Travel Thursday: Calgary Draws Us In With Its Plentiful Food Scene, Buzzing Arts & Culture, And LGBTQ Acceptance.
We took the #ExploreAlberta as a challenge and came away with loving two great cities, Edmonton and Calgary. We’ll mention Calgary, Alberta, Canada first, since that city will be having their pride festivities this weekend. Hold on to your cowboy hats and let’s go to Calgary!
Arriving into Calgary, we did not know what to expect. We had heard the city over the past few years to a decade had been transforming from a Dallas-like oil driven city to a more white collar, artistic and cultural city. We experienced at every turn in the city the western hospitality the city is known for. Yes, yes, yes. We joked all the time that Canadians apologize for everything and are overly polite, but to be honest, it’s no joke. They are so polite! And so honest! And so accommodating. We joked about it, but it just made us feel guilty that we were not like that, that they were better.
The first real taste of hospitality came from the Hotel Arts, our accommodations that were in the best location geographically. The moment we walked through the door, we could tell this hotel was designed for function, appearance, appreciation of art, and the happiness of the customer. Art, design, extraordinary service and a dash of whimsy were all present. We noticed while staying there that through personalized service and a boutique experience, the Hotel Arts welcomes both locals and tourists to enjoy the grounds, restaurants, bars, pool, and ballrooms (where they have hosted several same-sex marriages).
Soon after checking in we walked around the small pool area, which had been rumored to be very busy with hotel guests and locals most sunny weekends, and checked out the Raw Bar for their nightly $5 happy hour.
Yes $5 Canadian or $3.85 American at the current exchange will get you a nice happy afternoon drink. It’s not that we needed it, but it as there, so we had two, each. Don’t judge.
Well, go ahead and judge. We had a brief respite on our private balcony in our room as we prepared for our next stop, Betty Lou's Library (The Devenish Building, 908 17 Avenue Southwest).
Walking into the building we were soon halted by a velvet rope and were presented with a phone near a hidden entry. ‘m not sure if I am supposed to give you the password or not so I won’t, but we gave it and were let into this hideaway.
Take a step back in time when you walk through the hidden door and have a seat in a vintage velvet chair. Their chandeliers give off a soft glow while their bartenders prepare original cocktails of superb quality. Sip, savor and socialize in this unique space that marries the American 1920’s Prohibition era with Paris’ Lost Generation.
Yes, the prices were a little more than I would usually spend, but my barrel proof old fashioned was a treat, making the $20+ bill so worth it. They often have a limit of a 2 hour visit since the place is not a large space and gets very busy so they want to guarantee turnover. Go for the experience, the drinks, and the award-winning staff Thanks Jimmy for the great service and letting us benefit from your bartender expertise.
Frenchie Wine Bar (616 17th avenue SW) was our next stop, a short stroll from Betty Lou’s Library. The walk, to the back of the building and behind UNA Takeaway and Bread and Circus Trattoria, made the experience more secretive and special. I cannot tell you when the last time I had fondue, and it was great. Along with the fondue, we had other small plates and a plethora of adult beverages in this 20-seat wine bar which also had spirits flowing in this once again speak easy ‘30s style environment. I could not find the menu online and the reason many be that their food menu features cheese that rotates weekly. Frenchie also serves house made ricotta, cheese fondue and desserts.
Why stop there, with drinks at Betty Lou’s Library, more drinks at Frenchie, we were off to Ricardo's Hideaway (1530 5 St SW). The name is misleading as this restaurant sits out in the open especially with its large deck along 5th Street. I think the Hideaway name is to prepare you for the great rum (and other spirited drinks) and food that has been inspired by parts of the Caribbean and Cuba and a little bit of the South Pacific, every place you want to have a hideaway. The walk from Frenchie to Ricardo’s was short once again, which did not work up our appetites too much, but when in a hideaway, who’s counting calories!
Gay bar? Sure! Twisted Element was our bar of choice that night. The self-proclaimed “Calgary's hottest LGBTQ nightclub, and the largest gay bar in Western Canada” Twisted was hosting one of its well-attended drag shows. The large space has been operating since 2004 and also hosts variety shows and weekly karaoke nights. The space would be one I could see myself coming back to. The night we were there, the crowd was very mixed as locals say it usually is. So when I say gay bar, it’s more LGBTQ+ bar. Some other comments about the night. I think there were two bachelorette parties there that night and they did take up most of the seating at the front of the stage, but they did bring in a large crowd that had never been there before. The performers ranged in talent from “awesome they are trying and they’re doing better than I could” to “daaaaamn, there’s some talent.” That night, I think I saw one of the best drag king performances ever. Bravo!
We had noticed in Edmonton that there were many ethnic food offerings everywhere so when we started the next day with brunch at Calcutta Cricket Club (340 17 Ave, SW), we were very ecstatic. A mix of West Bengal, India and Golden Girls’ lanai, this barely one month old Indian restaurant gets its name from the Raj-era Calcutta Cricket & Football Club that dates back to 1792.
Clean. Yes, the restaurant is fairly new, but I could not get over how clean everything was. The brunches are packed as well as being a great deal economically for the culturally amazing servings of goodness you receive. Not only is the food great, but the heart is too. As we were leaving, they were setting up outside in their courtyard a benefit for children with HIV. I bought a ring and met some wonderful people. Food and heart will bring me back here on my next visit.
From the food and heart, we went to talent. If you have the chance and love music, you need to do the Backstage Pass Tour Studio Bell National Music Centre (850 4 Street, SE)
His name escapes me, but our tour guide of Studio Bell’s artist spaces not only provided us a behind-the-scenes look at three world-class recording facilities, but also a look at an epic collection of musical instruments that spans 450 years of music innovation and technology.
Studio Bell is the first national cultural institution of its kind dedicated to celebrating music in Canada in all of its forms. More than a museum, Studio Bell rises in nine interlocking towers, clad in glazed terra cotta in the heart of Calgary’s East Village. The 160,000 square-foot building includes five floors of exhibition space, a 2000+piece collection of artifacts, instruments and music technology, and other features including recording facilities, workshops, classrooms, an event space, and a 300-seat performance hall.
Tours are just on Sundays and well worth it. I enjoyed my experience here more than most of the Museums in Nashville.
Food and music culture were now satisfied. LGBT history and culture were next. Reservations had been made to leave Studio Bell and to go on a Historic LGBTQ Walking Tour through Inglewood, Prince's Island Park, and East Village.
Kevin Allen (LGBTQ community leader) led us through the downtown area of Calgary and namely Inglewood, Prince's Island Park, and East Village. Kevin has been documenting and profiling queer people and events for 25 years through freelance writing and editing for various queer publications including: Clue! Magazine, QC Magazine, Xtra! West, and Xtra.ca. He is a career arts administrator and the past Executive Director of the Alberta Media Arts Alliance (AMAAS), and has previously worked for the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers (CSIF), NUTV, and the EPCOR CENTRE for the Performing Arts.
Kevin Allen is also a founder of Calgary’s now largest queer non-profit organization, the Fairy Tales Presentation Society, which produces many cultural events including the very successful Fairy Tales Film Festival every year in May. More cities need caring individuals like Kevin Allen to share the LGBTQ history of their cities. I always hope for a resource and a person like Kevin when I travel so I get to know a city even more, especially from “our” perspective.
Charbar: (Simmons Building, 618 Confluence Way SE) would be our dinner venue where we experienced a variety of items from the ocean, prairies, and local gardens. The Argentine wood-fired grill is the star of the restaurant and the source of charbar's identity.
We were fortunate enough to have Jason A Kingsley, Executive Director, Calgary Pride: join us at Charbar. He is currently serving as the President and Executive Producer for Calgary Pride, is the Vice President of Travel Gay Canada, and is the Regional Director, Prairies for Fierte Canada Pride, having recently brought the National Fierte Canada Pride Conference and AGM to Calgary for the first time since the organizations founding in 2004. Over dinner we were able to learn more about Calgary Pride. Since I had been very vocal in the past on police presence in Pride Parades in the US and Canada, I asked Jason about what Calgary was doing in regard to the “issue.” His answer was well explained and I won’t transcribe it all from my brain, but what it boiled down to was that they were going to lead the discussion by having a conversation. By talking to the people involved. There isn’t a Black Lives Matter group really in Calgary, so pride organizers talked to a group that resembles other cities Queer People of Color (QPOC) and that group is Voices - Calgary's Coalition of Two-Spirit & Racialized lgbtqia+. Jason said they were dealing with the concern by having a conversation. The result is that Calgary police will not march in uniform and will not march together, but they will march with t-shirts that will identify them as police, but they will march with the group or organization they identify with or belong to if they choose to march at all. I thought this was great since it would show that police are more than police, are more than an entity, but members of our community in many ways and many different levels. Calgary, you are leading the way with this year’s solution. Bravo. Of course, next year’s solution may be different, but let’s see how this year goes.
With a little drizzle in the air, Gears and Beers Bike Tour (1048 21 Avenue SE)was up next. A tour guide service to get you around town and enjoy the craft beer culture, Gears & Beers Bike Tour made me realize that I was out of shape so I should just stop and drink more. It was a fun time and gave us all another way to see and feel the city. We were running late and the tour does not go after dark so we had to minimize our breweries to two.
Cold Garden Beverage Company: (1100 11 St. SE)
Cold Garden Beverage Company is a Calgary-based microbrewery. Cold Garden brings a casual and eclectic vibe to the community, along with a lineup of traditional and more...eccentric beers.
The Dandy Brewing Company: (2003 11 St SE). The Dandy Brewing Company is Calgary's original little brewery. Although it has grown some, it's still small at heart. They produce inspired ales, with lots of care, in small batches. Their unique approach to brewing and keen eye to every detail fosters creativity in both our recipes and beer styles. On site, they are pleased to offer a unique brewery experience, featuring a full service tasting room with an exquisite menu of fine dining drinking food, a curated selection of cocktails, glass pours of selected wines, and 20 taps of Dandy beers.
Throughout Canada, you will see many young breweries. The reason being that Canadian laws were suppressing the brewery business, but in recent years, legislative changes have allowed the beer and imaginations to flow. Turn any corner in Calgary or even Edmonton and you will find new and successful baby breweries.
Our last full day in Canada was to be one to remember. We started off with a small breakfast at Little Henry (next door to Ten Foot Henry and across the street from Hotel Arts) (1209 1 Street SW). In the morning, the restaurant is a local favorite grab-and-go cafe (Little Henry), which opens at 8 a.m. Ten Foot Henry is quite literally a 10-foot replica of the famed 1930 comic strip character named Henry. This cartoon boy became larger than life as a muse for Calgary's creative community in the 1980s.
The sustenance was just enough for our 90-minute trek to Banff National Park. For over 125 years, Banff National Park has been known as Canada’s Alpine Adventure. The unspoiled wilderness, refined amenities and endless array of opportunities for active exploration combine to make this UNESCO World Heritage Site a “must-see” destination for travelers around the world. The pure and sheer beauty of this destination and it being so close to Calgary makes it worth the simple voyage. As part of our trek we enjoyed the Banff Gondola.
Journey to the top of the Banff Gondola to see a whole new side of Sulphur Mountain and the Canadian Rockies. We’ve completely rebuilt, redesigned and reimagined our mountaintop experience, creating a world-class indoor experience that equals the awe-inspiring ridgetop boardwalk 2900 ft. above Banff. From new restaurants and interactive exhibits to a multisensory theatre and a breathtaking 360-degree rooftop observation deck, the all-new Banff Gondola experience heightens every sense.
Atop of the Banff Gondola on the summit of Banff’s Sulphur Mountain was Sky Bistro, a dining sanctuary in the sky. A distinctly Canadian menu that features the unique flavors of Canada through a hand-picked selection of regionally-sourced local meats, produce, and ingredients. Enjoying the cuisine and the view was an experience that seems from dreams or a James Bond movie. Plan accordingly, take your time, and enjoy this adventure that Calgary citizens get to enjoy whenever they want to.
Don't forget your bathing suits as day passes are available so guests can enjoy the much-anticipated, newly renovated Nordic Spa.
We relaxed and enjoyed the hydrotherapy cycle as the picturesque mountains looked down upon us. The 50,000 sq. ft. of contemporary indoor-outdoor space, Kananaskis Nordic Spa is purposefully designed for those seeking equal parts stimulation, recuperation and balance.
Save time for a glass of wine, cheese plate, or other offerings after the body scrub/steam room.
Departing the mountains and getting back to the city, a quick freshen up at Hotel Arts and then a walk to our dinner at Foreign Concept (1011 1st Street SW). An upscale restaurant featuring modern pan-Asian plates and craft cocktails in an elegant, airy space. The award-winning Canadian chef Duncan Ly mixes his Vietnamese roots, infused with inspiration from executive chef Jinhee Lee’s Korean background and their combined love for bold flavors, charm, and whimsy.
The duo’s commitment to sustainable, seasonal and local ingredients makes the dining experience at Foreign Concept a true fusion of their passion for scratch made food, traditional cooking techniques presented with modernity.
Just around the corner from Foreign Concepts was another gay bar I wanted to frequent. I convinced some fellow travelers to journey over to the Back Lot. A small dark bar with two floors and a back area patio, I found this place entertaining. After ordering a drink down stairs and heading upstairs to listen to some very good karaoke, we struck up some conversations with some very friendly Canadian men. Would this be my haunt of choice if I lived in Calgary? I think it would be a good option. A little dark, seedy, mysterious, but very welcoming with nice attendees.
On our day of departure, we had to say goodbye to Calgary and Hotel Arts. Our final meal was at the Yellow Door Bistro, where we met Fraser Abbott, Director of Sales and Marketing at Hotel Arts. If you ever need anything, I think this man could get it for you.
Opening in 2013, with a nostalgic yet creative design, this contemporary restaurant features bistro-style dishes with modern and seasonal twists. Serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and weekend brunch, Yellow Door Bistro believes in elevating simple food with quality ingredients.
Calgary has emerged as a must-visit culinary destination with a buzzing arts and culture scene. Restaurants with chef-driven cuisine, classic and quirky theatre, and lively music events and outdoor festivals, Calgary is a vibrant city that is centered around four UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, Dinosaur Provincial Park, Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park - making it the perfect complement to any Alberta adventure. WE only had time for one park, looks like we have to go back again to complete the rest .. as well as to find our cowboy.
For more information on some of the great places mentioned above, check out the following links.
Instagram @TourismCalgary #CaptureCalgary
Twitter @TourismCalgary #CaptureCalgary
Twisted Element: http://www.twistedelement.ca
Studio Bell National Music Centre http://www.nmc.ca
If you have travel ideas, places we should visit, or work for a PR company and are looking for writers to visit, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and address your comments to the Managing Editor.