Now, this is what I call service.
We’re sitting inside The Market Bistro, a lovely little dining room sheltered from the madding crowds of nearby downtown Canmore, Alberta. I order an Alberta craft IPA, which the server says has orangey notes. That it does, but without the hoppy bite I’m expecting.
Upon her return, she asks how I like said ale. I give an indifferent shrug. Immediately, she whisks away the beer and returns with two other options, including a more satisfactory (from my perspective) Railway Avenue rye IPA from local Canmore Brewing Company.
The exceptional service, from sharp-as-a-tack Brande, is just one of the details that makes Market Bistro a fine destination for a quiet dinner in the mountains. Another is the open kitchen, from which French-born co-owner and chef Anthony occasionally emerges to chat with regular customers.
Most of all, of course, it’s the bistro-style French cuisine. It’s a step up from my usual cheap-eats meals but quite reasonable for the skill and time that goes into dishes such as chicken tajine and duck confit. Consider my exquisite beef back ribs ($27), braised for hours to fall-off-the-bone tender and served with Gorgonzola polenta, mushrooms and braised kale.
Of course, you can’t finish a meal at Market Bistro without a slice of its famous lemon pie. Brande cautions other diners that it’s not the overly sweet confection they’re probably used to. Indeed, it has wee slices of lemon rind and a pungent flavour that lingers on the tongue.
Lemony tones, certainly. Definitely not sending this one back.
The Market Bistro
102-75 Dyrgas Gate, Canmore, Alberta
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday 11 am-8 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-9 pm. Closed Tuesday
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.
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.
100, 826 Main Street, Canmore, Alberta
Monday to Thursday and Sunday 9:30 am-7 pm. Friday-Saturday 9:30 am-9 pm
I can’t remember ever applauding a restaurant for raising its prices. But I’m more than happy to fork out $11 (instead of the previous $9) when I order the sandwich and salad/soup combo at The Range, a terrific new lunch spot in downtown Canmore, Alberta.
For one thing, it’s a substantial amount of food, especially the quinoa salad, which for $6 would be a bargain light lunch on its own. But most of all, it’s first-rate fare.
My chicken sandwich on fresh ciabatta boasts a bounty of house-roasted pulled chicken, arugula, roasted mushrooms and double-cream brie, topped with truffle-parmesan aioli. The quinoa salad is equally delightful, featuring lovely slices of golden beets and apple.
Most everything on the short menu is house made, like artisan sandwiches showcasing slow-roasted beef, porchetta or baked eggplant. Owner Todd and crew also pay attention to the details, dolling up their sandwiches with cured tomatoes, beet and apple chutney and onion marmalade. Just makes me salivate.
In a busy, mountain resort town like Canmore, there’s precious few places that are affordable, let alone committed to chef-driven standards. So when something this good comes along, a tiny bump in prices is almost laughable.
103, 802 Main Street, Canmore, Alberta
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday 11 am-5 pm, Friday to Sunday 11 am-7 pm. Closed Wednesday
To finish things off, head over to RAVE Coffee, another newish Canmore place that roasts a range of beans and produces fine espressos and pour-overs in its little café.
113, 702 Bow Valley Trail, Canmore
Weekdays 8 am-5 pm, weekends 9 am-5 pm
It’s a great time to be an American, especially if you’re travelling to Canada. The soaring greenback is a big reason why Whistler, B.C. is enjoying a stellar ski season and Canmore’s vacation condo market is hopping in an otherwise bleak Alberta economy.
By contrast, it’s a terrible time to be a Canadian considering a U.S. vacation. The realization that it’s going to cost you $1.45 Canadian to buy one measly American dollar is enough to make most northerners curl up in the fetal position till the snow starts melting in, say, May.
But it’s still possible to have a reasonably affordable trip stateside, particularly if you make it a road trip rather than a flight to a destination resort. Mind you, the approach I suggest leans much more to the dirtbag than the five star. You have been warned.
Fill er up
The biggest advantage for a U.S. road-tripping adventure is the cost of gasoline. It’s traditionally been a bargain, given the much lower gas taxes south of the border. But even with the badly wounded loonie, you might still save some money.
It depends on where you live and where you’re traveling. In Alberta, for example, you can fill up right now for under 80 cents (Cndn) a litre, compared with more than $1 in B.C. Western U.S. prices range from about $1.76 (US) a gallon in Denver to $2.60 in Los Angeles. Obviously, there’s a price to pay for living on or visiting the west coast of either country. I call it a smug tax.
Figuring out your fill-up cost involves converting litres to American gallons and then converting Canadian dollars to those $1.45 American ones. For a fill-up of 50 litres (13.2 U.S. gallons), it will cost an Albertan $40 and a British Columbian more than $50, at home in Cndn. dollars. That same amount of gas will cost you $33.68 in Denver and $49.76 in L.A., in converted Cndn dollars.
The bottom line is the cost of gasoline isn’t going to be a deal breaker for deciding whether to hit the U.S. road or plan a staycation. And if you’re in Oregon, where you’re not allowed by law to fill your own gas tank, the attendant will usually clean your windows.
Skip the hotels and motels
I once did a month-long road trip where my total cost of accommodation was $50. How did I pull off this magic trick? Other than two nights of camping and a couple parked on urban side streets, I mostly stayed in 24-hour Walmart parking lots for free.
I’d much rather sleep in the great outdoors, preferably in a magnificent state or national park campground along the crashing ocean or beneath a lofty canopy. While it’s going to cost you about $30 US a night to camp in the redwood forests of northern California, you can find more spartan digs for maybe $10 elsewhere. Do a bit of sleuthing and you can discover national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spots for free. Running water and toilets, however, may be optional.
Still, it’s a much more pastoral experience than parking in the distant corner of an asphalt Walmart parking lot, with blinding street lights and roaring vehicles and motorized street sweepers at all hours of the night. A camper of some sort, with curtains, is the best way to keep the glare and din at bay. In a pinch, though, good ear plugs and an eye shade will suffice if you’re curled up in the back of your car.
While you’re tossing and turning, just think of the $50 to $100 a night you’re saving by not booking a motel bed, TV and rattling air-conditioning unit. And who needs a shower? If you’re desperate, you can always make do with the sink in a Walmart washroom, open around the clock.
Until fairly recently, I figured eating out at American restaurants was 10 to 20 per cent cheaper than in Canada, even with the exchange rate (portions are generally bigger, too). But when you’re paying upwards of 40 per cent to exchange loonies into greenbacks, that advantage has more than disappeared.
Of course, the cheapest feeding solution is to buy groceries and cook them wherever you’re staying. But since this is a road-trip dining blog, let’s look at a few ways you can still eat out somewhat affordably.
- Beer and burger – At Moab Brewery, on the doorstep of Arches National Park in Utah, a burger and fries is $9 (US) and a 16-ounce pint of their ale $4.25. By comparison, a burger and fries in the Alberta resort towns of Canmore and Banff will set you back about $16 (Cndn), washed down with a $7.50, 19-ounce pint. So even with the steep conversion rate, the equivalent total cost in Canadian dollars is $19.20 Moab and $23.50 Banff. Obviously, prices will vary in different places, but clearly not a deal breaker.
- Better breakfasts – Breakfast is generally the best value, both in cost (often under $10 in the U.S.) and volume; you might not need to eat lunch. Omelettes don’t seem much cheaper stateside, but you can often find a stack of pancakes for $5 or $6.
- Stock up on sandwiches – You can find some monstrous, made-to-order, delicious sandwiches in many U.S. delis and cafes. At the Sandwich Spot in Palm Springs, the humongous Grand Slam—featuring turkey, ham and roast beef—was $8. I gave half to a street person, but it would have fed me for two days. A half sandwich at Grove Market deli, in Salt Lake City, was $7 and still weighed nearly two pounds. It was $8 for a similar behemoth at Compagno’s Delicatessen, in Monterey, California.
I could go on, but I have to wipe the drool off my face… and grab a road map.
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.