at Margarita's Dishes in the Calgary Farmers' Market

Danny Korduner delivers two fruit-covered bowls of made-to-order oatmeal at Margarita’s Dishes in the Calgary Farmers’ Market

Light Breakfast Eats

Breakfast sandwiches conjure up images of an egg (maybe precooked) and a slice of cheese slapped on an English muffin—the kind of snack that goes down in a couple of gulps. Not so at Bite Groceteria & Café, in Calgary’s trendy Inglewood neighbourhood. Here, the breakfast sandwich ($4.95) is a made-to-order monster, featuring fluffy eggs, avocado, Oka cheese, thick chunks of bacon, lettuce and tomato, all stuffed between two nicely toasted pieces of whole-grain bread. It’s one of the best breakfast sandwiches I’ve eaten, almost a morning BLT with scrambled egg thrown into the mix.

Maybe the best breakfast sandwich I've eaten, at Bite Groceteria

One of the best breakfast sandwiches I’ve eaten, at Bite Groceteria & Cafe

Bite Groceteria & Cafe
1023 9 Avenue S.E., Calgary
Monday and Saturday 10 am-6 pm, Tuesday to Friday 9 am-6 pm
Bite Groceteria on Urbanspoon

I’ve scarcely sat down at Holy Grill when my little buzzer goes off, signaling my breakfast sandwich is ready. “Your Americano is coming right up,” the counter guy says. “Too late,” I reply. “It’s already been delivered.” The speed is a product of six people scurrying around the tiny, open kitchen, cooking Benedicts, paninis and even a breakfast burger on an English muffin.

My bacon avocado crisp ($7) is almost too pretty to eat. But my stomach wins out, and I dig into a creation that includes a crispy fried egg, spinach and an unlikely ingredient, eggplant, all tucked inside a toasted Kaiser bun. It disappears in just over the time it takes to cook it.

A gorgeous bacon, egg and avocado breakfast sandwich at Holy Grill

A gorgeous bacon, egg and avocado breakfast sandwich at Holy Grill

Holy Grill
827 10 Avenue S.W., Calgary
Weekdays 7:30 am-4 pm, Saturday 10 am-4 pm. Closed Sunday
Holy Grill on Urbanspoon

At Margarita’s Dishes, in the Calgary Farmers’ Market, Danny Korduner and his mother, Margarita, are amongst the friendliest people you’ll meet. You can certainly load a plate with their Eastern European dishes like hand-rolled blintzes and savoury sausages. But why not get a bowl of creamy, hot oatmeal, made to order and smothered in fresh fruit?

It's hard to see the creamy oatmeal under all that fruit

It’s hard to see the creamy oatmeal under all that fruit

Margarita’s Dishes (in the Calgary Farmers’ Market)
510 77 Avenue SE, Calgary
Thursday-Sunday 9 am-5 pm, closed Monday to Wednesday
Margarita's Dishes on Urbanspoon

Caffé Mauro serves hefty, delicious meatball and Italian deli meat sandwiches at lunchtime. It also makes smaller, creative breakfast items like a boiled egg sandwich ($5.50) or a prosciutto provolone melt. But I go for an egg perfectly poached in a tomato sauce, topped with cheddar and served on a half baguette. It’s a light $6.25 meal, but like everything owner Sal Malvaso does, it’s well executed.

A lovely egg poached in tomato sauce at Caffe Mauro

A lovely egg poached in tomato sauce at Caffe Mauro

Caffé Mauro
999 8 Street S.W., Calgary
Weekdays 7:30 am-4 pm. Closed weekends
Caffe Mauro on Urbanspoon

Cheap Calgary Breakfasts: Part 1

Want a good helping of character to go with a cheap, decent Calgary breakfast? Look no further than the Deer Head Cafe

Want a good helping of character to go with a cheap, decent Calgary breakfast? Look no further than the Deer Head Cafe

Finding inexpensive breakfasts in the U.S. is like hitting the ocean with a rock tossed from the beach. Prices go up north of the border, especially in big cities and resort communities.

In Calgary, there are lots of places that will set you back $15 for a morning feed. Sure, some are cutting edge—think potatoes cooked in duck fat or eggs Benedict topped with Prosecco hollandaise. But sometimes, all you want is a basic breakfast that won’t break the bank.

With a little digging, I’ve unearthed some Calgary breakfasts for under $10. Certainly, some are a little greasy, the venues character places. But others offer first-rate meals for a pittance. I’ve broken them into two parts: full breakfasts and light bites.

Full Breakfasts

Perched on the edge of downtown Calgary, *Grumans Delicatessen is built for a lunch crowd eager to devour smoked-meat sandwiches, slow-roasted beef brisket and fine potato salad. But when I roll in a little after 7 am on a Monday, the place is empty. What all those folks streaming past on their way to work are missing is maybe the best breakfast deal in Calgary.

It’s Grumans early-bird special, available from 7 to 9 am weekdays. For the amazing price of $7 (including tax), I get two perfectly poached eggs, two thick slices of double-smoked bacon, two feathery latkes (potato pancakes) and some nice multi-grain toast. Oh, and endless cups of great coffee from local roaster Angel’s beans. Another reason to go early: Free on-street parking till 9 am.

Grumans Delicatessen offers maybe the best early-bird breakfast in Calgary: $7, including excellent coffee and tax

Grumans Delicatessen offers maybe the best early-bird breakfast in Calgary: $7, including excellent coffee and tax

Grumans is owned by long-time Calgary restaurateur Peter Fraiberg (born in Montreal, natch), whose recipes, historic photos and words of Jewish wisdom on the walls borrow heavily from his mother, or “Bubby”.

Grumans Catering and Delicatessen
230 11 Avenue SE, Calgary
Weekdays 7 am-3:30 pm (breakfast till 10:30), weekends 9 am-3:30 pm
Grumans Catering and Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Talk about false advertising. A handmade sign on the wall at John’s Breakfast & Lunch warns there will be a bit of a wait for the small kitchen to prepare ordered meals. But I’ve hardly had time to digest this news when my veggie eggs Benedict arrives. Admittedly, it’s a weekday mid-morning, and there are just a handful of regulars, including a couple of uniformed cops, in attendance. Still, I didn’t realize perfectly cooked poached eggs could be produced so fast.

John's Breakfast & Lunch offers ample warning about being patient. In my case, the breakfast arrived hot and fast

John’s Breakfast & Lunch offers ample warning about being patient. In my case, the breakfast arrived hot and fast

It’s a big platter of food, with a pond of hollandaise over the two eggs and a generous helping of home-cooked potatoes. And it’s a real deal at $8.50 (a buck more with ham). All-day breakfasts with all the fixings run for as little as $7.50, with a long list of omelettes starting at $9.

My benny was smothered in Hollondaise, with some nice, grilled new potatoes

My benny was smothered in Hollondaise, with some nice, grilled new potatoes

This northwest neighbourhood hangout is casually but efficiently run by a couple—John, who does the cooking, and Wendy, who runs the front. Marketing is strictly word of mouth, with no business cards, website or cute name. Heck, the name of the previous incarnation, Café Boutique, is still on the front windows some six years later. What this means for customers, though, is great prices for tasty, well-prepared breakfasts.

John’s Breakfast & Lunch
2614 4 Street NW, Calgary
Monday to Saturday 7:30 am-3:30 pm. Closed Sunday
John's Breakfast & Lunch on Urbanspoon

You’ve heard of a deer in the headlights? Well, at Deer Head Café, I’m the one caught in the glassy-eyed gaze of, you guessed it, three wall-mounted deer heads. This may not be environmentally fashionable among those flocking to trendier breakfast digs scant kilometres south on Edmonton Trail. But I don’t imagine it matters much to the folks who frequent this little industrial-area diner, where time has stood still for most of its 67 years. The frayed nylon booths have duct-tape patching, and the little clipboards that hold the written orders are from the distant past.

This clipboard for holding orders at Deer Head Cafe probably belongs in a museum

This clipboard for holding orders at Deer Head Cafe probably belongs in a museum

The prices and the menu, too, are old fashioned. My $6.50 bacon and cheese omelette arrives hot and fast, with a crispy side of hash browns and “white or brown” toast. For about the same price, I could order something you don’t see on modern menus: pork chops and eggs. In all, it’s a decent breakfast, with a heaping amount of character.

My $6 omelette, with a side of "brown" toast, goes down nicely

My $6.50 bacon and cheese omelette, with a side of “brown” toast, goes down nicely

Deer Head Café
3704 Edmonton Trail NE
Weekdays 6:15 am-2:30 pm, Saturday 7 am-2 pm, Sunday 8 am-2 pm
Deerhead Cafe on Urbanspoon

Is a $1.99 breakfast a gamble? Not at Grey Eagle Casino, on Tsuu T’ina First Nation lands in southwest Calgary.

Like the free drinks in Las Vegas, the bargain-basement breakfast special at Grey Eagle is obviously intended to lure bettors in the door. It seems to be working, though maybe the some 50, mostly older, folks gathered in deep, semicircular booths in the spacious dining room are here just for a cheap mid-morning feed.

A trolley rolls past, containing trays topped by hospital-style beige lids. Under the lid is a full breakfast: two eggs (in my case poached), bacon, hash browns, toast, a little dish of beans and a slice of cantaloupe.

The $1.99 breakfast special at the Grey Eagle Casino may be the best bang for your buck in town

The $1.99 breakfast special at the Grey Eagle Casino may be the best bang for your buck in town

Is it a great breakfast? No. The ingredients are somewhat second rate and the meal is lukewarm. But, hey, you get what you pay for, and it’s certainly the biggest bang for your buck outside of an IKEA restaurant. As long as you stay away from all those glittering slot machines on the way out. I do and find a dime on the ground outside, lowering my net cost to under $2, tax included.

Grey Eagle Casino
3777 Grey Eagle Drive (corner of 37 Street SW and Glenmore Trail), Calgary
Breakfast special Monday to Saturday 9:30 am-11 am
Grey Eagle Casino Buffet on Urbanspoon

I’ve written before about the great lunch deals—especially the Big Pan meals like butter chicken and curries—at Sunterra Market, a combination of upscale grocery and quick-food restaurant. They also serve inexpensive breakfasts at most of their Calgary locations. Expect to pay about $6 for bacon, eggs, toast and maybe a fruit cup. The west Calgary spot I visit is certainly popular, with window-side tables full of folks munching on full brekkies, scones and cinnamon buns, tossed down with coffee.

Unfortunately, my $6 chorizo frittata special doesn’t deliver. The frittata is hard and dry, the culprit a warming lamp keeping already cooked and cut wedges scarcely alive—a definite no-no. As well, the potato slices are tired looking and the toast unbuttered. I should have ordered poached eggs or the prime-rib omelette special, items that have to be cooked to order.

The breakfasts are cheap and quick at Sunterra Market. Unfortunately, my dry frittata's been warming under a heat lamp

The breakfasts are cheap and quick at Sunterra Market. Unfortunately, my dry frittata’s been warming under a heat lamp

The good news is my flavourful Americano. Because the espresso machine is recharging and I have to wait a couple of minutes, the friendly barista says, “No charge. It’s on us.”

Sunterra Market—West Market Square
1851 Sirocco Drive SW
Monday to Saturday 8 am-9 pm, Sunday 9 am-8 pm
Sunterra Market on Urbanspoon

Great Music, Food and Small-town Ambience: It’s All There at Cafe Radio

 

At Cafe Radio, Carstairs is rightly in the centre of the Canadian universe

At Cafe Radio, Carstairs is rightly in the centre of the Canadian universe

If you build it, they will come. That was no doubt the thinking of the Valleaus, a family of travelling musicians and good cooks, when they opened *The Café Radio in the small farm town of Carstairs, north of Calgary. More specifically, they were hoping to attract locals to their weekly musical bistro nights. As they put it, “Why go to the city all the time to experience culture when we can bring culture to us?”

But a funny thing happened. Spurred in part by a glowing John Gilchrist review on CBC Radio, they’re increasingly enticing folks to drive some 45 minutes from the big city to soak up some small-town ambience, listen to a Friday-night concert and, most important, enjoy great down-home cooking.

Café Radio is an interesting blend of old and new. The restaurant is in a small, old industrial building with vertical wood paneling. Yet in the corner, above a piano, speakers softly stream music from two online radio stations.

At Cafe Radio, it's all down-home, wood-panelled warmth

At Cafe Radio, it’s all down-home, wood-panelled warmth

When I visit for lunch, bearded Jason Valleau—who along with his brother, Sheldon, plays in the longstanding band The Polyjesters—is working the tables and the high-end espresso machine, while keeping up a steady banter with customers. “That’s three of you? Would you like the executive table?” Eying my nearly licked-clean plate, he asks, “Want the rest to go?” Meanwhile, mother Carol (sporting a butcher’s apron that says Our Meat is Hung Longer) is alternatively chatting with regulars and disappearing to assemble sandwiches.

Oh, I almost forgot about my fabulous lunch, chosen from a blackboard listing half a dozen sandwiches, a couple of soups and salads and two daily specials. Jason wisely suggests a half sandwich (in my case a moist meatloaf on dense multigrain bread) will be plenty to go with a hearty bowl of cream of mushroom soup featuring thick slices of mushroom. Indeed, there’s no room for a slab of decadent cake, just a potent Americano from local roaster Mountain View’s beans.

Fabulous home-cooked meatloaf sandwich and cream of mushroom soup

Fabulous home-cooked meatloaf sandwich and cream of mushroom soup

There are no menu prices on the blackboard. But don’t worry about breaking the bank. My considerable lunch and coffee adds up to about $10. The added local character? Priceless.

The Cafe Radio
1112 Osler Street, Carstairs
Monday to Saturday 8 am-5 pm, evenings Thursday and Friday. Closed Sunday
The Café Radio on Urbanspoon