Discover places along Stephen Avenue to unwind at after a long day
By Laura Pellerine
Photography by Blair Hill
I’m holding a deep-fried calf testicle and am trying to convince myself to eat it. Even though it’s peanut-sized, thickly battered and the waitress insists it “tastes like chicken,” I can’t get the vision of a wriggling calf kicking its legs while its manhood gets taken away out of my head. In Alberta, bull’s balls or “prairie oysters” as they’re known, are considered a bit of a delicacy—one that I’ve managed to avoid since moving here five years ago. But tonight there’s no turning back.
I’m on what you might call a “grown-up’s” pub crawl. It’s Saturday night and, for me and my companions, our goal is to hit as many nightspots as possible along (or very near) Stephen Avenue. We’re scoping the area for places that the weary business traveller can unwind in. Calgary’s downtown is peppered with nightspots once you know where to look. With 17 places to stay in the downtown, its core—Stephen Avenue (8 Ave SW)—is a good place to start.
In 2007, over 624,000 business travellers came to Calgary and 73 per cent of them stayed overnight, making them a driving source of business in the downtown. Cindy Stewart, Chef Concierge at the Westin, and member of Les Clefs d’Or (a prestigious international organization of hotel concierges) sees an average of 1,200 business travellers come through her hotel a week. Often, Stewart says, when they’re done for the day they’re looking for two things: where to get a bite to eat, and where they can relax.
“I’ve noticed that the business traveller is changing, they’re becoming more sophisticated,” she says. “Before they wanted to go out with their clients in the evening over martinis, but now a lot meet their clients over lunch, and at night, they want a quiet dinner.”
She is quick to point out however, that that doesn’t meant they want to sit alone in a corner. “They’re certainly interested in going somewhere for a drink, and to be places where other people are going to be—like a lounge with a lively atmosphere—but unless they’re younger, they’re not as interested in going to a nightclub.”
I, along with two co-workers and my husband (the designated driver) decided to investigate some of these places to see what they have to offer the weary business traveller. Though we gave ourselves a week, the goal was to hit most of them up on their liveliest night: Saturday. Here are our thoughts:
The Belvedere: Masculine
The Friday night before, I stopped in to The Belvedere for some wine in their lounge and a long chat with owner, Clayton Morgan. This discreet spot has a very masculine energy with heavy drapes, velvety banquettes and maroon accents. It also has a stigma Morgan says they’ve been both blessed and cursed with: that it’s a great restaurant to head to “when someone else is paying,” (entrees can go as high as $49).
This is the kind of restaurant that’s popular with the business traveller, which Morgan says makes up 90 per cent of his clientele Monday through Thursday.
The lighting is low, Michael Bublé croons softly in the background and the wine is delicious (they’ve been a Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence winner since 2003). The food is as local as it can be, Morgan insists on serving Alberta (and not New Zealand) lamb.
Morgan remembers the days when tycoons from the States would come in and ask for Cuban cigars with a glass of Scotch. You’re not allowed to smoke in public places anymore in this city (unless you’re in a hookah lounge or at certain golf clubs), and Morgan says a lot of his male clients have traded their Scotch for wine. But it is still a good place to head to for a quiet atmosphere and refined service, food, and drink.
The Palomino: True West
After leaving The Belvedere, The Palomino raucously called to me. There couldn’t be a bigger contrast between the two venues: in every way The Belvedere is sophisticated, The Palomino is rustic. At The Palomino you seat yourself, your cutlery comes rolled up inside a paper napkin, and the house-made barbecue sauce comes in a squeezable tube. Everything on the menu is Southern barbecue inspired so there are items like Kansas city pork ribs, “very, very slow smoked chicken,” and bacon-wrapped corn-on-the-cob. On the walls hang western and sports relics, including a pair of cowboy boots dangling from the ceiling.
On weekend nights the restaurant doubles as a live music venue, and tonight the band is playing country—complete with a steel guitar and Johnny Cash classics. The crowd is everybit as casual as the atmosphere, with many adorned in faded jeans, sweatshirts and even the odd cowboy hat. On the tables, drink specials are listed as “Cheap Sh#t.” The food here is good and well-priced; this is the place to go to if you’re looking for an unapologetic glimpse into western hospitality.
The next night—“the” Saturday night—our first stop is Murrieta’s. We settle into the lounge and survey the décor: historic sandstone, black leather chairs, polished hardwood floors and a bar that is nearly as long as the room. Behind it, staff wearing crisp, white-collared shirts and ties, mix spiked iced teas, fruity cocktails and pour draft from 12 shiny beer taps.
My husband is particularly in awe of the “impressive” beer selection. We ask the waitress if anyone has ever ordered the $400 “Dom Bomb” cocktail (made with Dom Perignon Champagne, Hennessy cognac, Grand Marnier Centenaire and gold flakes) and she says she saw someone order it once and it was a big “to-do.”
The otherside of the restaurant is a beautiful courtyard with a large skylight, tables blanketed in white, and an open-kitchen prep area. In the hallway are black and white photos of Stephen Avenue from the 1900s. It’s elegant without being pretentious.
It’s 5:30 pm, and the place is starting to fill up, a Beatles tribute band is playing tonight, but once we finish off our tomato basil flatbread and trio of dips, it’s time to head to our next destination.
Next up is Rush, one of Calgary’s newest upscale dining establishments, and inside, the interior gushes eclectic luxury with a range of textures and patterns. In the dining room velvet spirals climb vine-like up pillars, pillows are placed in half-moon booths, and even the ceiling is decorated with quilted suede. The lounge is equally dazzling with a marble harvest table, chain-link pillars, glowing vases, and three chandeliers with show-stealing crystals.
As we slouch into over-sized chairs, everyone agrees that the interior is “cool.” Over soft jazz music we deliberate over drinks like Chaitinis, French Manhattans and sparkling Proseccos. Around this time, a woman begins playing the baby grand piano, singing with a voice that reminds our table of Diana Krall and Norah Jones. Rush perfectly exemplifies Calgary’s transition into urban sophistication. One of my companions proclaims that she’s “already feeling it,” so we decide to check out our next spot.
Divino: Divine Bistro
When we get to Divino it is like a slice of Paris—there’s a cheese display, baguettes in a basket and a large wine menu. Even the crowd here is stylish—think trendy eyeglasses, scarves, and at the table next to us, one girl is even wearing a feather in her hair à la a 1920s flapper. We’re seated next to a wall-length window looking directly onto the pedestrian traffic of Stephen Avenue, and as our eyes devour the cheese menu, our server brings us a dish of deep-fried green beans, which may sound odd, but taste delicious.
One of my co-workers orders a dirty martini. We’re surprised when our server asks her for her preferred vodka (they have nine kinds), and are later impressed when the drink comes back perfect. “Most people don’t know how to do dirty right,” my co-worker says. “It’s usually too much, or too little juice, but this is good.” We finish up with some Quebec aged cheddar, an olive platter and house-cut frites with shavings of Parmeggiano Reggiano before heading across the street.
The James Joyce: Comfort
The James Joyce is the kind of place where you relax as soon as you walk onto their creaky wooden floors and smell their deep-fried comfort foods. Traditional Irish music plays jauntily in the background and we weave through a mix of men in suits and bomber jackets carrying on lively conversations. We find seats in one of their alcove rooms decorated with a mix of faded photographs, china antiques and window coverings splashed with the slogan “There’s no time like Guinness time.”
When our server appears with the menu we happily assess that it’s impressive for a pub. The fish ‘n’ chips are great here, as are the potato nachos, but they also have healthier choices like spinach salad with fresh mangos, strawberries and almonds. After two orders of bread pudding, as well as a few drinks, we make ourselves carry on—the environment is so comfortable it’s hard to leave.
Flames Central: Sports Haven
By the time we get here, it’s last call so we don’t get in, though we do notice a stretch SUV limo waiting outside. This seems to sum up Flames Central: a haven for business men to hang out, eat “upscale casual” food (like gourmet hamburgers and yam fries), be served by young blonde waitresses, and watch the game on their 30-ft. theatre-style HD projection screen. They regularly show any sporting event that’s happening around the world if it’s available on satellite. Although on big game nights it may be tough to get in, you could easily come here by yourself and not feel conspicuous or lonely.
Bottlescrew Bill’s: Testosterone
This pub shares its space with Buzzards, a western-themed restaurant serving “authentic cowboy cuisine” like prairie oysters and ale-braised bison ribs. Tonight, the crowd at Bottlescrew Bill’s appears to be groups of guys (with token girls) in baseball hats. “Beer dudes,” one of my co-workers dryly observes. Not much wonder, they have close to 200 beers on the menu. As if to prove her point, one guy beside us excitedly points at his buddy exclaiming, “Best beer I’ve EVER had!” The waitress who approaches our table has an easy smile and when we place our order for prairie oysters she has an impressed gleam in her eye.
When they arrive, we aren’t given cutlery so we assume eating with our hands is okay. My husband unabashedly pops one in his mouth proclaiming it “not bad,” so I and a brave co-worker clink ours together with a “Cheers!” and throw them down.
They do not taste anything like chicken, instead they’re kind of sweet and mushy. Not sure if I’d eat them again, but there’s a sense of pride in downing them once. Our conclusion? This is a good place to head to for a beer later in the evening.
Beat Niq: Soul
The Beat Niq is a jazz club nestled underneath Piq Niq Bistro. If Divino gives you a slice of Paris, at Beat Niq you get a taste of Chicago. Throughout the week (though mostly Thursdays to Saturdays) jazz and blues bands from around the world take the stage in this dim-lit room, crammed with small tables and people. Shows can sell out 45 minutes before starting at 9 pm.
The crowd here has a mature vibe, young and old jazz aficionados don fedoras, bowties, and tweed jackets. Some sway softly or nod their heads along to the smooth sounds of the band’s saxophone.
We all agree that it’s a unique showcase of urban culture for Calgary, and a spot you could easily slip into if you’re on your own.
The Unicorn: Good Times
Next we stop into The Unicorn, a favourite haunt for locals and the downtown business crowd. Saturday nights attract live entertainment (with no cover), and tonight, the band is playing up-tempo rockabilly. There is a range of personality types and ages here, from young girls in flirty dresses, to a group of middle-aged empty nesters chatting at the table next to us.
The music is so loud we have to yell our drink orders to the waitress. The majority of the people are smiling despite the warm mugginess. If you’re looking for a no-frills, crowd pleaser with a decent beer selection (18 on tap) this is the pub for you.
Metropolitan Grill: Dance Fever
From outside, the bass-pumping music and colourful lights of “The Met” are hard to ignore. When we walk in the energy is high and light-hearted. By day this venue acts as a trendy eatery serving up dishes like lobster mac ‘n’ cheese, but by night it comes alive as a dance club.
The place is packed with girls in tight dresses dancing to club mixes of pop music and flashing colourful spotlights. A good spot for a twenty-something business protege looking to have a good time.
Escoba: Easy Lounging
Our last stop is Escoba, a wine bistro at the end of the avenue. Unfortunately we find out they close around 10 pm, but we head back a few days later. Owner Darren Hammelin explains that his laid-back wine refuge is a place where people tend to start their night.
Hammelin tells us he is very hands-on, and is always on site to chat with his patrons. Often, he says, it helps to provide the lone business traveller with some company. I recommend trying their “famous” baked spring rolls with feta and spinach, as well as their wine flights—they come in groups of three with notes on the flavours. The mood is Californian vineyard—quiet, but cultured.
Though we tried, we were unable to hit all of Stephen Avenue’s hot spots—it’s just not possible in one evening. Stewart says she has seen the city come a long way in the last two decades. “People are excited now about going out and trying places in Calgary,” she says. “When I first moved here 17 years ago, there were only a few places to go and they seemed a little sketchy. It’s nice to see how Stephen Avenue’s changed.” And that’s the good news—whether you’re looking for a pub, lounge or club, Calgary’s downtown is brimming with options.