Walking into Jonas Restaurant & Bar is like morphing back to simpler times. “Everything speaks of our life and home,” explains owner Janos Jonas.
Photos of his father and grandfather, both gypsy musicians, hang proudly on the walls and he is animated as he tells me the tale of his parents meeting in a café where his father was the cook and his mother the waitress. A mannequin dressed in traditional Hungarian garb stands in front of the kitchen, the tables are decked out in checked cloth, and a simple blackboard announces the daily specials with white chalk.
Jonas is one example of the many wonderful eateries that have that feel: you know, that blend of warm, slightly kitschy décor, charmingly familiar service and hearty family recipes that have been passed down through several generations. It’s a place where you can really feel at home.
For Jonas and his wife Rozsa and daughter Bianca, the restaurant is like a second home: they’ve run the small downtown family restaurant for the last seven years and it is their passion. With savoury stews generously seasoned with paprika, homemade dumplings (created daily by Rozsa), and hearty wines, this is comfort food at its best.
Though now a chain of three restaurants, I still find Broken Plate has a similar homey ambiance, with the sound of smashing porcelain on tile and cries of “Opa!” a regular occurrence in the busy dining room. On the weekends, the staff have been known to break out in zembetiko, a traditional Greek dance symbolizing freedom and happiness. A shot of ouzo is placed on the ground, one person initiates the ritual by dancing around the liquor, drinking the shot, then inviting guests to participate. Co-owner Nick Alefantis, along with brothers Victor and Bill and partner Colin Andrews explain their homespun philosophy: “We only care about the intangibles: love, family, brotherhood, friendship, all the important things in life people forget about.” Well, that and good food: the menu features saganaki, sharp Greek goat cheese flambéed tableside, and marinated roasted chicken and lamb served on small swords, creating a fresh twist on traditional souvlaki.
At Tazza Grill & Deli Café, a small but bustling eatery in Bridgeland, Nawaf Traya, his wife Fatime, and son Yousef volley jocular remarks back and forth as they prepare falafels, shawarma, and baba ganoush for their steady customers. No two sandwiches are ever the same and Fatime has never measured an ingredient. She also guards her recipes diligently, not even sharing them with her husband.
“You eat what we eat,” explains Tazza owner Traya with a big grin, adding: “You are family here.”
Another of my favourite homes away from home at the dinner hour is the Village Cantina in Inglewood. They serve tortilla lasagna, ceviche, and an impressive selection of tequilas, which combine for a mouth watering experience. Young families share the cozy dining room, which is decked out in Mexican blankets, neon beer signs, and black and white brass band photos with canoodling couples. Owner Linda Crossley started baking pies out of her kitchen in 1995, and quickly carved out a stellar reputation, eventually opening a full service restaurant. Her chocolate pecan pie is the best in the city.
For a relaxing spot to take refuge from the frenetic pace of Calgary, I head out to Koi. Koi are a kind of carp, known in Asian cultures for inspiring serenity and peace. Koi (the café) stays true to its namesake with a sleek décor and generous natural light. Fresh faced vivacious staff serve the creations of chef and co-owner Philip Wong, such as organic maple Szechaun noodles and Ninja food (roasted salmon with ginger garlic greens) in the evening, and fair trade coffee and fresh eggs for early risers starting at 8:30 am weekdays. At night, local DJs spin funky tunes and rotating art displays fresh works monthly. Co-owner Natasha Peace explains: “It’s like having a new living room every month.” So if you’re tired of staring at the same four walls, it’s worth a try.—Roberta McDonald