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Eclectic art work and tables at Rain Dog Bar in Calgary, Alta., on Oct. 29, 2020.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

  • Rain Dog Bar
  • Location: 1214 9 Ave S.E., Calgary
  • Phone: 403-457-7263
  • Website: raindogbar.com
  • Price: $6-21
  • Cuisine: European with a central European lean
  • Atmosphere: Casual, fun and lively
  • Drinks on offer: Primarily beer, some wine and canned cocktails
  • Best bets: Pretzels, boxty, braised chicken wings, braised onion, sweet apple butter rolls
  • Vegetarian friendly? Yes.
  • Additional information: Open for dinner only, closed Sundays.

With the restaurant industry being hit exceptionally hard during the pandemic, we’ve seen few eateries of note open up since last winter. What a treat, then, that a slightly eccentric concept such as Rain Dog Bar came into our lives back in February.

Named after Tom Waits’s 1985 album Rain Dogs, this beer-centric concept is the brainchild of proprietor Bil Bonar and located right above Gorilla Whale on 9th Avenue S.E. in the heart of Inglewood. Enter through an unassuming doorway, head up a steep flight of stairs and you’ll arrive in the humble bar space accented with vintage odds and ends. A typewriter here, a pile of decades-old books there, an old and tarnished mirror ... it’s an undeniably quirky, cozy room.

Well, as “cozy” as cozy can be these days, I suppose.

The unassuming door into Rain Dog Bar.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Even the bar’s menu – Coron-icles: Boring Pages By Boring People For Boring Times – is unique and playfully reads like a zine created by an angsty 1990s high-school student on a basic word-processing program. This, coupled with the individualistic decor, helps set the tone for you as a diner and suggests that you’re in for a memorable experience.

Mr. Bonar is no stranger to both the city’s restaurant scene and its craft beer scene. Years ago he became Alberta’s first certified cicerone – the beer equivalent of a sommelier – and even before then had been touting craft beer. Truly an Albertan trailblazer in that sense, it’s no wonder that his bar has a laser focus on beer.

Rain Dog boasts more than 60 types of beer (and some cider) available primarily by bottle or can with four ever-changing draft options. Though there are plenty of local beers to choose from, such as Annex Ales and Born Colorado, true beer aficionados will likely applaud Mr. Bonar’s more global approach to his offerings. Beer novices needn’t shy away from the uncommon brews found here as Mr. Bonar and his wife, Mel – the two generally run the dining room in tandem – offer suggestions without pretension.

After three visits to this beer-forward establishment (one prepandemic and two post), I feel confident in saying that the food created by chef Chris Lorenz is consistently delectable. It’s evident that his menu is carefully crafted around the types of beer one can drink during dinner, much as a winery restaurant’s food is meant to complement its wines.

Salty, pillowy and lightly buttered, it’s hard not to immediately fall in love with Mr. Lorenz’s soft pretzels. Served with a warm beer cheese and slightly sweet grainy mustard, these may be the best pretzels in Alberta, save Zwick’s in Edmonton. Then there’s the boxty, a generously sized Irish potato pancake. Cracking through its golden, crispy exterior gives way to a rich potato filling balanced out nicely by a cucumber, herb and sour cream salad.

Lorenz’s soft pretzels are served with a warm beer cheese and slightly sweet grainy mustard.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Equally indulgent and vegetable-forward is the beef-fat-roasted cauliflower with cheddar and sumac mayo – recently removed from the menu – and the Brussels sprouts “gratin” in which seared and halved sprouts are tossed in a mornay sauce and finished with garlic bread crumbs. The latter was explained to be a vegetable version of mac ‘n’ cheese. Whatever the reasoning, the results are rewarding and notably comforting on a snowy fall night.

A mainstay on Rain Dog’s menu since Day 1 has been its braised onion. Pork confit is stuffed into a (somewhat) hollowed onion and braised in a local scotch ale. The big, tender pork meatball wrapped in onion, served warm with a ladling of its braising liquid, transports me overseas to central Europe. It’s something you might see on a beer hall menu in Prague, for instance.

At least we can travel through food these days, right?

When restaurants are sans-pastry chef, dessert is often an afterthought, but such is not the case here. The Rain Dog “chocolate bar” presents itself as a compact, dark-chocolate-covered version of carrot cake and was spooned away by my friends and I without hesitation, almost as though we hadn’t just eaten a lavish smattering of savoury dishes.

Brussel sprouts and the braised onion with one of their many house beers.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

To cap off an early dinner on a more recent visit, the sweet apple butter rolls seemed fitting for the season. Two apple-stuffed, house-made dinner rolls arrive slightly warmed sitting in a pool of dulce de leche with a scoop of vanilla ice cream nestled alongside. A relatively simple dessert component-wise, but a rewarding one bite-after-bite. If these buns were available to order by the dozen, I wouldn’t hesitate to stock myself up at home.

Even though I don’t fancy myself a beer connoisseur, it’s hard not to be charmed with what Rain Dog has to offer. There is no place in Western Canada quite like it and that’s what will keep me coming back.

As we leave and descend the stairs, we see some wise words on the wall from Tom Waits: “If you want to go where the rainbows end, you have to say goodbye.”

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