Lay a wreath, make a moment of silence to mourn the death of fine dining in Edmonton.
Fine dining – white linen tablecloths, napkins, crystal wine glasses, an array of cutlery, well-dressed servers serving with tongs – left us in 2018.
Oh, there’s a scattered few – Hardware Grill, The Harvest Room, La Ronde at the top of the Chateau Lacombe, Ruth’s Chris, Madison’s – but Characters is gone, Alta didn’t make it, and Gini’s Fine Dining in the west end is soon to close its doors.
The top restaurants in town, led by RGE RD and Corso 32, are all startlingly casual.
Which is sad, but inevitable. Formality is a trait that’s all but disappeared in Edmonton for everything but high-school grads. Even then, jeans, open-neck shirts and sports jackets are considered “formal” by today’s dads.
In restaurants, it’s about overall design, not the at-table dining experience. Tables are usually quite plain and close together. Cutlery comes wrapped in a napkin, usually paper.
Much of this is driven by economics. For upper-end restaurants, 2018 was a lousy, lousy year.
They were hammered by stupid government policies. Higher taxes on higher incomes led to a tightening of discretionary (i.e. dining out) spending. Minimum wage hikes created higher labour costs. Downtown’s non-stop traffic/parking disruptions – in the name of bicycles and mass transit – has pushed suburbanites away on all but Oiler hockey or concert nights at Rogers Place.
The Sorrentino Group opened its modern, urbane BUCO pizzerias in St. Albert, Windermere and downtown in the EPCOR Tower. The suburban outlets are thriving, downtown has been a challenge.
The number of new chef-owned eateries has slowed to a trickle. Cost-cutting can be spotted at all the best restaurants.
As wallets have puckered up, so have tastes. There’s been a retreat from culinary adventure to normalcy. When the Butternut Tree opened in 2017, its entrees were duck, elk, pheasant and rabbit. Today it’s fish, lamb, beef ribs and duck breast.
That said, hospitality types are a tenacious bunch. Interesting (if conventional) food will always be with us, just on smaller plates and in smaller portions.
No, the whole city did not suddenly stop eating meat in 2018! But interest in “plant-based” eateries has grown, along with the quality and range of plant-based cuisine on offer. Four vegetarian restaurants made it on my Best of 2018 list, the Moth Café, Die Pie, An Choy Vietnamese, and Kanu, the only new restaurant reviewed by the Weekly Dish in 2018 to earn five-out-of-five Suns for superb food quality.
Some of my favourite memories from the past year.
- The superb beef tongue from the “craft steakhouse” DOSC (Drunken Ox, Sober Cat)
- The fun atmosphere, and who can resist deep-fried coconut shrimp, at the Bubba Gump franchise in West Edmonton Mall.
- The calm, cool Scandinavian quiet of Café Linnea, with a dab of French culinary style.
- The disarmingly simple, but very tasty menu of the stand-alone Wilfred’s at the west end of the 104 Avenue Brewery district.
- The glorious mess at Captain’s Boil, where (really good) seafood comes in plastic bags and customers eat with their (gloved) fingers, not cutlery.
- A return to the classic evening of dining and dancing at Halley’s – part of, but physically separate from the Starlight Casino.
- Kanto 98, a fun, westernized twist on Filipino street food as invented by Filipino-Canadian executive chef (Rostizado, Tres Carnales) Edgar Gutierrez.
- Bodega 124, the third Bodega Tapas and Wine Bar in town – these intimate spaces have the best seafood and interesting tapas (the original small plates from Portugal and Spain) in town.
- Montana’s. I was surprised and impressed by the excellence of the (smoked in-house) BBQed ribs … in a chain restaurant.
- Why Not – The atmosphere is rumpus room with black-out curtains, the servings miniscule, but the food, by chef Levy Biddlecombe, delicious.
Fine dining – okay, casually elegant dining – needs full employment, good incomes and consumer confidence to thrive. For 2019, pray for pipelines, ports and pro-business governments.