Booze Cruise: When passion precedes profits, Edmonton leads the way

Friday 13th, November 2015 / 14:27
By Jeff Jamieson
Edmonton's North 53 restaurant features a wine list that's very Canada-centric.

Edmonton’s North 53 restaurant features a wine list that’s very Canada-centric.

CALGARY — The first Earls restaurant opened in Edmonton Alberta in 1982. Like it or not, that restaurant was the beginning of a major shift in the Western Canadian hospitality scene. The 20 years that followed would see the expansion of the “corporate restaurant.” Large, scalable and repeatable, these restaurants would come to dominate the food landscape for over two decades.

This pervasive success would have a number of effects on the industry. Most notable was the fact that many of the chains offered a very similar dining experience as well as fairly similar cuisine. The scene would become somewhat homogenized with burgers and pastas being the standard fare for years to come.

Recently, the dominance of these corporate restaurants has begun to wane. They still thrive in the right situation, but they are more often being pushed into the suburbs by a groundswell revolution in the independent restaurant market. Restaurants are big business, and the rising popularity of world-class chefs and bartenders who are given a stage on television and in the media has made the restaurant industry a legitimate, viable and attractive career choice.

Many of this new blood in the industry cut their teeth in the world of the big corporate restaurant. This efficient machine was training an entire generation of youthful, eager workers. But often, these workers were not satisfied with the jobs they currently held. They could see that the industry was changing. The focus on smaller restaurants, local ingredients, and niche cuisines was beginning to become more prevalent. The media frenzy surrounding food and beverage, and the birth of the celebrity chef would only expedite the coming change to the industry.

Flash forward to Edmonton today. The birthplace of the modern Canadian mega-restaurant is now very much a part of the cultural shift in dining in this country. Over the last five years the scene has blossomed with a number of original, independent concepts. Many are small restaurants with big ideas about food, drinks, and what is possible when passion precedes profit.

A perennial favourite of mine is the locally focused Three Boars Eatery. Too often in the north we hear the lament that it is difficult to source locally available product here in Canada. The winters are too long, the organics are cost prohibitive, and the infrastructure isn’t in place. Three Boars scoffs at this notion that it cannot be done here. They offer hearty, rustic cuisine in a comfortable, warm environment and they do so while supporting many local growers, greenhouses, farmers and ranchers. Three Boars is also a fabulous place to have a drink with fantastic cocktails and more craft beer and whisky than one requires.

Another fantastic option in Edmonton is North 53. Also locally focused (hence the name in reference to the line of latitude which runs through Edmonton), North 53 offers plates that range in size from bar snack, to full course entrée. All dishes are expertly prepared in a modern and fun room. The wine list at North 53 is a wonderfully curated, very Canadian-centric list. You get the impression that they want to show you how great products from our country truly are. That desire to put Canada first is a refreshing change that should be noted.

The newest local favourite in Edmonton is Woodwork, which opened in December of 2013. Woodwork is a small room with two main attractions: the wonderfully stocked bar from which some of the city’s best cocktails are created; and the beautiful heart of the space, the wood-fired Grillworks grill which much of the menu comes off of. Casual but not sloppy, hip but not pretentious, Woodwork is fantastic spot to enjoy a well-priced delicious meal with friends and family.

My favourite place to dine in Edmonton is a small restaurant on Jasper Avenue known as Corso32. I have been there on a number of occasions and every single time I finish a meal, I quietly think to myself, “This may be the best restaurant in the country.” And it may very well be. Corso32’s focus is Italian cuisine, which has long been associated with the marriage fantastic ingredients, prepared in a simple yet effective manner. This style of cooking, which sounds easy in principle, can be incredibly difficult to execute with precision. However, Chef Daniel Costa and his team deliver the promise of world-class Italian food, day in and day out. The room at Corso32 is exactly as it should be to match the wonderful plates; both are casual, contemporary, and full of energy. Everything about this restaurant is carefully considered and well executed. Quite simply, to not dine here if given the chance is a serious oversight.

When we have a discussion about the best restaurants in this country we hear a lot about Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal but we would be doing the discussion a great disservice without mentioning what is happening in Edmonton, Alberta. Do not overlook the quiet city to the north when discussing vibrant and passionate food scenes in this country. In the 1980s this city was the birthplace of a scene that changed the way Canadians dine; they may just be on the verge of doing that very thing, once again.

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