If there is one thing I feel really privileged to have grown up around, it’s good restaurants. Even as a little kid, my parents always emphasized making restauranting an experience. It is definitely something I have learned to appreciate more and more over the years. You could say I’m now addicted to wining and dining – let’s make that dining and wining. I am still learning to enjoy the wine part (as long as it’s white or rose, I’m good, red, not so much).
Over the past 2 and a bit years of blogging, I have contributed restaurant reviews on a fairly regular basis. More than 25 now for anyone who is keeping track. And that only includes the places I actually committed to taking pictures and writing about. So I figured, why not combine my years of eating out in Calgary into one cohesive “best picks” list? Whether you are from Calgary, or just visiting, hopefully it can provide some insight about where to eat in Calgary!
Best Vegetarian (entree) – Model Milk
If you have even the mildest understanding of the Calgary food scene, I know what you are expecting me to say. Go to the Coup for the best vegetarian food in the city. While it is true that they offer the best variety of vegetarian and vegan dishes (they are basically the only exclusively vegetarian restaurant Calgary has to offer, being the meat-loving city that it is), they don’t have my favourite entree, not by a mile.
That honour goes to Model Milk. Although it changes with the seasons, they always have some variation of this braised mushrooms dish that is absolutely surreal. It’s so far from your boring portabello “burger” or “steak” that it is really mind blowing. When I last went it was served with a luscious carrot puree, braised kale and gremolata. For a place that offers a lot of meat, Model Milk is spot on with their vegetarian option.
Best Pizza – Without Papers
Without Papers is the winner here. To me, what sets them apart from other places like Cibo, Double Zero or Famoso is their dough. It has that combination of doughiness and chew, with the perfect amount of char on the bottom and around the edges. As for toppings, you have to go with the Shroom (are we noticing a theme here?). Wild mushrooms, arugula and truffle oil (don’t scoff at this, they know how to use it sparingly without killing your palate). No tomato sauce, the way pizza should be.
Best Pasta – Villa Firenze
I have been going to Villa Firenze for as long as I can remember. I can’t think of too many other places in the city where nearly all of the pasta is made from scratch and Nona even pops in now and then to whip up a batch of homemade sausage or gnocchi. I always order the pappardelle, always. The thick cut noodles are my favourite pasta shape by far. Whether you get them tossed with the signature smoked salmon sauce or any other sauce on the menu, they provide that “melt in your mouth, I must have died and gone to heaven” experience. Oh and while you are at it, keep asking for refills of the homemade focaccia bread.
Best Breakfast – Cucina
Ok we are really on a roll now. My best breakfast item has to go to the wild mushrooms on toast at Cucina. I like mushrooms, ok? Keep in mind that all of these places have plenty of “non-mushroom” options as well, that are just as good, if not better (depending on your tastes).
But back to those mushrooms on toast. How can something be so simple yet so complex? Black pepper and parmesan cheese are a combination made in heaven. They are like the savoury cousins of peanut butter and jelly. Let them meld together in a creamy sauce, toss in some earthy mushrooms, pour over crunchy baguette and let a runny egg yolk ooze all over the place, breakfast time indeed!
Best Brunch – The River Cafe
I’m not sure whether it is the food or the atmosphere that makes The River Cafe so memorable. It feels like you just got out of your canoe in the Bow River and stumbled upon this quaint little fishing lodge. Except that it’s a really upscale fishing lodge and there are cooks and servers giving you whatever food you desire.
The menu at River changes constantly so I can’t really recommend one thing or another. But that is ok because everything is good. Fresh, local and always paying homage to the integrity of the ingredients, The River Cafe knows what food is all about. Sure, it may be pricy, but that’s why I suggest going for brunch. You get the same quality food without the hefty cost of a $40 dinner entree. See, I’m looking out for you!
Best Sandwich – Boxwood Cafe
Ok so I’m biased towards Boxwood, I used to work there. But so what? Good food is good food. And more importantly, a good sandwich is a good sandwich. Most importantly, a good chickpea fritter sandwich is basically the best sandwich on the planet. The ciabatta buns are baked fresh every morning (I know, I used to get there at 6am just to ensure this) and the chickpea fritters are fried until light and crispy. My insider tip; ask for it with mayo instead of cilantro salsa verde. Or you can get really crazy and ask for mayo on the sandwich with salsa verde on the side for dipping. Now we’re talking. All you carnivores out there might prefer the bite beef sirloin or porchetta sandwiches. I won’t judge. If you are going to eat meat there are worse places to do it. Boxwood gets all of its meat locally from small scale producers so these animals lived pretty happy lives.
Best Falafel – The Chick Pea
A couple summers ago I went on a hunt for the best falafel in Calgary. Come to think of it, I never officially crowned a winner. Well there is no better time than the present so congratulations to the Chick Pea for making my favorite falafel in the city! It wins for having the right combo of ingredients and textures, all wrapped up in one, not too messy and falling out all over the place, manageable package. Man, now I’m craving falafel.
Best Macarons – Yann Haute Patisserie
Sure some might say that macaroons are so 2010. I won’t argue with that. It doesn’t stop me from liking them though. And for the best in Calgary, check out Yann Haute Patisserie, in a cute little house right off 4th Street. They have some flavours that stay consistent and others that are seasonal. If macarons aren’t your thing there are plenty of other fancy French desserts to suit your hearts content.
Best Ice Cream – Village
Last but certainly not least on my list of favourite eats in Calgary is Village Ice Cream. Once you find the place (it’s located in the most obscure spot at the end of 10th Avenue) you are going to keep coming back, I promise. Whether it’s their signature salted caramel or a classic, Tahitian vanilla, be sure to sample all of the flavours before you ask them to start scooping. And all you vegans out there better be paying attention because they almost always have a seasonal vegan option (which in my opinion is often even better than the non-vegan varieties). This summer they had both vegan chocolate chili and toasted coconut varieties. Oh baby. No more driving out to Cochrane for Mackays, Village is where it’s at!
So from dinner to dessert, that’s my list! Calgary has a ton of amazing dining options and really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I would love to hear your favourites so feel free to share what this great city has to offer!