Story Ideas

The New Calgary

Calgary, AB, is booming—again.

06 April 2011
by Noah Richler

Calgary, AB, is booming—again. The city that was once at the heart of stampede and cattle country and then of oil is clean, boisterous and thriving. Energy is the driving engine of the economy, but it is the sector’s spirit of can-do entrepreneurship and innovation that is so startling—spreading into the arts, architecture and civic politics of an exuberant city making a distinctive mark in the Canadian West. No longer, in Calgary, is the downtown core cavernous and empty at night, nor the hipper, more pedestrian-friendly districts of Kensington and Inglewood with their galleries, small restaurants and live music venues. In Calgary, where construction is giddy and The Bow tower a gleaming testament to the confidence of the city, the reclamation of a century of frontier history lives on at the same time that a spanking new city is being built.

History, here, has taken youth and spirit into its embrace. The Bow skyscraper, designed by the London, UK-based firm Foster + Partners, rises up over Chinatown and the old downtown core like a modern cathedral. Its unusual crescent shape might seem to resemble a bend in the river it looks over, alongside which it is possible to run, cycle and walk. No one forgets the river here. On Prince’s Island, in the middle of the Bow River, thousands gather for concerts in summer, while the excellent River Café provides coziness and haute Canadian cuisine with local accents to diners eleven months of the year (closed January). The High Performance Rodeo, the arts festival administered by the theatre company One Yellow Rabbit, enlivens the city every January. At the corner of 7th Ave. and 1st St. in the centre of the city, the 50 artists’ studios, galleries and bistros of the Art Central building offer local art, photography and jewellery. The Stephen Avenue Walk a National Historic Site. Here, the trademark sandstone buildings of turn-of-the-century Calgary have been revived, housing shops, restaurants, wine bars and Fashion Central (the sister project to Art Central). Some buildings, such as the old Bank of Nova Scotia, have exceptional friezes of Western life cut into them—wheat sheaves, bison, cowboys and Indian chiefs—that stand out as modest reminders of the city’s Western past and pedigree.

But this is not a city just for cowboys anymore—far from it (though you can take in plenty of that, two prime examples being the Calgary Stampede and the Alberta Boot Company). Perhaps CHARCUT restaurant in the new Hôtel Le Germain Calgary is one of the best icons of the new city. On the one hand, you’d expect good meat dishes here. On the other, CHARCUT has rocketed its way into the select tier of Canada’s best restaurants thanks in no small part to a fermenting room in which its sumptuous range of homemade charcuterie is made, and its “Eating Bar,” where diners can watch as their meats, fishes and vegetables are expertly prepared. Co-owner and co-chef Connie DeSousa (who trained at Alice Waters’ pioneering farm-to-table restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, CA, USA) and her staff are young and keen, and represent the new city, sending out tweets and Facebook messages to alert the faithful when they are serving “alley burgers” with house-made pickles in paper bags out the back of the upscale restaurant for five dollars each. They don’t do it for profit. They do it for fun. The fun this new version of Calgary is all about.         

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