Canmore is the boomtown lurking on the eastern outskirts of Banff National Park. Long a coal-mining community, it found new life, and then some, when tourism and vacation home construction took off after the 1988 Winter Olympics (the cross-country ski events were held at the Canmore Nordic Centre). Despite a population of some 19,000 permanent and temporary residents, the mountain setting is superb, attracting active outdoor folk of all ages. The Bow Valley ice climbing, in particular, is world class, with lots of mountain biking and rock climbing nearby.
Befitting such a town, there’s a ton of places to eat and drink, and certainly more in the budget range than nearby Banff. Not that eating out is cheap here. It is, after all, a resort community. Road trippers should expect to pay a few dollars more for any given meal than they’re used to. My standouts are the first three, starred places, with the rest in no particular order.
My sister once remarked that Canmore was rare in that the majority of people she watched emerging from a local supermarket looked lean and healthy. So where do all those buff Canmorites go for nourishing meals and drinks?
Why, *Communitea Cafe. It’s a buzzing local hangout for hooking up with friends in comfy couches while sipping good Intelligentsia coffee and French press pots of excellent loose tea (try the licorice peppermint, apple pear rooibos or Thai coconut lemongrass). Meals range from stewed-apple compote and vegan tofu and avocado wraps for breakfast to black bean and beet burgers and chipotle chicken and avocado quesadillas at lunch.
But Communitea’s star attractions are the vegetable-packed lunch bowls and salads. Take my Buddha Bowl, a volcano of marinated tofu, spinach and organic brown rice, tossed with tahini dressing and topped with shredded beets, carrots, sunflower and pumpkin seeds and an unruly hairpiece of sprouts. It takes me 15 minutes of excavating to get to the bottom of this explosion of flavour and crunchiness.
117, 1001 6 Avenue, Canmore
Monday to Friday 9 am-4 pm, weekends 9 am-5 pm
To call *Valbella Gourmet Foods the best producer of sausages and cured meats in Alberta hardly does it credit. Since 1978, Walter and Leonie von Rotz and their family have been churning out first-class meat products from what is now a 25,000-square-foot production plant.
Walk into the retail store and you’ll see cooler after cooler displaying their creative fare. There’s a few dozen types of sausage (how about leek, cabbage and pork; curried Bombay lamb or whiskey-flavoured buffalo?) and various pates, bacons, hams and salamis. There’s pan-ready chicken cordon bleu and garlic-stuffed pork tenderloin and frozen burger patties and smoked duck breast. Did I mention chicken pot and fruit pies or specials like beef wellington or turducken (chicken inside a duck inside a turkey)? It’s hard to think of a meat product they haven’t tackled expertly.
You can order a nice smokie with sauerkraut in a bun or a sandwich and eat it at one of a handful of Valbella’s lunchtime tables, though there’s not much atmosphere. First and foremost, this is a deli, where road trippers can pick up excellent picnic supplies or sausages for grilling.
Valbella Gourmet Foods
104 Elk Run Boulevard, Canmore
Monday to Friday 8 am-6 pm, Saturday 9 am-5 pm. Closed Sunday
The mark of a first-rate croissant is twofold. First, the flaky shell should almost shatter into golden shards all over your plate. Then, the underlying belly should be soft, warm and buttery, an ephemeral pleasure that’s no good a day later or even later the same day.
*Le Fournil Bakery meets the standard on both counts, whether it’s a standard croissant, one lined with chocolate or almond paste or others stuffed with various sandwich fillings. The bakery’s light-filled café is also a good place to enjoy a coffee with a warm raspberry Danish or a macaroon or to pick up a fine loaf of dense bread or braided baguette. Still, it’s the croissants that are the main draw. But you’d better get there by mid-morning before they all disappear.
Le fournil Bakery
101A 1205 Bow Valley Trail, Canmore
Tuesday to Sunday 8 am-6 pm. Closed Monday
What, a poutine palace in the Canadian Rockies? Well, considering the number of young Quebecois who come to live, work and play here, it’s perhaps not surprising that a restaurant offering this Quebec staple should pop up in the industrial section of Canmore.
La Belle Patate does offer nice hand-fashioned burgers, sandwiches and subs. But really, it’s all about the poutine, offered with 15 toppings such as ground beef, sliced hot dogs, sautéed onions and eggs, and house-made coleslaw. Regardless of what you choose, the base is the same: double-cooked fries topped with squeaky cheese curds and gravy. To enhance the Quebec experience, I order chunks of Montreal smoked meat added to my poutine, which arrives hot in a tin pie plate.
It’s been at least 20 years since I last had poutine, long before it became trendy among high-end chefs (some truffle oil with that, sir?) and fast-food outlets alike. This is certainly a fresh, flavourful version, made to order. But still, it may be awhile before I’ll feel a need to order this artery-clogging comfort food again. La Belle Patate is very much a hands-on place, with the friendly owner chatting to all the customers and passing on orders to a crew of red-shirted cooks.
La Belle Patate
102 Boulder Crescent, Canmore
Tuesday to Friday 11 am-9 pm, weekends noon-9 pm. Closed Monday
Let me start by saying Thai Pagoda serves some fine, affordable Thai cuisine. The fragrant Tom Kha soup, for example, is built on a chicken stock that’s made every day and then loaded with vegetables, shrimp and coconut milk. And the entrée standout is the green curry with shrimp, featuring a multi-layered coconut sauce begging to be sopped up with a second order of jasmine rice.
But here’s where things get interesting and unusual. The food menu at Thai Pagoda only takes up two pages. The remaining 14 are devoted to listing and then lovingly describing first the wines and second, but far from least, the beers. Indeed, co-owner Peter, an Austrian by birth, offers nearly 50 types of bottled beer, many of them top-ranked brews in the world.
It’s not often I would advocate spending $12 on a bottle of beer, but if you like a black-as-night, thick and rich brew, I suggest you order a Mikkeller Geek Breakfast, a 500-millilitre (17-ounce) oatmeal stout, with strong chocolaty hints of coffee, that makes a sublime sipping experience for two. It earns a perfect 100 at this site, which suggests this 7.5% beer goes well with breakfast. I guess that’s stranger than with spicy Thai food.
Here’s what can happen when you eat at The Market at Three Sisters Bistro, a small restaurant at the eastern outskirts of sprawling Canmore. Manager and head chef Anthony Rabot comes over to our table and explains in some detail the night’s seafood cassolette special: He’s roasted some leeks and other vegetables and then simmered them in a butter and cream sauce along with salmon and cod. After this mouth-watering description, he’s got five takers, who savour the chunks of fish and soak up the remnants of rich sauce with basmati rice.
The bistro offers standards such as breakfast burritos, lunch wraps and paninis and European-style pizzas, along with tapas (Thursday to Saturday evenings). But really, they’ll customize just about any dish for you. Make sure you leave room for the tart lemon pie, made with slivers of lemon; I’ve never tasted anything like it. Some things here are a little pricy for this blog, but it’s good, made-from-scratch food.
Three Sisters Bistro
104, 75 Dyrgas Gate, Canmore
Tuesday to Sunday 9 am-closing (check website). Closed Monday
Usually, when I see pizza being loaded into cardboard boxes, it’s for customer leftovers. But at Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co., this mid-afternoon routine is part of its burgeoning business of supplying pizzas to area grocery stores. Besides, the in-house artisan pizzas are a perfect size (six small wedges) for one, reducing the chances of leftovers.
My favourite is a great combination of soft Granny Smith apple slices and free-range, rosemary-lemon pulled chicken, with half cherry tomatoes scattered about. The crust is a blend of organic Alberta white and whole wheat flour, with a splash of maple syrup. The horseshoe-shaped dining area is framed by a clay pizza oven, atop stacked rock slabs, in one corner and a children’s play area in another.
Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co.
1, 838 10 Street, Canmore (also two Vancouver locations, a long ways from the Rockies)
Sunday to Thursday 11:30 am-9 pm, Friday-Saturday 11:30 am-10 pm
This is absolutely the greatest meal deal I’ve ever had. I walk into Bella Crusta maybe 30 seconds before the 6 pm closing time and say to the owner, “I guess it’s too late to order a sandwich.” “The kitchen’s closed,” he replies, “but I’ve got two slices of pizza left that I’m going to have to throw out, and I hate to waste food. So you can have them for free.” A minute later, I’m in my car happily munching on a slice of pepperoni and one of ham and pineapple.
You shouldn’t expect similar freebies, but even at full price, the sandwiches and pizzas are a screaming deal in a tourist town like Canmore. My half chicken salad sandwich, for example, is a satisfying lunch for only $4.50 (including tax), the highlight being the soft, house-made focaccia bread it’s served on. The popular, large cookies are another bargain at $1.25.
903 6 Avenue, Canmore
Monday to Saturday 10 am-6pm. Closed Sunday. Cash only
A lot of locals also head to JK Bakery for affordable soup, sandwiches and baked goods. They’ve just opened a second location, a couple of blocks from their Railway Avenue operation. The soup-and-sandwich combo is the lunchtime specialty of Harvest Cafe. I had a lovely cup of mulligatawny soup and a velvety chicken curry wrap—featuring oven-roasted chicken breast, apple slices and two types of melted cheese, in a grilled tortilla—for under $11 (2, 718-10 Street, daily 8:30 am-3 pm).
And now a word about Canmore breakfasts and burgers. I’ve pretty much tried them all—some many times—and can say there are several good but no exceptional places, the lack of consistency being the main drawback. Summit Café (1101 Cougar Creek Drive) may be the best of the many standard coffee/breakfast places in town, with good cinnamon buns on weekends. For more upscale breakfast fare, try Chez Francois for creamy eggs Benedict, crepes or fruit-covered pancakes.
The often-packed Grizzly Paw makes its own beer to accompany burgers and such, and The Drake Pub attracts much of the outdoor crowd. But when the town is awash in tourists, we often head to Patrino’s Steak House & Pub for a beer and fully-loaded burger, and try to ignore the ring of TVs tuned to hockey or football games.
Finally, Canmore undoubtedly has the most coffee shops, per capita, in Alberta. But sadly, not one makes individual cups of drip coffee, such as pour overs, as far as I know, and the espresso-based drinks are only middling, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe someone will step up to the plate. There’s a market niche, begging to be exploited.