Calgary is back and riding high
Story by Adrian Brijbassi
CALGARY, ALBERTA — Calgary amazes me.
I’ve visited the city three times in the past 18 months and keep waiting for that moment when I can say, a-ha, this town and it’s people just aren’t as appealing as they first seemed.
Instead, this time, I explored further, investigated deeper, and returned with the same conclusion as I previously did: It is a city whose economic boom has led to a blossoming of culture that has created one of the most vibrant and enjoyable places to visit in North America.
I laugh here. It is so easy to get along with Calgarians and easy, too, to become bemused by their spirit. At a concert featuring members of the Electric Light Orchestra, audience members eschewed the rules that forbid dancing in the aisles and boogied like it was 1979 at the Jubilee Auditorium. The band members, grey-haired and showing their age, grinned broadly and appeared stunned by the display from a crowd of people mostly from their generation. I was awed, remembering concerts at venues in Vancouver and Toronto where people of much younger age showed no rebelliousness when told to sit down at shows with more energetic music.
At Muse, the enthusiasm continues. The decor at this Kensington Village restaurant is fun-loving even though the food prepared by chef JP Pedhirney is meticulously created and presented with artistic flair. It’s a pricey place to eat, with entrees starting at $36 and tasting menus ranging from $85 for five courses to $110 for eight. But it’s well loved and well trafficked, as Calgary’s business success has led to a high amount of discretionary cash in the hands of residents, thus allowing culinary talent like Pedhirney’s to flourish. [Read Vacay.ca’s feature on Muse.]
“Some people say there are more Americans living here than any other city outside of the US and maybe that’s why Calgary has such an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Stephen Deere, who was raised in Calgary and is a co-owner of the restaurant.
On the night I visited, Muse was packed, with jovial tables kicking back wine from a solid international selection and dining happily on Pedhirney’s cuisine, a mix of French and Italian flavours invigorated with contemporary elegance. The team at Muse embodies Calgary’s community-mindedness. They’re sharp, hard-working, quick with a grin, talented and genuinely gracious. It’s not at all a surprise that you will enjoy your meal here.
Similarly, Model Milk will give you an experience you’re not likely to find at most fine-dining restaurants. The Fish Tacos for Two ($52) feature a whole-roasted Chilean sea bass, served with a range of condiments — including sriracha and pickled jalapeño peppers — alongside house-made corn tortillas. I’m not a fan of build-your-own-food concepts because, well, that’s what diners pay the kitchen staff for, but this was awesome — and fun. Newly opened Market serves a deconstructed Chicken Pot Pie ($16) for lunch that shows comfort food can be whimsical, too, and Yellow Door Bistro at Hotel Arts is another fresh spot that joins this city’s incredibly hot dining scene.
Calgary Recovers from Flood
When you’re done eating, trek to the Calgary Zoo, which was devastated from the June flooding of the Bow River. It re-opened last month with a sobering display of posters that show the facts of the disaster, including $50 million in damage. The zoo is relying on — what else? — Calgary’s civic-mindedness to recover, calling for visitors and donations.
Something tells me the people of this city will step up. [Read “7 Reasons to Visit Calgary After the Flood”]
While the approximately 100,000 United States citizens in the metropolitan area of Calgary may be responsible for plenty of the city’s enterprising mentality, it is the character emanating from rural Alberta that I suspect is the pillar of Western Hospitality. Volunteers wearing the city’s famed white cowboy hats are on scene to greet you at the airport. They evoke the Stampede, but also the memory of how Calgary and southern Alberta rallied to support each other during the summer flood. The city is back, more confident than ever.
None of what I write is to suggest Canada’s third-largest municipality is without fault. As many frustrated Calgarians point out, the city of 1 million lacks great cultural festivals other than the annual Stampede, and while the culinary scene has emerged, Calgary is missing the quality of art and music to make it a rival to other metropolises. The mountain activities are farther away than they are in Vancouver and the nightlife is a distant trailer to what visitors will find in Montreal and Toronto.
For a down-to-earth good time and small-town friendliness in a big and safe city, though, Calgary rides high and alone on this continent.
My next visit will always be too far into the future.