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the dish

The Pigeonhole was opened by Vancouver native and executive chef Justin Leboe, who says Calgary’s dining scene ‘reminds me of Vancouver 15 or 20 years ago … it’s all hustle and bustle, everything is new, the city is full of passion.’jeNNIFER ROBERTS

At Calgary's award-winning Pigeonhole restaurant, thick wedges of urban-backyard-garden-grown cabbage are charred over Japanese hibachis and served on antique English porcelain plates. Crumpets are buttered with dried shrimp and roasted seaweed. Martinis are steeped with Earl Grey tea. Half the menu is vegetarian – in Cowtown.

"Defying expectations is a tasty business," enRoute's Andrew Braithwaite wrote of the genre-bending wine and snack bar, which was named the best new restaurant in Canada by the magazine last week.

The same could be said for the larger Calgary restaurant scene, which is flourishing despite the ups and downs of oil and gas prices.

Over the past five years or so, the city has exploded into an exciting culinary centre that refuses to be pigeonholed by convention or defeated during downturns.

"It reminds me of Vancouver 15 or 20 years ago," says Pigeonhole owner and executive chef Justin Leboe, who was born and raised in Vancouver. "It's the same spirit – it's all hustle and bustle, everything is new, the city is full of passion."

In Calgary's downtown commercial core, for instance, the office towers might be emptying out, but the street-level restaurants are still ramping up.

Earls Kitchen + Bar recently announced it will be closing its Bankers Hall location on 8th Avenue this January, only to reopen in July after pouring $6-million into the prototype for a new concept that promises to change the look, feel and taste of the entire, North American-wide, 67-store chain.

"Calgary is a young, culturally vibrant, cosmopolitan city where people are more willing to try new things," Earls president Mo Jessa says.

Although he isn't ready to reveal many details about the prototype, he says the concept is geared toward the larger, long-term trend of urbanization and the way people cook – or don't – at home.

Calgary, flush with high-rise condominium developments in its rapidly densifying Centre City neighbourhoods, is a perfectly positioned test market, he adds.

Meanwhile, Cactus Club Café, fresh off its first Toronto opening, is returning to Calgary to launch a downtown location on Stephen Avenue before the end of the month.

And Teatro Group, which pretty much incubated the whole inner-city fine-dining scene when there was little else available, continues to expand. Al Forno, a new casual bakery and café opening soon in Eau Claire, will serve all seven of the group's restaurants as a hub for its in-house baking program.

"There will always be opportunities outside of oil and gas," says Karen Kho, Teatro Group's service director. "Our guests are here to socialize. That's the heartbeat of any food culture, as opposed to who's paying the bill."

While the economic downturn is certainly taking a bite out of corporate dining accounts, it hasn't devastated them.

"Our weekly sales are great, we're happy," says Neil Aisenstat, president of Hy's of Canada, which opened an $8-million, 250-seat restaurant on Stephen Avenue in January. "The business dinners and holiday parties may not be as elaborate as before, but they're still happening.

"Calgarians have been through these cycles before," he adds. "When the initial stuff hits, they cut back quite a bit. But it's settling in. This isn't the end of the world. The oil will always be there."

It's not just the chain restaurants that are investing in Calgary. In East Village, Beltline, Inglewood and beyond, creative independents are filling in neighbourhood nooks with cool new concepts.

Mr. Leboe points to Whitehall, a family-style eatery that was opened this week in Bridgeland by Neil McCue, a British chef whose résumé includes two single-star Michelin-awarded restaurants. And Shokunin, an upcoming Japanese izakaya owned by chef-activist Darren MacLean of Downtownfood, the first restaurant in Calgary to plant a rooftop garden equipped with two beehives. Or Native Tongues, a charcoal-grill taqueria that nixtamalizes its own heirloom, non-GMO, single-origin landrace corn every day for fresh masa.

"I think what we're seeing is a generational shift," Mr. Leboe says, pointing out that Calgary is a young city, where the median age is 36. (And given that the city's largest age group is 24 to 29, its population will remain young for a while.)

"We're the first generation that has grown up in a huge cultural mosaic," he explains. "And here in Calgary, we didn't have any big culinary superstars telling us how things should be done."

Mr. Leboe doesn't deny the impact of oil and gas on the city's cultural and culinary growth.

"People came to Calgary because it was booming. And it was oil and gas that fuelled our growth. But this [the rapid restaurant growth] isn't just some quirk because we had money and discovered food. We're in the midst of something bigger."

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