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The Globe and Mail

At The Guild in Alberta, the chef’s talents are constrained

Braised Jacob's Ladder Bison with Saskatoon-style wild rice, prairie corn and pickled leeks

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

1.5 out of 4 stars

The Guild
200 8 Ave. SW, Calgary, Alberta
Chophouse with an Albertan regional focus
Cocktails, draft beer, but minimal craft options and an average wine selection
Typical downtown restaurant with a mix of the after-work crowd, friends’ night out, and business meeting diners
Smoked devilled eggs, Chuck burger, West Coast octopus
Additional Info
A lower level section called Sub Rosa is a speakeasy-inspired nightclub for drinking cocktails and dancing after dinner

The downtown Hudson Bay store's resident restaurant, The Guild, bills itself as "a different beast." It certainly is a beast – with several areas that bring its capacity to more than 400 – but when it comes to the food, in some ways, the beast feels chained up.

The Guild is the first endeavour outside Ontario for the celebrity-chef-driven Oliver and Bonacini Restaurants. It has been years in the making, announced in 2013 and scheduled to open the next year. It finally did this past summer.

Before dining at The Guild, I'd had the opportunity to taste executive chef Ryan O'Flynn's food twice. First in 2015, when he took home gold in the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna, B.C., with a beautifully constructed plate of a smoked sturgeon and foie gras terrine, Okanagan apples, earthy morels from the Northwest Territories and toasted brioche. Then there was the time Mr. O'Flynn won the third annual Ocean Wise Chowder Chowdown in Calgary with a chowder brimming with chunks of smoked sturgeon and foraged ingredients like sea buckthorn berries.

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With memories of those memorable, imaginative dishes in mind, I was somewhat dumbfounded by the food at The Guild.

Where to begin. There were the boiled beets – tossed on a plate and topped with some goat cheese and ricotta with hardly any seasoning whatsoever. After a few dubious bites and a send-back to the kitchen, the dish was replaced by the restaurant's namesake salad. Arguably oversalted, the mix of greens, fingerling potatoes, green beans and goat cheese was a vast improvement over the initial choice.

On a separate occasion over the lunch hour, their Cobb salad – a hot mess (figuratively) of pulled chicken, avocado, cucumber, bacon and eggs – was rendered inedible due to saltiness.

Instead, unleash the troglodyte inside you and try out the steak tartare and bone marrow mash-up. It's topped with fried shallots, nestled on an alarmingly large bed of salt and served with flimsy triangles of bannock. This interpretation of bannock is comparable to warm pita bread, so save the slight crunch from the shallots, texturally it was soft on soft on soft.

This same bannock is also used as a base for their flatbreads, which seems out of place given The Guild's concept focus. We tried it anyway, and my friend put it best when she likened it to your mother making you a "pizza" at home with store-bought whole-wheat tortillas from a quick-and-easy recipe she saw in Canadian Living circa 1997. It just doesn't work.

One of the more prominent odes to Alberta is Mr. O'Flynn's braised bison shank, which was definitely one of the more palatable dishes during my visits. Underneath the meaty cut is a pilaf of sorts made up of wild rice and fibrous Saskatoon berries. It is good enough.

The line-up of cocktails curated by The Guild's barkeeps is even more disappointing than anything edible. From the "Funky Beets," an unbalanced combination of Aperol, vodka, lemon and beet juice, to an overly sweet whisky lemonade garnished with an unnecessary six-inch rosemary sprig, one has to wonder what exactly is happening behind the bar. The latter of the two rings in at a whopping $15, so I'd suggest making a later reservation and having pre-dinner cocktails at Klein/Harris down the road before heading here for a meal. Klein/Harris could certainly show the team here a thing or two.

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Well ... perhaps a craft beer then. Sadly, this Alberta-focused restaurant offers only a handful local brews and opts for choices like Peroni, Goose Island and Alexander Keith's instead. Strange.

Saving graces while eating at The Guild include, but are not limited to, the friendly service staff and their assistants who never want your water glass to get less than half full, the smoked devilled eggs, a visually impactful spin on paella made up of black barley, tender octopus, clams and samphire, and the ground-in-house chuck burger with cheddar and house-smoked mayonnaise.

I have never had this inclination before about an establishment, but I honestly believe that The Guild would be much better off with a less creative chef. In turn, if Mr. O'Flynn loves Alberta as much as he says, I am certain his star would shine brighter and his menu would be much more genuine if he was running the kitchen at an eatery that takes the idea of "regional Canadian cuisine" truly to heart. It seems foolish to keep a fiery beast chained up.

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