It’s no secret that Calgary spent much of the past year in a recession, but that didn’t slow down the creative efforts in Calgary’s restaurant scene. Diners were hungry (pun definitely intended) for new and diverse offerings, and restaurants new and old responded. Here we present the top three restaurants in 24 categories as voted by our readers*. Cheers!
By Breanna Mroczek
The overall look and feel of a restaurant is often as important as what’s on your (teal, miss-matched china, small, etc.) plate when it comes to an enjoyable dining experience. Located in a historic brick building, Charbar exudes rustic charm with a contemporary twist and provides a comfortable atmosphere for all occasions. Their rooftop patio has a unique view of the city skyline and of the Bow River, providing an exceptional dining experience in the summer. Nestled in the beautiful Prince’s Island Park and accessible only by walking and bike paths, the tranquil, serene, nature setting of River Café is truly one of a kind. It makes every occasion, even a simple family Sunday brunch, feel extra special. “Between the casual feel of the building and the rich sound of vinyl being spun on the in-house turntable, Model Milk hits the right balance between chic and casual,” says Elizabeth Chorney-Booth. “You can relax and just have a good time, while also feeling like you’re having a special night out on the town.”
BEST ASIAN FOOD
Anju serves up traditional Korean small plates with a modern twist in a refined setting. One bite of any of chef Roy Oh’s dishes and you’ll see why locals love it here. At Raw Bar “Viet-modern” cuisine takes centre stage with sharing plates that fuse traditional cuisine and trendy ingredients. Thai Sa-on is the place for authentic Thai food. Vegetarians and meat lovers alike will be very happy with the expertly prepared variety of traditional dishes.
BEST FOR BEER
The Ship & Anchor is more than a bar, it’s a local institution where you’ll find people in leather punk rock jackets, suit jackets, and everything in between enjoying all varieties of beer. When you want beer, food, and entertainment in one convenient setting, head to one of National’s four locations. “With plenty of beers to try and a wide-ranging food menu, not to mention great patios — and in the case of the 10th Avenue location, a bowling alley beneath — National covers all the bases,” says Gwendolyn Richards. If you fancy yourself a connoisseur of the suds, Craft Beer Market is the place to be. With more than 100 craft beers on tap, they truly have something for everyone including local microbrews, imports, and gluten-free varieties.
Calgary is a very meat-centric city, but it’s not just about steak — many restaurants turn to the South for inspiration. The Palomino is a local institution that’s casual and just the right amount of gritty — no frills, just great barbecue, beer, and live music. Their slow-smoked meats are served all-day long (even for breakfast), so get your fill of ribs, brisket, pulled pork, and chicken. The communal tables and platters of meats at Hayden Block encourage sharing, so your party can sample a variety of the mouth-watering Texas-style meats (we suggest the short ribs and turkey breast — it’s definitely not the dry sort of turkey you have at Thanksgiving). Booker’s BBQ & Crab Shack is a pub-style restaurant with barbecue that will please any palate with house-made rubs, slow-smoked brisket, ribs, and chicken, and fixings such as baked beans and cornbread.
BEST FOR BUDGET BITES
When you want a meal without breaking the bank, there’s no need to sacrifice taste and quality. Cluck N Cleaver has devotees who can’t get enough of the juicy Southern fried and rotisserie chicken. “For a quick take-home meal, the perfectly crisp chicken paired with a side of potato salad and a ridiculously rich chocolate malt shake can’t be beat,” says Elizabeth Chorney-Booth, while Gwendolyn Richards notes that “Colonel Sanders has been demoted.” Those who believe bread is the most critical part of a sandwich must go to Sidewalk Citizen. Baker Aviv Fried pairs sandwich fillings with the perfect bread: breakfast on buttery brioche buns, cold sandwiches on crusty, handmade sourdough, and soft, fresh pitas filled with creative daily specials. Spolumbo’s is a local business loved for their endless varieties of homemade, all-natural sausages, cold cuts piled high on fresh bread, and meatballs made with Mamma’s secret recipe in their deli.
Calgarians love brunch, and while most bars and restaurants offer a brunch menu on weekends, there are a some stand-out places that serve it daily. It’s worth waiting in the long lines that form at OEB Breakfast Co. — the breakfast poutine is a local favourite, but their signature egg dishes are also tops. “Wonderfully conceived by chef/owner Mauro Martina, OEB elevates brunch to an art,” says John Gilchrist. Next door at Diner Deluxe you’ll find both traditional (think: meatloaf hash and buttermilk pancakes) and contemporary (mascarpone French toast) dishes served in a retro-style diner. For unique, contemporary breakfast dishes, head to Yellow Door Bistro. Be sure to ask about the feature pancake. It changes monthly and is always a decadent mix of flavours (it looks too good to eat, but you won’t regret digging in).
BEST CASUAL BUSINESS DINING
For a successful working lunch, striking the right balance between sophisticated and unpretentious is key. Whether you want to do some people-watching on the balcony or find a quiet place to dine indoors, Murrieta’s Bar & Grill has what you’re looking for, and a great wine list to boot. Briggs Kitchen and Bar has a cool but friendly vibe and a meaty menu full of updated comfort food classics — the Newf’s poutine with lobster has its own cult following. Barcelona Tavern serves Spanish tapas that are perfect for a group dining experience. They also pour unique versions of gin and tonics and have excellent daily and happy hour specials.
BEST CHINESE FOOD
Chinese food is undoubtedly a part of Calgary’s heritage — in fact, the prairie staple ginger beef was invented here. Silver Dragon Restaurant specializes in dim sum and hot pot, and their extensive menu with a mix of traditional and westernized dishes is popular with business lunch crowds and families alike. If all-you-can-eat is where your heart lies, China Rose Restaurant has an extensive buffet filled with fresh, tasty options that lean more towards the westernized side, including, of course, ginger beef. Szechuan Restaurant is not for the faint of tongue, but if you crave spicy food you’ll be in heaven. Stand-out dishes include kung pao chicken, ma po tofu, and (for those who can’t take the heat) tea smoked duck.
BEST FOR COCKTAILS
Every single cocktail on the menu at Proof is unique to this cocktail bar, though they do an exceptional job of shaking and stirring up the classics, too. “The extensive back bar at Proof speaks to the care and creativity that goes into their continually evolving drinks list,” says Gwendolyn Richards. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a sunny beach with one sip of a cocktail at Native Tongues Taqueria, which uses Mezcal in several cocktails including their tiki creations and signature Mezcal-garita. There aren’t any slush machines here, just the real margarita deal. If whiskey is your thing, the cocktails at One18 Empire will impress. You can even customize your old fashioned with a choice of bitters, syrups, whiskies, and even wood to smoke — then your server will mix it up tableside.
Hy’s Steakhouse in Calgary
By Warren Downs, Fairmont Gold Manager and Chef Concierge at Fairmont Palliser
Calgary is known for western hospitality and Alberta beef — two things exceptionally exemplified by Hy’s. Founded in Calgary in 1955, Hy’s reopened in 2015 after an eight-year absence in the city. Under the vision and leadership of Hy’s veteran Barb Steen, the new Hy’s continues to thrive. The design and layout of the location evokes the essence of a classic steakhouse, with the perfect blend of modern elegance. This is showcased in the custom millwork, antique brass, and dark leather that adorn the surroundings. The large restaurant features versatile dining spaces and lounges, along with private dining. On the walls you’ll find remarkable western artwork, photographs, and newspaper excerpts, a tribute to Hy’s storied history in the city and beyond. The menu is extensive and refined with all of the classics you would expect from an opulent steakhouse, along with creative and modern dishes featuring seafood, lamb, and duck. Many of the dishes are prepared tableside providing the highest assurance of quality and customization. Every member of the staff is extremely engaging and knowledgeable, able to answer any questions and make ideal recommendations, ensuring an exceptional dining experience.
Balkan Restaurant in Banff
By Kristi McClintok, Chef Concierge, The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Joanna Karlos and her family provide the best in hospitality to our guests, welcoming everyone into their Greek oasis on Banff Avenue. The Balkan features warm and friendly service, authentic and delicious Greek cuisine, and award-winning cocktails and wines from Greece. We love Joanna’s classic Greek dishes such as the arni psito, a delicious dish featuring their slow roasted lamb shank. Their platters offer incredible variety and are fun to share with family and friends. There is nothing more unique than Greek Nights at the Balkan Restaurant featuring entertainment, belly dancing, and plate smashing! For Les Clefs d’Or Alberta, the Karlos and Balkan family makes the Concierge teams and our guests feel like a part of their family.
BEST FOR FAMILIES WITH KIDS
Most parents have experienced the pain of trying to find a restaurant where both children and adults will love the food, but luckily such wondrous places do exist. Italian hotspot Cibo manages to delight foodies of all ages with simple, delicious food in a beautiful space. “Cibo is the perfect spot to take kids and help them learn how to behave in a nice restaurant without worrying too much about bothering other patrons or not being able to find something they can eat,” says Elizabeth Chorney-Booth. National (the Westhills location) hits the spot for families with a robust beer list and fun cocktails to soothe mom and dad’s raw nerves (adult slurpees, anyone?) while kids chow down on favourites like mac n’ cheese and crispy chicken nuggets. Redwater Rustic Grille’s three locations boast an upscale vibe while remaining family-friendly. There’s a kid’s menu that’ll keep the littles happy while adults can enjoy well-prepared, classic Canadian dishes.
BEST FOR FINE DINING
Elegant plating, a more formal atmosphere, attentive staff, an exceptional wine list, and high-quality ingredients: every detail of the dining experience is executed to perfection at these establishments. Alloy’s refined menu offers a variety of globally-inspired dishes which look beautiful and taste complex yet not overbearing. The room is unpretentious yet stylish, a definite oasis in an industrial area. The upscale Italian fare at Teatro is fresh and made to order, which doesn’t only increase the quality but means the chefs can, and will, accommodate any dietary restrictions. If guests want an intimate and quiet experience, Teatro has lots of table options within the dining room — no need to book a separate room. The elegant, historic setting of Rouge is unique and offers the perfect atmosphere to enjoy upscale, locally-inspired dishes. The beautiful food, personalized service, and exquisite wine list make any occasion feel special.
BEST FORMAL BUSINESS DINING
When you need to seal a deal or get some work done, a quiet, inviting atmosphere and attentive but not overbearing service is as important as the meal. If the name Charcut alone doesn’t impress thanks to all of its accolades, the personalized, impeccable service will impress as much as the food (which is very meat-centric). The upscale, intimate Vintage Chophouse will dazzle any client or colleague — especially those who appreciate a great steak — and allows for privacy, with private rooms for team meetings and meals. “The food at Blink is always on point and the carefully curated wine list will impress clients and give business colleagues something to cheers with when they seal a big deal,” says Elizabeth Chorney-Booth. “Plus the room itself is clean and has a professional feel without being too stuffy.”
BEST FRENCH FOOD
French cuisine has been on a pedestal for a long time — when done right, it just has that incomparable je ne sais quoi. Cassis Bistro is a lively, charming spot that combines Canadian ingredients with French cooking techniques for a perfect farm-to-fork meal. If you’ve never had galettes, the menu at Suzette Brittany Bistro will be a delicious education. “Suzette Bistro has the same calm, clean French flair Cassis offers,” Julie van Rosendaal says. “They build classic yet approachable dishes with the best ingredients, so you really feel like it’s more than a meal — it’s an experience.” Avec Bistro is a bright, modern restaurant that can be relied on to deliver contemporary takes on the French classics, from foie gras torchon to crispy frog legs to steak frites with béarnaise sauce. Don’t skip over the drink menu which has five varieties of absinthe and a generous wine list.
BEST INDIAN FOOD
Moti Mahal has been a fixture in Calgary for nearly 30 years, serving enthusiastic patrons with flavourful classics and hot, fresh naan. Mango Shiva is known for their clever and delicious deviations from standard Indian menus, particularly “naacos” — naan tacos filled with butter chicken, mango chutney, and cilantro. Rajdoot Restaurant features an excellent buffet that’s available every night of the week with an ample selection of curries and accompaniments. Best of all, naan is made fresh for each table.
BEST ITALIAN FOOD
When you’re craving pasta or pizza, there’s no need to bake that frozen pie that’s been sitting in your freezer or stir up a box of KD. Bonterra Trattoria serves upscale Italian fare in a woodsy, softly-lit dining room that works well for both casual and fine dining. What locals love about this place is its dedication to traditional, classic dishes. Pulcinella is a contemporary, lively spot that is family-friendly but works for any occasion. Sink your teeth into made-to-order, Napoletana-style, foldable-crust pizzas cooked in their wood-burning oven, but if you prefer pasta you’re in good hands with their homemade pasta and sauces. Centini is a gem in the downtown core that works well for business dining and serves traditional, upscale Italian fare and seafood that’s flown in twice per day.
BEST JAPANESE FOOD
The dining room at Ki Modern is elegant enough for a business deal or special occasion, but the approachable and authentic food and reasonable prices make it loved by everyone. They also have their own sake sommelier who can help you pair the right variety with your meal. Goro and Gun is a casual, lively place with great happy hour pricing. They serve everything from ramen to sushi, including more unique dishes like a ramen burger and okonomiyaki. Over at Shokunin you can find exclusive sakes, yakitori (various chicken parts cooked over fire) and other authentic street food-inspired dishes in a small, lively setting.
BEST USE OF LOCAL/REGIONAL INGREDIENTS
For a true taste of Calgary and of Canada, opt to visit a place which sources local ingredients. This practice has become much more common in Calgary, though there are some pioneers who have set the bar for fresh and local. “River Café continues to inspire others in the industry to challenge their use of local ingredients, with chef Matthias Fong drawing on a broad range of techniques to bring the best of Alberta to the table,” says Julie Van Rosendaal. With a garden right outside in its backyard, Rouge takes the concept of “local” to a new level while sourcing the rest of their ingredients from nearby farms and local suppliers. While a brasserie is typically associated with French cooking, Brasserie Kensington has given their menu a Canadian twist by using locally-sourced ingredients in its dishes.
BEST MEXICAN/LATIN FOOD
Native Tongues Taqueria has moved beyond salsa and chips with authentic, chef-driven Mexican food and drinks. Ordering five or six tacos de guisado — moist meat and/or vegetables in their soft, corn tortillas topped with homesmade salsa roja and salsa verde — is the norm here. Things are lively at Añejo with their delicious guacamole made fresh tableside, fruity margaritas, and daily (yep, even on the weekend) happy hour. Ox and Angela focuses on Spanish cuisine with a selection of tapas and cocktails that are perfect for sharing and inspire discussions as if you were on vacation.
Though Charbar’s menu isn’t limited specifically to seafood, they’ve earned a place in this category for bringing in unique ingredients and serving well-prepared dishes such as tableside ceviche, crispy fried squid, massive platters piled with raw shellfish and cooked seafood, and unusual daily specials. Catch & the Oyster Bar has long been the go-to for great seafood in Calgary, not only for its great food but for two distinct atmospheres: an elegant dining room upstairs and a lively bar downstairs. Whether you want a massive seafood platter, shucked oysters, or a refined meal, it’s all here. Rodney’s Oyster House combines maritime hospitality with the freshest oysters, lobsters, king crab, and more. “A dedicated restaurant for people who love seafood, Rodney’s is serious about its different variety of oysters and other shellfish and really educating guests about where their seafood is coming from,” Elizabeth Chorney-Booth says.
BEST FOR STEAK
Alberta is famous for amazing quality beef, and while it’s easy to serve a good steak here it’s very difficult to stand above all challengers and offer the best steak. Vintage Chophouse prides themselves on serving only the finest cuts of meat expertly grilled, and are willing to help identify the right cut and temperature that suits your tastes. “Beef at Modern Steak is pretty much as good as it gets” says John Gilchrist, noting “humanely raised, ranch-specific beef (Brant Lake, Pine Haven) that’s well-aged, and cooked on an infrared grill” as the reasons why. Can’t decide which cut to try? Get the filet trio for two for a true taste of Alberta. With 45 years of history in Calgary, Caesar’s Steakhouse has a well deserved following of loyal patrons, and it’s not just the customers — they’ve worked with the same meat supplier for more than four decades, and every steak is lovingly cut to order. This place is old school, and rightfully proud of it.
BEST VEGETARIAN FOOD
The Calgary restaurants that are doing vegetarian food well are the ones making it accessible, flavourful, and offering more than just salads so that even stern meat-eaters want in on it. The Coup has been a pioneer of vegetarian (and vegan) food in Calgary for 13 years and continues to be popular with all eaters for its variety of vegetarian twists on familiar dishes — you will forget why you ever needed to be reminded to eat your greens. The majority of the sharing-style menu at the chic Ten Foot Henry is vegetarian and vegetable-focused — rich, complex flavours are added to perfectly cooked vegetables in the form of homemade sauces. With vegan burritos, poutine, and burgers, you can eschew meat without sacrificing your favourite foods at Veg-In YYC. “Sehra Bindal’s energy and charm are infused in her Indian-influenced vegetarian cooking,” says John Gilchrist. “So much flavour, so much goodness, so little fuss.”
BEST FOR WINE
Whether you want to pair wine with a meal or relax over a glass on its own, thankfully there’s no shortage of restaurants in Calgary with a great wine list. Vin Room is a favourite for its casual, unpretentious room (perfect for catching up with a friend over a glass) and extensive list with expert staff who can help find a wine you’ll like (whether you know your favourite profiles or can’t tell a Malbec from a Cabernet Sauvignon). Connoisseurs who are looking for something really unique should visit Pigeonhole. “The list is short but carefully curated and ever changing so ordering a glass of wine at Pigeonhole often means a chance to try something new and unusual,” says Gwendolyn Richards. What do we mean by unique and unusual? For instance, they’re the only place in the city where you can try orange wine by the glass. Winebar Kensington lives up to its name with a space that reflects the idealized version of a wine bar. The dimly-lit, intimate space is perfect for a date night with a refined selection of wines to pair with cheese and charcuterie boards.
BEST NEW RESTAURANTS
The British invasion in Calgary’s restaurant industry has been a very welcome one. “From the time it opened, Whitehall has hit it out of the park with consistently delicious food that feels fancy and comforting at the same time,” says Elizabeth Chorney-Booth.
Whitehall’s chef, Neil McCue, hails from Barnsley in Yorkshire, England and first came to Calgary in 2000 as part of the opening team at Catch (page 53). In 2004 he returned to England, this time to Sussex where he earned and maintained one Michelin star at Curlew restaurant. Armed with the experience of cooking in a world-renowned restaurant, McCue returned to Calgary to open Whitehall, an approachable, contemporary British restaurant with a well-stocked gin bar.
Whitehall gives guests the opportunity to experience world-class food and service in a welcoming space that encompasses the British tradition of the meeting hall. McCue’s cooking technique and background add a refined, fine dining flair, but the overall experience is a casual one. “Whitehall is a meeting place about seasonality and approachability,” says McCue. “You can come have a relaxed bite, you don’t need to have a full meal.”
The seasonality of his food was inspired by his time cooking in England and by a changing trend McCue noticed in Calgary that is different from when he was last here in 2004. “There are a lot more people knowledgeable about food, because there are a lot more people writing about food,” says McCue, referring to blogs and social media. “It’s made people more aware about where their food comes from.”
McCue cooks similar dishes at Whitehall as he did back in Britain, but always with a local twist — such as the Wagyu strip loin. Made with Alberta beef, it’s a simple dish cooked to perfection thanks to McCue’s mastered techniques of grilling and roasting. “I get joy every time I cook it,” McCue says.
“Chef McCue’s double baked cheese soufflé became an instant classic for good reason and he’s successfully fighting the good fight to get Calgarians to enjoy mackerel, a fish that I didn’t think I liked until I tried it there” says Elizabeth Chorney-Booth. That cheese soufflé is the most popular dish and customers return for it time and time again. It’s a simple, traditional dish that McCue makes very well with proper cheeses and techniques.
“I can honestly say he has the raw talent that every young chef aspires to,” says Duncan Ly of Foreign Concept, who worked with McCue at Catch. “His cooking style is playful and innovative, he has a way of taking a simple dish and adding flare, but he would never sacrifice his standards on a single plate.”
Since open, Whitehall has added even more to love: a private dining room in the wine cellar, a new cocktail menu and bar bites, small plates for sharing, and minors are now allowed so the whole family can enjoy a meal together.
Co-owners Aja Lapointe and chef Steve Smee get our vote for opening an incredibly accessible vegetable-focused restaurant in a meat-centric city. Forget packaged salads and cold veggies, Ten Foot Henry serves up fresh, filling, inventive dishes including an addictive pasta dish bucatini cacao e pepe and tomatoes mixed with soft whipped feta on top of bread. There are a few meat options such as a hanger steak that will more than satisfy the discerning meat eaters.
“I love the option of sharing family-style and ordering a bunch of things that meat eaters and vegetarians can enjoy together,” says Elizabeth Chorney-Booth. “And even though a lot of the food is healthy it never feels like ‘health food.’”
“On a recent visit we tasted our way through a whole spread of interesting dishes before realizing there wasn’t a bite of meat on the table,” says Julie Van Rosendaal. Add in the Scandinavian-chic décor, attentive yet not-invasive service, and a well-rounded drink menu and you’ve got an exceptional dining experience.
The buzz around what would open in the historic sandstone building on Stephen Avenue was rewarded with The Guild, a sleek restaurant suited for the corporate downtown dining crowd. With a spacious interior and the largest patio in Calgary, there’s always room during the busy lunch hour and after-work happy hour.
“The food from chef Ryan O’Flynn is stellar,” says John Gilchrist. “Heavy on the meat, O’Flynn’s menu is a lush and luscious rendition of modern Canadian cuisine.” There’s something for everyone including staples such as a burger and a margherita pizza, but adventurous palates should try items such as the braised jacob’s ladder bison (fall-off-the-bone tender meat coated in a delicious maple and espresso sauce) or the steak tartare piled on a bone to mix with savoury bone marrow.
The whole experience is refined yet relaxed, perfect for business or pleasure. Rumour has it that if you explore around the lower level you’ll encounter a swanky speakeasy bar on Friday and Saturday nights.
BEST OVERALL RESTAURANTS
Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2016 is just one of the ways we know River Café has staying power and has long been a favourite of visitors and locals alike. “It continues to stay relevant due to its commitment to nurturing and supporting young chefs who do incredibly creative things with local ingredients,” says Elizabeth Chorney-Booth. “Ninety-five per cent of what Chef Matthias Fong brings into his kitchen is local — he uses sumac in place of citrus because lemons don’t grow in Western Canada — yet he still manages to put together one of the most delicious fine dining menus in the city.”
River Café has always been the epitome of fresh, local dining — even before those were menu buzzwords — and its enviable location in Prince’s Island Park allows guests to enjoy an impressive, unmatchable restaurant atmosphere. No matter what meal you enjoy here, or on what occasion you visit, we know you’ll love it — it’s comfortable and accessible for all diners, yet offers an extraordinary dining experience.
Located in a historic home, Rouge is an exceptional mainstay of Calgary’s dining scene, known for its backyard garden and perfect execution of fresh French-style cuisine. The menu changes with the season, reflecting a commitment to working with local farmers for the best ingredients. Whether you’re looking for a cozy, romantic meal for two or a lunch with friends, Rouge impresses and makes every guest feel special with its personalized, professional service and food that is both artful and flavourful.
Contemporary takes on traditional ethnic cuisine have been an emerging trend in Calgary, and Anju has done an exceptional job of it for nine years with chef Roy Oh’s versions of Korean dishes. Visit with a group so you can try as many sharing plates as possible — there isn’t a lackluster dish on the sizeable menu. Popular favourites include fried Brussels sprouts with a hint of maple syrup sweetness, crispy tofu with kimchi, and chicken wings — yes, chicken wings — in a spicy gochujang sauce. Pair everything with one of their exceptional cocktails or some soju and stay awhile. Anju is open until 1 am every night, which also means you don’t have to hunt for fast food when you crave a midnight snack.