CALGARY, Alberta — Cranes tower above the heart of Canada’s third-largest city. They’re white and red and yellow, and some hang 25 stories in the sky. Others sit low to the ground, just beginning their work.
Though best known for its annual Stampede rodeo, hosting the 1988 Winter Olympics and being the place to pick up your rental car on the way to Canada’s Rocky Mountains, Calgary is a city in remarkable transformation. You see it in its culinary explosion, the enthusiasm of its youthful population, and that fast-growing skyline sprouting from the brown Canadian plains.
Over dinner one night at Charcut, a restaurant that has wowed the city with its spirit of culinary adventure, I met a business traveler from Toronto who visits Calgary every few months.
Kyle Winston, 34, who owns an insurance adjustment firm, marveled at the five glassy office towers and half-dozen apartment buildings that have risen in recent years, largely in response to a robust Alberta oil and gas industry that uses those buildings for work, rest and play. The growth, Winston said, seems more pronounced with every visit.
But despite those gleaming towers, he was far more excited about the restaurant where we sat, where I was picking at a plate of pig-head mortadella (which is essentially the best bologna ever).
“For a while there were just the same ol’ steakhouses that my father went to,” Winston said. “All of a sudden you see these restaurants popping up, doing different things.”
So Calgary can claim a growing skyline and a robust food scene, both elemental to an urban boom, but that alone does not tell the story of this lively city of more than a million, which tourism officials say has largely returned to normal since being hit hard by June flooding. (I visited just before the floods.)
Calgary is cosmopolitan with touches of old-school West Canadian grit; at least, it is cosmopolitan enough for $12 pints of locally made roasted-beet balsamic ice cream to sit in the freezer of Sunnyside Natural Market, in the quaint Kensington area. Yet the city is alive and raw and ethnically diverse; you hear French speakers, British accents and African languages.
It often is said that Calgary, sitting a mere 50 miles from Canada’s Rocky Mountains, is the Canadian Denver. That’s not quite true. It’s more a blend of Denver’s bordering-the-mountains vibrancy and a dash of Portland edginess. At other times, it seems more like Western Europe than its neighbor to the south.
Residents are excited to live there, and that was never clearer than when I watched the city burble deeply into the night. On the Friday I arrived in Calgary, I headed out into the brisk evening for a stroll along 17th Avenue, just south of downtown, which is the heart of the weekend action. People were out in droves, lining up to get into bars, talking, laughing and packing businesses of all stripes: coffee shops, pizzerias, ethnic haunts and late-night burger joints. It had the energy of a college town, though the people in the streets ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s.
Even the street musicians seemed to be flying. On one street corner, three guys with long hair banged on a banjo, acoustic guitar and steel guitar. When one wandered off, another hollered, “Thanks for the jam, brother!”
I walked on to find a poutine shop jammed with hungry youth digging into the national dish of French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. (Any city with a poutine shop open until 3:30 a.m. is OK by me.)
During the course of the weekend, I also came to learn that there is relatively open use of marijuana in Calgary, though not in a flashy way; it usually was as simple as a man walking down the street while smoking a joint. (Though pot is illegal in Canada, the prohibition is only moderately enforced).
But the timid needn’t worry; Calgary is far from raucous. It also is home to healthy living and ample Canadian civility. The city’s metal sidewalk grates have foot cutouts for easier passage, residents are visibly uncomfortable with jaywalking, and there’s an obvious affection for public art. The art includes such must-sees as the 40-foot white wire head outside the recently opened Bow skyscraper, and Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s red Peace Bridge, which surges across the Bow River.
And as much as it likes a party, Calgary enjoys healthy living. Among the best of the city’s outdoor adventures is Prince’s Island, a park nestled within the curve of the Bow River, between downtown’s skyscrapers and the largely chain-free Kensington neighborhood.
Prince’s Island is as calm and pretty as an urban park gets, with acres of rolling grass and gently curving pathways for couples strolling hand in hand, young families, runners and skateboarding teens. You will never see so many skateboarders as you will see in Calgary.
A rocky shore lines the river within the park, which makes for an easy escape to watch the pedestrian and bike traffic crossing Calatrava’s wormlike bridge. On a warm weekend afternoon, I did just that, leaning back to watch Calgary go by. At first that Space Age tube seemed a bit out of place, but in ever-changing Calgary, it came to seem right at home.
CALGARY EMBRACES FOOD'S CUTTING EDGE
John Jackson and Connie DeSousa had professional experience many chefs would envy when they opened Charcut restaurant three years ago in their hometown. But they were still scared. Literally scared.
Was Calgary ready for them?
Despite time in some of the most prestigious kitchens in New York, San Francisco and Bonn, Germany, they weren’t sure how pig-head mortadella and bone marrow with escargot au gratin would play in a meat-and-potatoes town on the edge of the Canadian Rockies.
“The precedent just wasn’t there,” Jackson said. The city’s million-plus residents, he said, “were ready but needed someone to take the leap.”
Young, flush with money from the oil and gas industry, and hungry (literally and figuratively), Calgary indeed was ready. Today locals freely admit that the city’s character has changed in recent years, in part because of the strides in its food scene.
The fresh takes on old standards, often with an emphasis on eating freshly and sourcing locally, extend in all directions: tapas, beer and wine, pizza, coffee, doughnuts, charcuterie and brunch. Many of the restaurants that have locals excited have opened in the last five years; many are less than a year old.
“You can’t fake it here anymore,” Jackson said. “Calgarians have higher expectations.”
And that means, if you’re just passing through, eating your way through Calgary is a delight. Here are some places to go (all area codes are 403):
BREAKFAST AND BRUNCH
Calgary loves brunch, and there is no shortage of places to find it. Two restaurants that won me over included Blue Star Diner (261-9998, bluestardiner.ca), northeast of downtown, which offers a good-natured frenetic vibe full of locals and an emphasis on fresh local ingredients. It also serves dinner. The menu is the usual savory-sweet brunch dichotomy, done to an expert level, for meat-eaters (chipotle pulled-pork hash) or not (maple and coconut curry vegan scramble). In the heart of the Calgary action – the stretch of restaurants along 17th Avenue Southwest – sits Bar-C (984-3667, crmr.com/barc), where I found a mean game hash of elk and bison that arrived in a broth so savory, I ordered a piece of toast just to soak it up. Bonus points for an ideal beer pairing: a hibiscus wit from Montreal’s Dieu du Ciel. Bar-C also serves dinner seven nights a week. With its salted caramel French toast and breakfast paninis, Vendome Cafe (453-1140, vendomecafe.com) calls itself a “touch of Europe” in Calgary’s Sunnyside neighborhood. Also situated outside of downtown, Diner Deluxe (276-5499, dinerdeluxe.com) is funky throwback with a sense of humor.
Among the reigning darlings of Calgary dining is the aforementioned Charcut (984-2180, charcut.com), which serves an ambitious menu of smart, modern comfort food. Its arugula and tuna conserva, served with shaved celery and lemon preserve, was tangy and bright, while the poutine was devilishly decadent. The steak cut, and preparation, changes regularly. And the pig’s-head mortadella is the most complex and comforting cold-cut imaginable. Throw in a clever cocktail list and sumptuous dessert menu, and you have a memorable evening. An equally impressive take on modern American comfort food is Model Milk (265-7343, modelmilk.ca), where the fish-beef-pork-veggies menu changes often. (Only the calamari and hamburger have stayed since Day 1.) One of the restaurant’s most popular features is the Sunday $35 fixed-price dinner of the kitchen’s choosing. The Sunday I showed up was abnormally busy, which led the kitchen to run out of some items, but it improvised its way through with perfection. Farm (245-2276, farm-restaurant.com) has jumped on the locally sourced food trend, and a map in the foyer shows the locations of the Alberta farms from which the food hails. The Arctic char was moist, tender and expertly finished with carrot and potato puree (both local, of course). The special pork-and-beef-meatballs thrived in a chevre-herb marinara. Also consider: Candela (719-0049, candelalounge.com) and River Cafe (261-7670, river-cafe.com), in Prince’s Island Park.
National (229-0226, ntnl.ca), which opened in June 2012 with about 70 taps, which include many Canadian craft beers, found such quick success that the bar opened a second location less than a mile away. That location recently added a bowling alley. Both places draw large enough crowds for lines to form on weekend nights. But on a Saturday afternoon, I found that a beer list that justifies the passion and includes plenty of options not distributed in the United States. Next to National’s 10th Avenue location is the similar Craft Beer Market (514-2337, craftbeermarket.ca), which also is huge, loud and offers an impressive list of North American craft beers. Should you want a smaller and quieter crowd, check out Beer Revolution (264-2739, beerrevolution.ca) at the edge of downtown. The five taps of the aforementioned Dieu du Ciel won me over, as did the bartender’s pride while explaining that they rarely have the same beer on tap more than once. A video board behind the bar announces what’s on draft, when it was tapped and when it is likely to be gone.
Open since summer 2012, Village Ice Cream (261-7950, villageicecream.com) is tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac, but it’s worth the search. All ice cream is made in house, and it’s richly delicious. The 10 year-round flavors include both classics (chocolate, vanilla bean) and the unlikely (huckleberry and coffee made with Phil & Sebastian beans). Bonus points for what easily was the best nondairy ice cream I’ve ever tasted: Oaxacan chili chocolate made with coconut milk. Most cities claim their share of hip doughnut spots, but Jelly Modern Doughnuts (453-2053, jellymoderndoughnuts.com) travels a step beyond. My chai-glazed doughnut filled with a chai custard center, topped with edible flowers, was both classic comfort food and a daring culinary adventure. You won’t just happen upon it, which is why Sidewalk Citizen Bakery (457-2245, sidewalkcitizenbakery.com) is worth finding. There are two locations; the one tucked away in Sunnyside Natural Market offered a stunning array of tarts, croissants and cookies. And the limited lunch menu of pizza and sandwiches also shone.