Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
EDMONTON, ALBERTA — Lino Oliveira has been running his restaurant in downtown Edmonton since 2008 and says he has never seen as many patrons as he has this fall. Sabor, which specializes in Mediterranean dishes and seafood, served more than 250 diners one weekend night in October, a culinary feat for a restaurant that seats about 120.
The change is stark and dramatic in a city whose downtown core has struggled for vitality. Those fortunes changed on September 8 — when Edmonton’s sensational $480-million arena opened — and the new-found wealth of customers, foot traffic and enthusiasm only appears to be beginning. On top of that good stuff is a first-place team. The Edmonton Oilers are lighting up the NHL and when their fans merrily depart Rogers Place, the team’s new home, they brighten the mood of Alberta’s capital city. These days, Edmonton indeed has many reasons to feel like a champion.
“We have been packed on game nights. I’ve never seen anything like it. We almost couldn’t keep up,” Oliveira says of one of the early days in the 2016-17 Oilers’ season. “There were 20,000 people walking by on game night, heading to the arena. They stopped traffic on the street, so everyone was on foot. It was something else to see. We are busier than we’ve ever been.”
Oliveira and his business partner, Christian Mena, a singer who has appeared in “Rent” on Broadway, were culinary pioneers, launching Sabor at a time when few people were willing to invest in the city’s downtown. While there had been discussion for years about relocating the Oilers from the north side, about 10 kilometres (6.5 miles) away from downtown, to the heart of Edmonton, no small-business owner could ever bank on the shift ever occurring. Entrepreneurs like Oliveira and Mena saw value and opportunity in buildings rich with history and character, never anticipating the fortune of what a new arena might bring.
“We loved the space. That’s why we bought it,” Mena says of the decision to locate Sabor in a spacious spot on 103 Street Northwest, now about a five-minute walk to an Oilers’ game. “It was luck really. There was no way of knowing eight years ago an arena would come in. At the time, there was the financial crisis and we were able to get a better price on the place because of it.”
The risk was nearly costly. Oliveira, who had spent 14 years cooking in Portugal before returning to Edmonton to launch Sabor, was serving family-style meals in 2008, well before such share plates were ubiquitous in North American cities. The concept didn’t appeal to some customers, Oliveira says, and Sabor faced financial difficulty.
“We weren’t sure if we were going to make it,” the chef admits. “Whether we could pay the bills or not became a month-to-month situation. I began to bend on my menu style. I would put steak frites on the menu. We added some pasta dishes. It worked. It got us to where we are today.”
Sabor has now expanded, opening a very good sister restaurant, Bodega, in Edmonton’s Highlands neighbourhood, a residential area known for its large homes. Meanwhile, downtown is filling up with people and businesses, including more places to eat. Daniel Costa, one of the city’s most well-regarded culinary talents, recently launched a third establishment on Jasper Avenue, one of Edmonton’s main thoroughfares. Uccellino is a vibrant, contemporary Italian restaurant that wouldn’t look out of place in Toronto’s hip West Queen West district. It is a casual option to Costa’s high-end Corso 32, which is two doors down, and next to his other restaurant on the block, the popular Bar Bricco.
While Costa’s businesses and Sabor are getting more attention, the street with the most activity before an Oilers’ game is destined to be 104 Street, which is across from the arena. Rostizado, a Mexican restaurant, has launched an $18 burrito-and-beer special for fans marching toward the gates. There’s also a $12 take-out option at the restaurant’s burrito stand, which it calls La Mision.
Daniel Braun, one of the co-owners of Rostizado and its sister restaurant, Tres Canales, says the changes in Edmonton’s downtown have been taking place for several years and calls the opening of Rogers Place “the cherry on top of the cake” of that progress.
“We’ve been one of those businesses that have been committed to bringing the spark back to downtown. I think the change that’s taking place started reaching critical mass six or seven years ago, when people just really wanted something fresh and different in where they live and what they can eat,” says Braun, who is of German and Mexican descent. He moved from Mexico, where he was working in the restaurant industry, to Edmonton in 2001 after marrying a Canadian woman. When once he needed to get into his car to dine out or go on a shopping trip, his life “is now in a six-block radius and I don’t drive hardly anymore.”
Braun anticipates the dynamic of downtown life only becoming more exciting.
“It’s palpable the energy that’s building up,” he says. “In two to three years, you can see we will have the downtown Edmonton always wanted.”
Oliveira agrees, citing new condo developments and art galleries for injecting more life into the city’s core.
“The revitalization of the downtown is what I think has been the real key,” Oliveira says about changes that helped facilitate the relocation of the Oilers to the heart of Edmonton. “More people are here and more people are choosing to live here.”
The population shift is expected to increase rapidly in the coming years. Rogers Place is only the beginning of an ambitious 25-acre plan called the Ice District, which will include public sports facilities and an entertainment complex, as well as a JW Marriott hotel and a 67-storey office tower that will be the tallest in Canada outside of Toronto. The Ice District promises to be the main anchor that pulls residents and visitors back to downtown, seizing them away from the massive West Edmonton Mall, which features a mind-boggling 3.8 million square feet of retail space and more than 20,000 parking spots. The largest shopping mall in North America is a 20-minute drive from Rogers Place and a generation away from what is now relevant to consumers and travellers. Several people I spoke to during my visit to Edmonton cited the mall, which opened in 1981, as the reason for the sinking of the city’s downtown. All of a sudden, though, like the hockey team that calls it home, Edmonton is on the rise again — in a big way. No other city in Canada is currently going through a build up such as Edmonton and when it’s complete the Ice District will be the catalyst that attracts more tourism business, including conferences and major sporting events, perhaps even a Winter Olympics.
“I’ve lived in Edmonton my whole life and the city has never had this kind of buzz,” says Tim Shipton, the vice president of communications for the Oilers Entertainment Group, owners of Rogers Place and the land on which the Ice District will be built. “We are in the midst of transforming the downtown of the city for the better and that’s very exciting to be a part of.”
MORE ABOUT VISITING ROGERS PLACE
Location: 10220 104 Ave NW, Edmonton, AB (see map below)
Seating: The arena has 18,347 seats, including access to an in-stadium sports bar and four-person high-top table seats ideal for small-business owners or casual group outings.
Notable: The 45-foot-by-45-foot scoreboard is the largest in either the NHL or NBA. The concourse area, called the Ford Hall, is huge and includes a beer garden, allowing fans to congregate inside rather than keeping them in the cold. The gates and security check take place deep inside Ford Hall, not on the street level.
Oilers Tickets: The team sold all 15,000 of its season tickets in May and other tickets to its 2016-17 home games are difficult to come by. Online resellers are where most fans will have to turn to in order to purchase tickets.