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Calgary: local specialties, must-try dishes?

Visiting Calgary soon and am wondering if there are any local specialties or must-try dishes I should make a point of having, or even restaurants that are considered Calgary institutions.

I'm not necessarily looking for the fanciest food Calgary has to offer, but more of what's truly a local flavour.

Thanks very much!

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  1. Calgary is a new city that is mostly bereft of "traditions." Yes, there are ranches that raise great beef here, but "beef" is an ingredient, not a dish or a cuisine. We have some nice steakhouses but so does Toronto. I remember seeing some nonsense in a travel guide about how Calgary had a specialty called a "beef dip," an ephemeral sandwich that I have never, ever seen on a menu here. This isn't Baltimore and we don't have crab cakes.

    Institutions? It's hard to have "institutions" in a city that was, fifty years ago, a bump on the prairie barely larger than Regina is now. I'm not saying this to mock you at all, but people come here expecting Calgary to compare favourably, or challenging it to compare favourably, with cities like Montreal that have had head starts that we can measure in centuries. Even people who live here cannot understand this, it seems.

    That said, there are many great restaurants here, a good range of ethnic cuisines (Calgary is at about the same point, demographically speaking, as was Toronto in 1991, on the verge of becoming one of the most multicultural cities in the world and already the third most diverse in Canada), and lots of money to support a burgeoning, bulging cultural scene (and that includes restaurants). Now, there aren't many ethnic cuisines that are BETTER in Calgary than in TO, but I must say that one among those "not many" is sushi. Should you come here just for the sushi? No, of course not, but since you're visiting you might as well check some of it out. There is a huge thread on "sushi in the YYC" on this board, check it out.

    There are several restos that are venerable (by Calgary standards, which is any place more than 10 years old) and that do an excellent job of locally sourcing, as much as possible; if there is one can't miss resto in Calgary I'd have to say it would be River Cafe, for food, setting and ambience. There are many other high-end standouts here, not necessarily "institutions" but very well-respected: Capo, Il Sogno, Belvedere, Divino, Teatro, Centini, Muse, Brava Bistro, and many others.

    We have some very nice markets here, among which the Calgary Farmers' Market at Currie Barracks is a standout (with a superb "food court" comprising all sorts of unique options as well as Phil and Sebastian, the subject of a profile in the Globe and Mail recently and one of the best coffeehouses in Canada); funkier but still beloved is Crossroads Market which is not far from the delights of the Inglewood neighbourhood (this is Calgary's Leslieville, with lots of funky stuff and a couple of very adored restos), and a place I never saw like any in Toronto called Lina's Italian Market, in the neighbourhood due north of DT called Tuxedo and one that is rapidly becoming a sort of Chinatown North. Lina's is as big as a small Safeway and has an epic packaged food selection, superb cheese and deli, bakery, and the most amazing tavola calda-- my favourite Italian resto in Calgary is that cafeteria...

    I sound like a broken record but Calgary is becoming a superb centre for third-wave coffee; compared to Toronto and pace Manic and its ilk, Calgary punches above its weight for coffee and it's moving from strength to strength. We recently saw the opening of the first Caffe Artigiano outside of Vancouver and it's been a huge success, but there are others raising the bar. I review these in my blog (link at my profile here).

    Sorry for the disjointed narrative here but I'm trying to type with one eye on the Flames-SJ game six!

    Have a great visit!

    10 Replies
    1. re: John Manzo

      Well, not sure if you were inciting us to respond, John, but I tend to disagree. We don't have as much tradition due to our youth as compared to 400 year old Quebec City, but that doesn't mean we have no traditions. But then compare us to Halifax. It's old and you don't have a lot of choices.

      Caesar's Steakhouse is, in fact, a Calgary tradition. As is the dining room at the Palliser Hotel. Although they are private clubs, the Glencoe and the Country Club are steeped in history. On the other hand, the now Pulcinella was Stromboli's and was a landmark. As for beef dip, where have you been my boy? It is on every second menu! Not the fancy dancy nouveau restos but at the everyday dining spots.

      Bridgeland has Italian history going back to the 30's and Chinatown? What about Chinatown?

      Some of our landmarks have retired -like Mama's or the breakfast streetcar on the west side of town (can't even remember the name now) where everyone stopped for breakfast on the way to skiing.

      And there a lots of other spots that just don't happen to be on the radar because they are no longer considered fashionable but have been with us through thick and thin.

      1. re: sarah galvin

        Okay, uncle, uncle, we have traditions, sort of. I wrote about a lot of other stuff too. But I have to ask- where are these beef dips?

        1. re: John Manzo

          Where aren't they? Moxies, pubs, Victoria's (if it is still open), Pasquales, honestly, it is so common I can't think. It can be a lunch special at other places. Usually any place you can get a burger, I'd say.

          1. re: John Manzo

            The Delta at Kananaskis has a huge and killer beef dip btw; real au jus, not the oversalted bouillon stuff.

            Sunday brunch at the Palliser is a tradition with many families, and don't forget Peter's Drive In.

            The Silver Inn offers local flavor -- reputedly the inventors of Ginger Beef in 1974.

            1. re: John Manzo

              I'm a big fan of the beef dip at the Bear and Kilt, in particular.

              1. re: John Manzo

                There are beef dip on menus all over Calgary. Google this: Calgary "Beef Dip" menu to find several examples. Cheers.

              1. re: phoenikia

                No, they don't. It ended when 'The' Chef left to start Capo.

            2. There are a few things that stand out for me:

              Ginger beef - this is a Chinese derived dish that originated here. It is offered at basically every Chinese restaurant here now. You should try it out. It's lightly breaded, shredded beef in a spicy, sweet sauce. The dish originated at the "Peking Ginger Beef" restaurant, but I'm not a big fan of that place. Try Silver Dragon downtown.

              Korean Bulgogi - Bulgogi made with Alberta beef is simply the best. Try out Korean BBQ Seoul on Macleod Trail. Make sure to try both bulgogi and kalbi.

              Kicking Horse coffee - go to Bumpy's or Diner Deluxe (I think) and try some. Great locally made coffee.

              The Caesar - yes, that drink was invented here. Lots of places offer it. I'm horribly allergic to mollusks so I can't give you any specific recommendations here.

              And go to River Cafe. I insist.

              11 Replies
              1. re: Shazam

                Bumpy's doesn't use Kicking Horse, unless there has been significant changes since I was last there this winter. Maybe you're thinking of Big Mountain? That one's local, Kicking Horse is almost local being from Invermere, but I wouldn't go out of my way to try it when there are much better coffees around town.

                1. re: peter.v

                  Bumpy's ABSOLUTELY does not use Kicking Horse! I don't know of any decent espresso bars that do. Bumpy's uses 49th Parallel from Vancouver and Big Mountain, which is indeed local. KH is not even local.

                  1. re: peter.v

                    Kicking Horse is sold at the Husky gas station in Sundance, don't know if all Huskys sell it or if its specific to that location.

                    1. re: cdn

                      Couldn't remember for the life of me where it was served. I thought my guess would arouse some comments. And Invermere's close enough :)

                      And yeah, try Big Mountain as well. I've been on a major coffee tasting tour at work and I'm getting totally confused.

                      1. re: Shazam

                        KH roasts dark, REALLY dark, as does Oso Negro but it's much easier to find fresh beans from Oso Negro (they're in Nelson) since they clearly put roast dates on bags- KH doesn't, at least not without some inscrutable code that I can't figure out, and their bags sit on supermarket shelves for months. IMHO they should not keep whole-bean coffee on the shelf for more than a month post-roast, which is the standard they use at Phil and Sebastian.

                        1. re: John Manzo

                          Yes, I purchase Oso Negro occasionally. I am aware of the differences between these brands.

                  2. re: Shazam

                    In fact the Caesar cocktail was invented by the chef who was working in the restaurant where Wild Ginger is located now. Just across from the Westin.

                    1. re: knifeguy

                      The Caesar was invented by bartender Walter Chell at the Owl's Nest Bar in the Calgary Inn (now Calgary Westin Hotel) in 1969, to celebrate the opening of Marco's, the hotel's new Italian restaurant at the time.

                    2. re: Shazam

                      Due to recs from this board, (and because I was working late and nothing else was open) I tried Calgary's famous ginger beef at Silver Dragon. For what it's worth, I'm a Chinese guy from Toronto, and in my opinion, ginger beef is definitely not something that most Chinese people would enjoy. I even asked the waiter if it's something that's more suited for the western palate, and he said I should still try it. I couldn't eat more than a few pieces. On the other hand, their pea sprouts stir fried with garlic was fresh and flavourful.

                      Any other chinese people here that would either agree or disagree with me?

                      1. re: Crispier Crouton

                        I know "chinese" people who adore ginger beef- why would "chinese" people not like it? I see "chinese" people scarfing down Wendy's and Tim Horton's every day. If what you're saying is that somebody looking for authentic Chinese wouldn't be looking for ginger beef, then of course not. This should be obvious: ginger beef is a Western Canadian- specifically a Calgary- invention. It's vernacular Chinese, like chicken balls with sweet and sour sauce that every Toronto Chinese "ho-lee-chow" style takeout does. Nobody would ever claim that it's authentic Chinese!

                      2. re: Shazam

                        A gal writing about Chinese food on About-com claims that ginger beef is Albertan in origin and barely exists anywhere else. Not true. Ginger beef appears on virtually every Chinese restaurant menu in Regina, and has for dozens of years. Like a lot of the people in Calgary, ginger beef is probably a ex-pat of the city that rhymes with fun.

                      3. I'm not necessarily looking for the fanciest food Calgary has to offer, but more of what's truly a local flavour.
                        I'm not to sure if these constitute local flavour, but local landmarks forsure.....
                        Peters Drive In
                        The Ship and Anchor
                        Nicks Steak House
                        Spiros Pizza
                        Ranchmans Country Bar
                        The Ranch in Fish Creek
                        The Dean House and Historical Site
                        Spolumbos
                        Smugglers
                        Melrose for Flames Games
                        Kanes Harley Diner
                        Calgary Golf and Country Club
                        Glenmorgan Bakery Cheese Buns
                        Heritage Park

                        Just off the top of my head.....

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: cdn

                          Yep, we used to go to Nick's when we were in university for our "fancy night out", haha.

                          I second Smuggler's for a big slab of Prime Rib.

                          1. re: cdn

                            That's a good list! I forgot about Nick's and Peter's. And Smuggler's is iconic.

                            1. re: sarah galvin

                              Thanks, but I wanted to add one more, Korusous(sp). I'm not to sure if its still in operation. I just remember going there a lot as a little girl and while growing up. My dad was a good friend of the owner, I think they went to high school together. After Mr. Korusou(sp) passed away it wasn't quite the same and we stopped going. They had Calgarys BEST pizza hands down.

                              1. re: cdn

                                I think it is spelled Karouso's. I have never been there.

                                1. re: sarah galvin

                                  Karouso's was sold got a face lift and became Titan's the food changed some. Now they have been closed for a long time due to some sort of flooding issues. I think they're probably just having problems with the insurance contractors. I can relate.

                                2. re: cdn

                                  hands down!?!?!? not even CLOSE.... even if your entire idea of pizza is limited to the greek bart style. i used to live just down the street and have had their pizza many times. it was passable greek bar pie, but pretty meh IMO. (things have also changed since it was sold and renamed Titan's). Stavros, just up the street a few blocks, makes better pie, AND if you go on half price wednesdays, it's a FAR better deal.

                              2. re: cdn

                                Oh, I completely agree with those cheese buns. So good!

                                1. re: cdn

                                  Just an addition to your list...

                                  Salt and Pepper - A nice little mexican restaurant
                                  Red Water - Great seafood
                                  Log Barn 1912 - Best pies I have ever had, very unique.
                                  Murrieta's - Italian, Seafood, nice wine selection

                                  ChowKungPow

                                2. Prairie Oysters;) Buzzard's serves them during Stampede.

                                  Second Ginger Beef- I actually crave it once in a while and it's (almost) impossible to find in Ontario.

                                  Also would suggest the Greek dry ribs- every bar in Calgary seemed to offer them, but they seem to be a rarity east of Regina!

                                  I miss the old Tullamore (circa 1999-2001), still haven't found an Irish pub that compares what the Tullamore used to be. Not sure if the original owner is still running an establishment in Inglewood.

                                  I started my 3 year stay in Calgary with a Beef Dip at the Moxie's at Market Mall, and ended it with a visit to Original Joe's in Kensington.

                                  Nellie's also seemed like a Calgary institution to me. Although I realize some of their food hasn't been received as chowworthy, I did like their huevos rancheros and the fact they served perogies with some of their breakfasts. Humpty's also has perogies available as a side, but the last breakfast I had at Humpty's was downright regrettable.

                                  Also, the Pfanntastic Pannenkoek House. I realize there's also something similar in Vancouver, but I'm not aware of any other cities that serve Dutch pancakes in Canada. http://www.pfanntasticpannekoek.com/c...

                                  Peanut butter/miniature marshmallow squares, and puffed wheat/chocolate squares seem much more common in Calgary coffee shops than other parts of the country.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: phoenikia

                                    Pilot Tavern in Yorkville (TO) has amazing ginger beef but only as an appie, not with rice etc, more like chicken wings which I think is a great way to serve it, as finger food.

                                    1. re: John Manzo

                                      Thanks- corrected my post.
                                      Will have to check it out...haven't been to the Pilot in over a decade!

                                    2. re: phoenikia

                                      Kelowna actually has a good dutch pancake place as well, De Dutch it's called. It's a BC franchise, with one in Edmonton apparently as well. I think I preferred that over PPH here in Calgary, but the difference (from what I recall) was DD served your eggs and stuff on top of the pancake, and PPH served it mixed in. Maybe my memory is just bad haha.

                                    3. I forgot to mention King's aka Wonton King, the best Wor Wonton Soup in Calgary.