All of the major high-rise buildings have plazas with inexpensive food courts and cafes—the perfect places for people watching. Local suits all have their own favorite haunts, but only two places really stand out to me as trying that little bit harder to be different and to please at the same time; both are owned by the same company. Sunterra Village Marché (Plus 15 Level, TransCanada Tower, 450 1st St. SW, 403/262-8240, Mon.–Fri. 6 a.m.–8 p.m.) is set up to represent a French streetscape, complete with a patisserie, carvery, salad counter, deli, wine bar, and juice joint. Sunterra Marché (Plus 15 Level, Bankers Hall, 855 2nd St. SW, 403/269-3610, Mon.–Fri. 6:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Sat. 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.) has a much smaller selection, but the same high quality of gourmet-to-go lunches.
At the entrance to Prince’s Island Park, Eau Claire Market has a large food court and several restaurants. In the food court, you’ll find a great seafood outlet, a bakery, Asian-food places such as the Thai Touch of Ginger (403/234-8550), and an outlet of the local coffee chain Good Earth Café (403/237-8684).
Outside the market’s western entrance is 1886 Buffalo Café (187 Barclay Pde. SW, 403/269-9255, Mon.–Fri. 6 a.m.–3 p.m., weekends 7 a.m.–3 p.m., breakfasts $9–14). Named for the year it was built, this restaurant oozes an authentic Old Calgary ambience. Inexpensive breakfasts attract the most interesting group of diners, but the place is busy all day.
Thomsons (112 Stephen Ave. Walk, 403/537-4449, daily 6:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m. and 5–9:30 p.m., $20–36) is in a historic sandstone building cleverly integrated with the modern Hyatt Regency, but it’s not aimed at the hotel crowd. First off, the buffet breakfast ($18) is as good as it gets, with omelets made to order and real maple syrup to douse your pancakes. The rest of the day, the menu is dominated by Canadian game and seafood. Maybe start with PEI mussels and bacon in traditional ale, then choose from something as Canadian as grilled arctic char or splurge on the Alberta beef tenderloin.
Walk north from Eau Claire Market to reach the River Café (Prince’s Island Park, 403/261-7670, Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Sat. and Sun. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., $24–49), a cozy, rustic dining room that will surprise you with some of Calgary’s finest cooking. More of a restaurant than a café, it features extensive use of produce and ingredients sourced from across Canada. Standouts include buffalo, Alberta beef, and salmon dishes, with the latter often incorporating maple syrup. Lunch mains range $17–24 (including a delicious smoked trout flatbread) while weekend brunch ranges $11–19.
Had a bad experience dining in a revolving restaurant? Haven’t we all. Hopefully your meal at the Sky 360 (101 9th Ave. SW, 403/508-5822, daily 11–2 a.m. and 5 a.m.–10 p.m., $22–42) atop the Calgary Tower will be memorable for more than the view. A full rotation takes one hour. Expect healthy, modern cooking that uses lots of Canadian produce, with lunchtime sandwiches, such as maple-smoked chicken with apple chutney, for under $20. The mushroom chowder is a good way to start, before moving on to mains such as a grilled pork chop that swims in a grainy mustard jus.
Yes, Calgary is a long way from the ocean, but it nonetheless has a few excellent seafood restaurants. Across the railway tracks from downtown are two of the best: Cannery Row (317 10th Ave. SW, 403/269-8889) and, directly upstairs, McQueens Upstairs (403/269-4722). Cannery Row is a casual affair, with an open kitchen, an oyster bar, and the ambience of a San Francisco seafood restaurant. Dishes such as grilled swordfish, jambalaya, and blackened snapper are mostly under $20. The menu at McQueens Upstairs is more sophisticated and varied. Dinner entrées start at $21 and rise to over $40 for fresh lobster. Both restaurants are open Monday–Friday for lunch and daily for dinner.
Within the Hyatt Regency building, the sophisticated ambience of Catch (100 Stephen Ave. Walk, 403/206-0000, Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m., Mon.–Sat. 5:30–9:30 p.m., $34–50) is as big an attraction as the menu of seasonal seafood that is flown in daily from both of Canada’s coasts. The main level is an oyster bar, where you can sample a variety of shucked oysters with an extensive choice of drinks, while more formal dining is upstairs in the main room.
In a city that has traditionally loved its beef, it should be no surprise that a Southern-style smokehouse is popular. One block off Stephen Avenue Walk, Palomino (109 7th Ave. SW, 403/532-1911, Mon.–Sat. for lunch and dinner, $17–24) fits the bill. The biggest change to a building that once held a furniture shop is a massive smoker capable of holding 300 kilograms (750 pounds) of meat at any one time. Forget about that diet and tuck into pork ribs ($17–24), giant Alberta beef ribs ($23), a “Fat Ass Platter” for four ($65), and, as the menu suggests, buy a round of drinks for the kitchen ($20). House wine choices range from “Cheap” to “Decent” and there are drink specials most nights.
Chinatown, along 2nd and 3rd Avenues east of Centre Street, naturally has the best assortment of Chinese restaurants. Hang Fung Restaurant (119 3rd Ave. SE, 403/269-4646, daily for lunch and dinner, $7–13), tucked behind a Chinese grocery store of the same name, doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. Chinese locals come here for simple inexpensive meals, mostly under $10. Just as inexpensive is Golden Inn Restaurant (107 2nd Ave. SE, 403/269-2211, daily from 4 p.m., $9–16), which is popular with the local Chinese as well as with professionals, and late-shift workers appreciate its long hours (open until 4 a.m.). The menu features mostly Cantonese-style deep-fried food.
Yuzuki Japanese Restaurant (510 9th Ave. SW, 403/261-7701, weekdays for lunch, daily for dinner, $13–19) is a good downtown eatery where the most expensive lunch item is the assorted sushi for $16, which comes with miso soup. More upscale is Sushi Hiro (727 5th Ave. SW, 403/233-0605, Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., Mon.–Sat. 5–11 p.m., $12–21). If you sit at the oak-and-green-marble sushi counter, you’ll be able to ask the chef what’s best.
Tucked away across the railway tracks from downtown is Thai Sa-On (351 10th Ave. SW, 403/264-3526, dinner nightly, $11–17), a small space that’s big on the tastes of Thailand. The menu offers a great variety of red and green curries, but I tried the red snapper—medium spiced, baked, and served whole—and couldn’t have been happier. The prices? For downtown dining, the food is ridiculously inexpensive, with a whole steamed fish with garlic-lime sauce costing just $16.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition