Restaurants have had a tough go this year.
And through that, they have shown grit and resilience, creativity and the ability to continually pivot to meet ever-changing pandemic restrictions.
If 2020 has proven nothing, it’s that Calgary’s chefs and restaurateurs will go to great lengths to ensure we’re well fed — and safe, to boot.
I won’t pretend there haven’t been hardships. Razor-thin margins have forced closures and we have lost some beloved spots as a result.
But there has also been a lot to celebrate in Calgary’s dining scene over a rough time, from rebrands to new spots, fresh ventures and expansions.
Here are some excellent things to happen this year in the world of Calgary restaurants.
Old spaces, updated concepts:
This year has proven to be a time of change, and we saw that a few times over as restaurateurs shifted gears to breathe new life into old spaces. While that meant saying goodbye to some beloved spots, it’s also been a chance to find new favourites.
Brasserie Kensington made way for Eat Crow, a snacks-focused spot with uncomplicated fare and pub favourites boosted by chef-owner Cam Dobranski’s flair. Think wings, sausages and baby burgers, as well as vegetarian “ribs” and a creative vegetable “tartare.”
Over in Victoria Park, the Chinese-themed Two Penny closed its doors, only to open later with some Mediterranean flair as A1 Bodega Café — a combination corner store and restaurant. With a focus on charcuterie and shareable plates, the restaurant side of the equation is a great place to stop almost any time of day. On the store side, expect to find a small selection of produce and pantry ingredients, including housemade sauces, along with household goods, meal kits and offerings from sister restaurant Calcutta Cricket Club.
Two stellar chefs — both, coincidentally, originally from South Korea — are finally hanging their own shingles after years of showcasing their talents at other restaurants around town.
In the Beltline, Jenny Kang is helming the kitchen at Orchard, using her talents to blend the basics of Mediterranean dishes with Asian flavour finesses, such as a tiger prawn appetizer with yuzu in the aioli and duck with a Japanese dipping sauce. With cascades of chandeliers and a jungle of plants highlighting the soaring ceilings, it’s a place that is rich for all the senses.
Across the river, Top Chef Canada competitor — and a chef currently making appearances on Food Network Canada’s Wall of Chefs — Jinhee Lee has returned to the restaurant scene with her first solo spot, Jin Bar. Here Lee showcases her passion for Korean fried chicken and pizza, with a menu that boasts plenty of both.
When a thing is good, it makes sense to have more of it. That’s what Una Pizza and Wine is banking on with the opening of a second location off Old Banff Coach Road S.W. to join their stalwart spot on 17th Avenue S.W. (Plans are also afoot for a third version to open in Bridgeland.)
Two delicious offerings have come together in one spot with the recently opened combo Lil’ Empire Burger and Made by Marcus in Bridgeland. Is there a more quintessential pairing than burgers and ice cream? We think not.
Expanding horizons and permanent pivots:
The word for 2020 is “pivot.” And restaurants did so admirably, finding ways to continue serving their diners through takeout and delivery.
It also prompted some pie-in-the-sky ideas to become reality much sooner than maybe anticipated.
Such was the case for Shiki Menya, which, when forced to close their doors, turned to making their signature ramen into meal kits. Clearly, comfort food was in demand — in the early days of the offering, there were multiple website crashes and kits sold out within minutes of opening.
But, even when they were able to open again — at their new, more spacious location across the street — they have continued to offer kits for sale through their sister restaurant, First Avenue Corner Store, which is housed in the same building. Here, along with ramen kits and cocktail boxes for DIY drinks (Japanese whiskey and yuzu syrup!), you can grab tonkotsu sandwiches — fluffy white bread and crispy, deep-fried, panko-breaded pork — and takoyaki, among other offerings.
Proof Cocktail Bar also turned to boxed offerings through the lockdown — and continues to sell them off their website. But they also joined the canned cocktail craze by creating signature drinks in portable form, including the highly quaffable Gin Citrus Punch.
Through Una Takeaway, Calgarians have been getting a weekly gourmet donut fix. It started as a pet project for Una chef Kayle Burns and his wife — a secret donut club that quietly offered up the baked goods on Saturdays — but it has ballooned into a full-fledged “be on the website when sales go live or risk missing out” adventure. As one would expect, these are no standard chocolate glazed donuts, either. Burns has branched out with options like lemon meringue, chocolate malt and cinnamon toast crunch.
Meanwhile, the popular Pizza Face pop up, which had become a Sunday-night-only operation out of Von Der Fels starting last year, swapped the sabbath for daily pie offerings throughout the pandemic. And now it has found a permanent home at Community Natural Foods.
And if we can agree on one of the good things to arise from an otherwise downer of a year, it has to be that more access to amazing pizza, especially co-owner Tony Migliarese’s signature Mike’s Big Pickle, is very good news indeed.