Just like that, another year of pandemic pandemonium has passed through the province and despite the proverbial walls crumbling around it, Alberta’s food and beverage scene has not only remained in tact; it has somehow managed to produce a year’s worth of memorable moments that keeps us optimistic for the future.
From the continuing evolution of elevated takeout options to the emergence of multiple buzzworthy new concepts, to monumental milestones, cool collaborations, and an array of awards, here are some of the highlights from the past year in Alberta’s hospitality industry.
Setting the bar
Though there weren’t as many awards handed out in 2021 as in years past, enRoute Magazine’s Best New Restaurants list was announced in early November and to the surprise of few, Calgary chef Jinhee Lee and JINBAR received national recognition as the country’s best new bar dining experience.
Take out trend continues
Thanks to yet another rollercoaster year ripe with volatile variants and rapidly changing restrictions, takeout and delivery continued to be the primary method most of us experienced Alberta’s culinary offerings.
Similarly to 2020, popular purveyors like Sukiyaki House, ConMi Taco, Deane House, RGE RD, and Biera filled our social media feeds with picturesque meal packages, while creative cocktail and wine kits continued to be conjured up from the likes of Proof, Shelter, El Beso, and many more.
Not to be outdone, acclaimed restaurant groups also joined the meal and cocktail kit craze, with concepts from Concorde Group and Thank You Hospitality providing a profusion of exemplary options from both categories.
Whether they were matching the aforementioned eateries with equally stunning takeout options or creating unforgettable in-house dining experiences for guests, three Calgary restaurants parried the punches of the pandemic to reach monumental milestones.
Iconic longstanding locations Rouge and Bonterra Trattoria both celebrated their 20th anniversaries, while Prince's Island Park institution River Cafe reached a near-unprecedented 30th year in operation. Despite their ages, all three restaurants continue to pave the way for the city’s ever-expanding food and beverage scene.
Although both 2020 and 2021 resulted in more restaurant closures than we’d like to recall, we can also look back on this past year with plenty of pride thanks to the tenacity, courage, and innovation of numerous new concepts.
From the fruition of highly anticipated Concorde concepts Fonda Fora, Major Tom, and Lonely Mouth to new spaces to celebrate food in Calgary’s First Street Market and Edmonton’s 5th St. Food Hall, to buzzworthy additions to the province’s culinary scene in Dogpatch, Hello Sunshine, The Prow, Sauvage Restaurant, and D.O.P., many Alberta eateries managed to overcome the odds to thrive in 2021.
We also saw some of our favourite food and beverage businesses expand their culinary reach, including Hayden and Comery Block opening South Block Barbecue and Brewing in Calgary and the team at Biera and Blind Enthusiasm Brewing quietly opening Monolith in Edmonton.
It’s no secret that Alberta’s culinary community loves to collaborate, and 2021 was no exception. Whether it be Donna Mac teaming up with Eighty-Eight Brewing Co. to launch Mixtape, Empire Provisions’ innovative bingo card to support local businesses, Edmonton’s Geoscapes dining series featuring an all-star lineup of local chefs, or Dandy Brewing Co. partnering up with brewers across the pond, 2021 proved that when it comes to creative culinary offerings, two heads are almost always better than one.
Brewing, bartending and distilling
Not unlike the year that preceded it, 2021 was a big year for Alberta’s breweries and distilleries. The Establishment Brewing Company took home brewery of the year at the Canadian Brewing Awards, Edmonton’s James Gant won Diageo’s Bartender of the Year, the architecturally stunning Anohka Distillery opened to rave reviews just outside of Edmonton, and Rocky View Brewing Company found a permanent home in Cochrane.
The province’s brewers and distillers also teamed up on multiple occasions to produce some cool collaborations of their own, including O.T. Brewing Company, Elite Brewing and Cidery, and Zero Issue Brewing creating a cool new lineup of curling-themed beers and cider, Eau Claire Distillery partnered with the Calgary Flames for a new collector’s edition whisky, and Park Distillery helped Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise launch the resort’s first signature spirit.
With no shortage of news stories detailing the labour shortages within the country’s foodservice sector, some familiar faces took matters into their own hands to ensure a fertile future for the next generation of Alberta-grown chefs.
Hotel Arts Group reinforced its relationship with SAIT by taking the helm of on-campus catering, events, and food services while continuing to help recent graduates make the transition into the professional world, Teatro Group offered robust hands-on training to culinary-focused high school students by way of its Culinary Trades Program, and Wood’s Homes unveiled a new expansion to its Youth Culinary Arts Program with the YCAP Market.
Local drag queens shine in national limelight
The local drag scene in Alberta has been one of the country’s best kept secrets for years, but in 2021, the world bore witness to the sheer amount of passion, creativity, and talent our amazing queens and kings have to offer.
Multi-talented restaurant and bar mainstays and distinguished drag brunch extraordinaires like Stephanie Prince, Felicia Bonee, and Valerie Hunt were just a few of the fantastic local performers who garnered national recognition in the past 12 months.
Going vegan vicariously
As someone who admires the ethics behind a vegan lifestyle but hasn’t yet mustered the courage to attempt a full-fledged transition into the world of plant-based eating, I would be remiss not to mention one of my personal favourite highlights from 2021; Edmonton husband-and-wife duo Steve and Lourdes Brochu cooking their way through the Fraiche Food, Full Hearts cookbook.
The renowned Milkcrate chef showed us how much fun and versatility can be found in vegan and vegetable-forward cuisine, while Lourdes demonstrated how quickly a home cook can grow when guided by the expert tutelage of acclaimed authors like Jillian Harris and Tori Wesszer.