Category Archives: Alberta

Perfect Pre-Concert Drink-and-Dine Spot in Downtown Calgary

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Lamb burger and lentil soup at Sandstone Lounge in Calgary’s Hyatt Regency Hotel

It’s a familiar conundrum. You’ve got tickets for a downtown concert or play and want to meet for a drink and a bite before the show. But where to go that’s not too expensive, formal, busy, slow or loud?

Well, in downtown Calgary, my go-to place is the Sandstone Lounge in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, a hop and a skip from the cultural hub Arts Common. It ticks all the boxes of what I’m looking for in a pre-show drink-and-dine spot.

First, it’s casual and comfy. Seating is at small tables, by the fireplace, at the vintage long bar (especially if you’re flying solo) or, in summer, on the outdoor patio amongst historic sandstone buildings along Stephen Avenue Mall.

Second, you don’t have to shout to be heard, with quiet jazz on the sound system. Third, the service is always understatedly professional. On a recent visit, the waitress subtly unwrapped just the soupspoon from the napkin-wrapped utensils.

The critical fourth, Sandstone’s food and drink, is consistently good. There’s a whack of cocktails and wine selections, and it passes my craft-beer test with a nice list of local pints, including a fine, not-to-hoppy White Raven IPA from Edson’s Bench Creek Brewing.

The varied lounge menu ranges from house-spiced nuts to charcuterie to haddock bites. I go for a great lamb burger—featuring all-natural meat from Lambtastic Farms in Vulcan, Alberta—topped with balsamic onion relish, cumin gouda and tomato garlic aioli. This time, my side is a piping hot lentil soup, though the rice-flour-coated fries are darn good, too.

For downtown dinner-time Calgary, it’s reasonable value: $25 for burger/soup and a pint. All in all, an efficient yet relaxed prelude to a fantastic concert, featuring Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and special guest icon Ian Tyson.

Sandstone Lounge: Hyatt Regency Hotel
700 Centre Street SE, Calgary
Daily 10:30 am-midnight
403-717-1234

Shocking: A Great Calgary Breakfast With No Lineup

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Here’s the breakfast lineup at Grumans Delicatessen at 9 am on a Saturday. Photo: Helen Corbett

The other day, I heard local restaurant review legend John Gilchrist, on his weekly CBC Radio Eyeopener segment, mention a two-hour lineup for Saturday breakfast at the new OEB location, in the heart of downtown Calgary. Two hours!

Now, I consider OEB the consistently best, most creative breakfast joint in Calgary. Enough so that I’m willing to wait, say, 15 minutes—while sweating in a winter parka—for a table at its original, Edmonton Trail site. Beyond that, I’m outta there.

The problem is most other good Calgary breakfast places also have lineups, unless I arrive when their doors crack open. Which is never earlier than 7 am and on weekends at the ungodly late hour of 8, when far too many folks are up and about.

You’d have thought Calgary’s recession would have whacked these lineups, especially when a lot of these “diners” are still charging  $16 or more for their upscale breakfast offerings. You’d have thought wrong.

Which is why Grumans Delicatessen is my go-to breakfast spot in Calgary. Even though they don’t open till 8 am on weekdays and 9 am on weekends. Even though you have to pay for downtown street parking after 9 every day but Sunday.

Why do I love it? Because every time I show up for breakfast, there’s never more than a handful of occupied tables. Even though the food is always excellent, innovative, plentiful and, by Calgary standards, affordable.

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The house-cured lox Benedict, with potato latkes is just $14. Photo: Helen Corbett

The only reason I can figure for this morning vacancy rate is Grumans is a little out of the way, at the unappealing eastern edge of downtown Calgary. Also, perhaps downtown workers don’t want to stop, that close to the office, for breakfast. Grumans is considerably busier at lunch, when office workers show up for the best smoked-meat sandwiches in the city.

But the breakfast fare is equally good, featuring Jewish deli standards like potato latkes, lox Benedicts and that Montreal hybrid, smoked-meat poutine. The best deal is the breakfast special: two eggs, double-smoked bacon, latkes, toast and good coffee, all for a grand total of $9, if you order before 9 am.

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This early-bird breakfast is $9, including good coffee; maybe the best morning deal in Calgary

With prices and food this good, you should be running down to Grumans. On second thought, maybe not. I don’t want to stand in line.

Grumans Delicatessen
230 11 Avenue SE, Calgary, Alberta
Weekdays 8 am-3:30 pm, weekends 9 am-3:30 pm.

Cafe + Books = The Perfect Combination

The cafe part of Canmore's Cafe Books is a little station at the back of the bookstore.

The cafe part of Canmore’s Cafe Books is a little station at the back of the bookstore.

I’ve loved the idea of combining a bookstore with a cafe ever since I wandered into Seattle’s famous Elliott Bay Book Company many years ago. Indeed, one of my “must stops” on long western Trans-Canada Highway drives is Bacchus Books & Cafe, in Golden, B.C. The wee cafe—up a rickety flight of stairs above the bookstore—serves great coffee, muffins and healthy soups and imaginative paninis, witness a Nutella/bacon combo.

Actually, I’m surprised this concept isn’t more popular (outside of corporate joint ventures like Starbucks and Chapters/Indigo), though it does come with the risk of pages stained by coffee and sticky jam. So, it’s a pleasure to discover Café Books, on the busy main drag of another mountain town, Canmore, Alberta.

Owner Joy McLean runs this great, eclectic bookstore, with a hallway leading to a room of used books surrounding a small cafe. Here, I enjoy a lovely little French-press pot of coffee (beans from local roaster RAVE), served with a couple of bite-sized cookies.

A shameless promotion of a book signing I was doing at Cafe Books while savouring a lovely French-press pot of coffee

A shameless promotion of a book signing I was doing at Cafe Books while savouring a lovely French-press pot of coffee

The short menu features British-style snacks like Cornish pasties and Welsh rarebit, along with sweets such as cupcakes and macaroons. You can even order high tea, complete with scones, jam and clotted cream. Just be careful not to spill on the books.

A short but diversified menu, with a British bent

A short but diversified menu, with a British bent

Cafe Books
100, 826 Main Street, Canmore, Alberta
Monday to Thursday and Sunday 9:30 am-7 pm. Friday-Saturday 9:30 am-9 pm
403-678-0908

A Vegetarian Upstart in Calgary’s Cattle Country

Roasted artichokes with pear and chestnut is just one of the innovative vegetarian dishes at Calgary's White Rose Kitchen

Roasted artichokes with pear and chestnut is just one of the innovative vegetarian dishes at Calgary’s White Rose Kitchen

Calgary is cattle country, as much for mythological reasons as for all the area ranches and feedlots. So from a culinary perspective, it’s no surprise to find an abundance of steakhouses and hamburger joints.

Or, conversely, a scarcity of vegetarian restaurants. In a city of a million carnivores, you’d be hard pressed to find half a dozen places serving tofu, tempeh and turnips.

Thus, it’s nice to see a new restaurant—White Rose Kitchen, in a onetime Bowness gas station—devoted to creative, flavourful dishes like roasted artichoke, pear and chestnut; braised broccoli rabe and fig; and fennel confit salad.

White Rose is named for an old Bowness gas station that once stood here

White Rose is named for an old Bowness gas station that once stood here

It’s not cheap. Small (mostly appetizer sized) plates are $12 and big plates $18. But chef Dwayne and partner Alberta Ennest (who also operate Big Fish and Open Range) have certainly upped the ante on the often-staid veggie world.

A veggie flatbread is one of the day's lunch specials

A veggie flatbread is one of the day’s lunch specials

This being Calgary, however, the world of beef hasn’t been entirely abandoned. A sister, attached operation is The Coal Shed Smoke House, a stationary truck where meats are smoked, grilled and braised. The resulting chorizo sausage, beef short ribs and bison burgers are mostly intended for take-away dining, though there are a handful of tables in the hallway leading to White Rose.

The carnivorous Coal Shed Smoke House sits next door

The carnivorous Coal Shed Smoke House sits next door

But this commingling has its limits. You’re not allowed to smuggle your Coal Shed beef brisket, on a paper plate, into White Rose’s calm vegetarian space.

White Rose Kitchen
6512 Bowness Road NW, Calgary
Monday to Saturday 11:30 am-9 pm, Sunday 10 am-9 pm
403-455-8055

High Seas Coffee on the Alberta Prairie

High Seas Coffee is in the middle of central Alberta farmland

High Seas Coffee is in the middle of central Alberta farmland

I’m not expecting a coffee roaster in a rural Alberta village. Certainly not in a community of 725 souls, with a strong Mennonite heritage.

But then Linden, 100 kilometres northeast of Calgary, has always punched above its weight. Witness a strong agricultural manufacturing industry. And, from a culinary perspective, the longstanding Country Cousins, which attracts folks from Calgary and beyond for its Mennonite meals (think sausage, perogies and cabbage rolls) and legendary peanut butter pie.

So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find High Seas Coffee serving fresh-roasted java in a little main-street café. It opened this spring, when Krista Boese took over the former Global Grounds, adding it to an existing roasting business she started with her brother Tyler.

Yes, High Seas is a local hangout, with customers chewing the fat around a cluster of tables. But it also has a big-city vibe that includes small-batch roasting of fair-trade organic beans (pick up a pound of Farmers Blend) and cold-brew coffee.

The small-town coffee shop and roastery even has a patio

The small-town coffee shop and roastery even has a patio

The short menu starts with fresh-baked pastries like Danishes, cinnamon rolls and croissants. Heartier fare includes a French toast breakfast sandwich and a lunchtime pulled-pork Cubano sandwich.

You can even text in your order so it’s ready for pick up on your rural road trip. But I’d much rather grab a corner seat, sip an excellent Americano and soak up some small-town character.

High Seas Coffee
107 Central Avenue, Linden, Alberta
Monday to Saturday 6 am-6 pm. Closed Sunday
403-546-2007

Restaurant Renaissance in Lacombe, Alberta

This classic flat-iron building is the showpiece of Lacombe's lovingly restored historic downtown

This classic flat-iron building is the showpiece of Lacombe’s lovingly restored historic downtown

Lacombe has long been my favourite Alberta town (it’s officially now a city, but with only 12,000 residents, it still has that small-town feel). What I particularly like is the preservation and restoration of many downtown brick buildings and stately Edwardian houses that line its wide, shady streets. You can read all about it in my Day Trips From Calgary book (new edition scheduled for 2017).

Now, there’s another reason for pulling off the frenetic Highway 2, halfway between Calgary and Edmonton. In the past couple of years, Lacombe has seriously stepped up its culinary scene, perhaps even surpassing the dining wilderness of the nearby, much larger Red Deer.

Want to know what the inside of those historic Lacombe houses looks like? Just step into Morrison House Café, where two rooms of a 1919 colonial-revival residence have been converted into an elegant space offering good soups and sandwiches on house-baked breads and croissants. Save room for some delectable oatmeal cake or bread pudding.

Morrison House Cafe is located in a stately, historic downtown Lacombe house

Morrison House Cafe is located in a stately, historic downtown Lacombe house

Speaking of elegant, Sweet Capone’s is a wee downtown shop specializing in Italian pastries such as cannoli, pesche dolci (peach cookies) and Florentines. Sound a bit fancy for a town built on farming? Would you believe there are lineups for these confections, which often sell out by early afternoon?

Sweet Capone's is on historic, brick row in downtown Lacombe

Sweet Capone’s is on historic, brick row in downtown Lacombe

This is what people line up for: cream-filled Italian cannolis

This is what people line up for: cream-filled Italian cannolis

Queues are also de rigueur for the big, oven-roasted turkey and beef sandwiches at Eastside Eatery, in a Lacombe industrial park. I wrote about this fast, affordable, fabulous place in last week’s post.

The sandwiches are big, fast and tasty at Eastside Eatery

The sandwiches are big, fast and tasty at Eastside Eatery

Cilantro and Chive is a recent transplant, moving to downtown Lacombe after its lease expired in Ponoka, to the near north. It features innovative, chef-driven takes on standards, witness the braised duck wings, pulled-pork mac ‘n cheese, bison burgers and smoked trout and kale spaghettini.

Lovely soup and sandwich at Cilantro and Chive

Lovely soup and sandwich at Cilantro and Chive

Here’s the clincher. Lacombe now boasts its own craft brewery, Blindman Brewing, cooking up things like cask-conditioned sour beers and Belgian-style saisons.

I wonder how much those Edwardian houses are selling for?

Morrison House Cafe
5331 51 Avenue, Lacombe, Alberta
Tuesday to Saturday 11 am-3:30 pm. Closed Sunday and Monday
403-789-1234

Sweet Capone’s
5010 50 Avenue
Tuesday to Saturday 10 am-4 pm. Closed Sunday and Monday
403-789-7778

Eastside Eatery
3, 4013 53 Avenue, Lacombe, Alberta
Weekdays 8 am-3 pm. Closed weekends
403-782-7435

Cilantro and Chive
5021 50 Street
Monday to Wednesday 11 am-9 pm, Thursday to Saturday 11 am-11 pm. Closed Sunday
403-782-2882

Blindman Brewing
Bay F, 3413 53 Avenue
Opens at 2 pm Tuesday to Friday and at noon Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday
403-786-2337