Sky scraping towers sprout in downtown’s grid like a 3-D who’s who in energy, technology and innovation. Streetside, the city is softer and more in touch with nature.
Decades of investment in public art and architecture along with purposeful pathway and park designs have created places and spaces of interest within the city limits. Photos at the Peace Bridge are a grad tradition. Jaume Plensa’s Wonderland is a 12 meter high white stainless steel sculpture of a young woman’s head that everyone can interact with. Built in 1967, Calgary Tower’s addition of a clear glass floor 191 metres (525 feet) above the street level keeps it a key attraction. The BUMP (Beltline Urban Mural Project) has brought blank urban walls alive with beloved paintings by the world’s best street artists. Downtown is alive.
Bustling restaurants, patios, bakery cafes and coffee shops attest to the city’s livability. People here are active. And, with over 8000 hectares of green space they can play and eat as hard as they work year round.
Each season in Calgary brings its own burst of activities that fuel appetites for local fare. Alberta’s seven signature foods – beef, bison, canola, honey, Red Fife wheat, root vegetables and saskatoon berries – all thrive on farms and ranches within an hour of town. From spring shoots to winter roots these are the basis of the foods enjoyed with the seasons.
In spring, cycling along the Bow and Elbow Rivers, the fragrance of honeysuckle, caragana and wolf willow melds with wild roses. Spring’s bright greens are offset with these flowery hues of gold, grey and pink. In all quadrants of the city, parks abound. When spring flings itself on Calgary, locals of all cultures are keen to picnic.
A ride through any park is a tantalizing tour of the food diversity of the city’s population – Pakistani tandoor, Korean Beef Bulgogi, Ukrainian Kielbasa or Japanese sushi are easily found. Calgarians of all backgrounds make the most of the city’s picnic sites and the 1000 kilometers of cycling paths connecting them.
Though restaurants River Cafe Prince’s Island Park and Bow Valley Ranche in Fish Creek Provincial Park are fine dining bastions, they also cater to people’s love of the outdoors with al fresco picnic baskets to go. Seasons of Bowness Park offers casual food for those that have worked up an appetite paddling on its canals and wandering through its old growth spruce forests. As summer temperatures rise, people immerse in river life.
Early summer morning rays catch the glistening drops of water on lines cast by anglers fly fishing along the Bow. This is one of the world’s best rivers for the sport. Anglers catch and release. Soaring bald eagles and ospreys snatch and keep their catch. They return to nest here each year thanks to the abundance of fish in the crystal clear waters flowing down from Alberta’s Rocky Mountain glacier watershed.
Calgary is brimming with unique communities that surround the downtown core and add vibrancy and character to the city. As days heat up, it’s easy to book a guided rafting trip with Calgary River Experience. DIYers can choose Lazy Day Raft Rentals. Either way, having an exit strategy in food-centric neighbourhoods like Kensington, East Village, Bridgeland or Inglewood pays a smart dividend for appetites charged by floating, paddling and splashing.
Favourite eats are often next to favourite watering holes. In cozy Kensington, Indie Counter Culture’s creative Butter Chicken Poutine is a way to sample Indian Street food with a Canadian twist. Neapolitan Pizza – verified by the HQ in Italy – is offered at Pulcinella. Thirsty folks can crush one of Alberta’s 160 craft beers at Kensington Pub or Free House – a beer hall for food lovers. Whistles get whet with a choice of over 100 whiskies at Hayden Block Smoke and Whisky. Romantics can cuddle up at hidden gem Vendome. And, they can seal the deal with gelato or donuts from neighbouring Holy Cow. A little further down the river is the East Village.
Bridgeland disembarkers can cool off with Village Ice Cream at one end of the area or Made by Marcus at the other. In between, temptations include Jin Bar’s Crispy Fried Chicken by Gold Medal Plate winner chef Jinhee Lee, Una Pizza + Wine’s chewy crisp pizzas (get the mushroom), Shiki Menya’s soul soothing ramen, Cannibale’s smoky barbecued Mexican specialties or Lil Empire’s juicy burgers. Tiny Blue Star Diner is a giant at sourcing local. Neighbourhood Grocer Bridgeland Market has superstar chef John Michael McNeil cooking up offerings like Morel Risotto, Spicy Pork Belly Bowls and Carrot Coconut Lime Soup for take away meals made in house. If all this has not tempted, the last stop for floaters to finish at a foodie hotspot is Inglewood.
The Inglewood neighbourhood was the birthplace of Calgary. Now, it’s home to the city’s Music Mile and some of the city’s best eateries and music venues. Deane House offers live jazz with Sunday Brunch. Bite Grocer and Eatery is the place to grab a fresh sandwich or dawdle over one of the city’s best breakfasts. Without Papers Pizza is a family-friendly joint with award-winning pizza for the people. Gorilla Whale is approachable Japanese-ish food and imaginative cocktails with a completely chill ambience.
It’s fun to dine on the succulent rotation of rotisserie meats executive chef Dwayne Ennest delivers at The Nash. And, staying late into the night for cocktails and live music at their Off Cut Bar is a very local thing to do. With over 100 years of history, the former National Hotel housed an eclectic roster of guests from railway workers to outlaws like The Sundance Kid. Respectable folk hung out here too and one of them lived just down the street in what is now Rouge Restaurant.
Rouge Restaurant was the home of A.E. Cross. An early pioneer, his descendants still own the largest continuously family-owned ranch in Alberta. It’s just south of Calgary near Nanton and Rouge often serves beef from this ranch. Executive chef Paul Rogalski guarantees there will be something fresh or preserved from Rouge’s own garden on every plate served. And, the Rouge team also sources from dozens of Alberta farms. Now, they also offer a foraged foods tasting menu. The latter is a celebration of Rogalski starring in Les Stroud’s Wild Harvest TV show. Most of Canada’s wild foods are foraged in Alberta’s boreal forests and this is a rare offer to experience those foods prepared with Rouge’s famous flourish. The original owner, A.E. Cross was not afraid to take a walk on the wild side.
In 1892, he founded the Calgary Brewing and Malting Co – Alberta’s first brewery. While that brewery closed in 1994, Calgary is now home to 44 local breweries including Ol’ Beautiful and Cold Garden at the birthplace in Inglewood. Plus, it’s only a hop (get it) away from Calgary’s Barley Belt. Alberta barley is found in over 12 million bottles of beer worldwide but it’s also highly sought after for distilled spirits as well. Getting out of town in fall to hike and explore the Cowboy Trail can lead whisky lovers to Alberta’s founder of craft distilling.
Eau Claire Distillery in nearby Turner Valley was first to produce a single malt whisky in Alberta. They’ve won award after award ever since. Neighbouring Chinook Arch Meadery and Spirit HIlls Winery contribute honey wine, better known as mead, to Alberta’s alcoholic beverage offerings. Thanks to these industry pioneers, now, there are several meaderies and dozens of distilleries around the province.
In Calgary, Burwood adds honey, an Alberta signature food, to their award-winning honey liqueur called Medica. Confluence, Last Best and Two Rivers also join Eau Claire in winning recognition for the city and adding to the food culture. The cooler air of fall lends itself to these warm sips.
And, as fall progresses, the native poplar and larch trees turn golden signalling it’s time to hit the hiking trails. September is the best month. The heat is past, the bears are full and the trails less crowded.
Calgary is at the heart of five UNESCO sites, with world class hiking in Kananaskis and Banff National Park an hour away. Waterton Lakes National Park is three hours but well worth the drive. Ambling through The Canadian Badlands near Drumheller or touring the Royal Tyrrell Museum are other great fall outings only 90 minutes away.
But, with stunning views from Nose Hill Park’s 11 square kilometers of trails, the convenience of nature in the city often wins for time-pressed wanderers. With Calgary’s Best Walks a person can start a quest to finish 42 neighbourhood walks and hikes in this insider’s guidebook. Each listing includes a favourite cafe where locals gather. Gathering is something Calgarians are good at.
In fall, people gather for theatre, dance and concerts at Arts Commons and hike in their well-heeled shoes to the posh restaurants on Stephen Avenue before and after the shows. Teatro celebrates 25 years as the anchor of this district. Executive chef Matt Batey infuses the menu with local organic ingredients in dishes that can stand up to a wine cellar with over 10,000 bottles. Down the street Modern Steak educates palates with beef that’s aged and fed in different ways. Guests can order Wagyu from Brant Lake or barley or grass-finished. They even have their own bull at Benchmark ranch. No bull, as fall fades and snow slips from the sky, the city seeks winter’s outdoor fun.
Calgarians winter well. They wander with wonder through the Calgary’s Zoo’s Zoo Lights and gather round fire pits for steaming mugs of cocoa.
The season of snow and ice sees skaters slicing along on Bowness Pond, Olympic Plaza or the dozens of community lakes and arenas scattered around the city. Summer and fall mountain bikers turn into downhill skiers, fat biking and boarders. They take to the slopes of Winsport. Cross country skiers shoosh the snow covered city golf courses. Residents never worry the cold will last too long. Winters here are mellowed with the warm winds of Chinooks and festivals like Chinook Blast in the early months of the year celebrate the outdoor experience.
When Chinooks eat through snow and ice, patios open. Any day over 10 Celsius on a south facing 17 Avenue SW patio is fair game. Sipping pints and listening to live music at the stalwart Ship and Anchor is a must. Nearby Bonterra Trattoria have created a lovely courtyard oasis for exceptional Italian dining, Calcutta Cricket Club’s won best restaurant design and it’s tropical decor and modern Indian food is another mid-winter escape. Lulu Bar is a surf bar in the heart of this uptown district. Turning the corner to Fourth Street S.W. there’s more to explore.
Chef Roy Oh’s KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) Sliders or Crispy Tofu with Maple Kimchi and Pork Belly at his new place on Fourth – Roy’s Korean Kitchen – will give anyone a reason to venture out on a cold winter’s night. Shokunin means progress to perfection and it’s Izakaya offerings deliver on that promise. Mercato Mission offers a place to cozy up around the open kitchen and watch a classic Florentine Bistecca of Alberta beef being grilled to perfection.
Over on First Street SW, Proof’s cocktails will always keep good cheer flowing. The Coup and Ten Foot Henry’s vegetable forward menu is habit-forming. And, around the corner at Hotel Arts, Executive Chef Quinn Staples brought cutting edge skills in presentation and taste from time at Chicago’s Linnea to the food of Yellow Door Bistro. Taking in Sunday Brunch and the contemporary art collection here before visiting Contemporary Calgary, the Glenbow Museum, Studio Bell – home of the National Music or the Central Library are great ways to winter in wonder. Calgary is a city that’s alive and well.
Gone is the idea that meat and potatoes are the mainstays of Calgary’s food scene. The city has a maverick spirit. It’s filled with entrepreneurs, disruptors and game changes. A lot of those people also happen to be chefs.
Culinary mavericks train at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) and at the city’s finest restaurants. Talented chefs stay here because, like the city as a whole, they find a collaborative spirit in their community.
Empire Provisions exemplified the care behind this spirit during the pandemic. They gathered prizes for people that frequented local businesses for stamps on a bingo card. Breweries and distilleries have fostered each other into being. Chefs donate time to support charities through fundraisers and festivals year round.
Perhaps the reason chefs stay, is the reason everyone stays. Calgary has the caring energy of a small town. It’s diversity makes it delicious. Like well-seasoned food, Calgary adds flavour to life no matter the season.
About the Author: Karen Anderson
Karen Anderson is founder and president of Alberta Food Tours. She is also a food journalist who has written for radio, television, print and new media including CBC Radio, PBS-TV, Apple Magazine, City Palate, Avenue and WestJet magazines. She’s an IPPY and Taste Canada award-winning cookbook author for A Spicy Touch – Family Favourites from Noorbanu Nimji’s Kitchen with her late Indian cooking mentor Noorbanu Nimji and a World Gourmand travel writing award winner for Food Artisans of Alberta.