Embracing one’s inner carnivore is not an unusual thing to do in a city nicknamed “Cowtown”, but this was not your usual steak. It was pig-head mortadella, a signature dish at the restaurant Charcut Roast House in downtown Calgary. I usually avoid foods with the word “head” in them, but they are a magnet for my husband, and this one had arrived with a plate of other house-cured meats, winning me over. Charcut does, of course, serve a straight up prime rib – this is still Cowtown – but there are no sides of iceberg lettuce or creamed spinach. Instead, I had the crunchy duck-fat-fried brussels sprouts.
The growing sophistication that has given rise to restaurants like Charcut is part of a broader cultural evolution taking place in Calgary. Long treated as a pit stop en route to the Rockies, the city may be best known to outsiders for hosting a colossal cattle-centric bacchanal, the Calgary Stampede. But if some still think of the stretch from the Pacific to Toronto as flyover land, the smoke signals emanating from the city are inescapable. There must be a reason that Calgary kept landing on those best-cities lists; that it was growing at more than double the rate of Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver (by 10 percent from 2008 to 2013); and that people I met who knew the city spoke of it with such affection.
There are many reasons, as I learned on a visit during which I ate fine and original food, strolled the river paths, visited vibrant boutiques and art galleries and talked to some of the famously friendly locals. I found a city where a combination of petrodollars and enterprising locals are fuelling a creative transformation.
“Calgary is underestimated in terms of the culture,” said Viviane Mehr, managing director of Barbara Edwards Contemporary, an art gallery she opened last year as the second location of a Toronto venue. She had held seven openings in her first 12 months, every one of them packed. “The morning after the first show we had to touch up the walls, so many people were leaning on them,” she said.
When I visited, the gallery was showing the internationally acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge, but it is also bullish on young talent, much of it local. Tara Westermann, the gallery’s associate director, mounts regular scouting trips to nearby Alberta College of Art and Design. Westermann (26) was recently the valedictorian of her Master’s degree class at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York. Given the opportunity to help open the new Calgary gallery, the Toronto native moved to the city sight unseen.
As we were talking, one of the artists they represent, Kristopher Karklin (31) came in to fix a damaged maquette. Karklin is from Fort McMurray, Alberta, the hub of the Athabasca oil sands more than 400 miles to the north. Lately he has made a series of stark, surreal photographs evoking life in the work camps. “It’s a large enough city that I feel like I’m in some kind of epicentre, but small enough to have the feeling of a tight community,” he said of Calgary. “I would always want to have some sort of base here.”
But why leave when there is so much oil money sloshing around, looking for somewhere to put itself? The arts, like every other sector in Calgary, are intimately tied to the city's dominant economic force. One night we walked around and inside the irresistible Jaume Plensa sculpture Wonderland, a 39-foot-tall female head made of bent wire that is steel-strong; it resembles a giant hologram of white mesh. It was commissioned not by the city, but by the Canadian energy giants Encana and Cenovus, who are headquartered in the Foster and Partners-designed Bow Tower, a 58-story gleaming half pipe that opened in 2013 and whose plaza is the sculpture's home.
The sculpture and building are in downtown Calgary, a place of young men in good suits, grand old banks repurposed as (mostly so-so) restaurants, and Leed-certified oil company headquarters. Things are under enthusiastic construction: a new central library, a new National Music Centre, a new riverbank neighbourhood. It’s also a place where black, white and iridescent blue magpies suddenly appear, nonchalant as pigeons, and where a human “Habitrail” of overhead glass walkways – at least 57 of them, 10 miles’ worth – foretell the long and frigid winter.
But the city is by no means all corporations and concrete. Beyond the towers and tubes, three of Calgary’s most vibrant neighbourhoods – Inglewood, Kensington and 17th Avenue SW – form a constellation around downtown, from where they can be reached by ambitious pedestrians or on easy-to-navigate public transportation.
From downtown, we rode quickly by bus over the Ninth Avenue bridge to Inglewood and walked to the Gravity Espresso and Wine Bar to meet Michael Noble, a chef with a locally renowned establishment, Notable, who is planning another restaurant a block away. Called the Nash, it is to inhabit a century-old building and is to open in November. “I love the sense of community here,” he said of Inglewood, which was first settled in the late 1800s. Noble, who was born in Calgary, spent time in Monaco, Bern and Vancouver before returning in 2002. “This city has become a lot more sophisticated in the last 12 years.”
He sent us around the corner to Espy, a clothing store with made-to-measure shirts and customised suits for men and women; it is owned by Megan Szanik, Noble’s girlfriend. She was working the floor, rocking a vintage dress and a rakishly angled hat. Among other things, she is known for staging an annual cancer fundraiser involving dozens of men who strip to their underpants and parade in front of the store.
From Espy it would have been just a few steps to the Esker Foundation, a privately funded, 13,000sq ft gallery that Mehr said was the best contemporary art exhibitor in the city. (Others might point downtown to the long-established Glenbow Museum, which has the largest art collection in western Canada and a wealth of regional works.) Unfortunately the Esker Foundation was between its summer and fall shows, so I had to mark it for a return visit.
I didn’t have to wander far down Ninth Avenue SW, though, before stumbling upon DaDe Art and Design Lab. It was setting up for an opening featuring the work of Darcy Lundgren, who covers large surfaces with shredded recycled paper and splashes them with paint, suggesting vertical lawns that invite the viewer to touch. An art gallery, furniture store and design company sprawled over 3,000sq ft in what appeared to be a chic garage, DaDe shows off local and international artists.
The next day we took the bus to Kensington with a plan to walk back to our downtown hotel. Its busy sidewalks gave off a student vibe – both the Alberta College of Art and Design and the University of Calgary are within several miles. We stopped at the independent secondhand bookstore and then holed up for fortification at the Roasterie, a cafe with a roasting operation inside the front door, all run by a man whose business card says “El Jefe”. On benches outside, customers with the relaxed mien of regulars basked under the Kodachrome blue sky. Inside I sought clarification about the weather, having heard about a freak September snowstorm weeks earlier. Was there really sunshine nearly all of the year? Yes, the bespectacled barista said. “This is a high semi-arid plain. We’re like Tibet but two kilometers lower.”
The real beauty of Kensington is the view from the foot of 10th Street NW, looking across the Bow River to a city skyline that served as a backdrop for fishermen and rafters enjoying the last days of summer. From Kensington we walked east along the river, passing cyclists and runners, until we arrived at the pedestrian Peace Bridge, designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and unveiled in 2012. Most of his bridges and buildings around the world come in sleek whites and greys; in Calgary, he decided to go with bright red. If it looks like a futuristic spear zooming right at the heart of city, the artistic departure befits a place that generates its own heat.
The next day I walked the length of 17th Avenue SW, where residents in sunglasses lounged on restaurant patios chasing brunch with beer, or stood in line for poutine, the Quebec dish of fries, curds and gravy that has broadened its reach across the nation. In a nearby cafe I met up with Greg Clark (43), a politician whom I had met via four degrees of separation. I was hoping he would identify some essential Calgary-ness for me, explaining the city’s bursting growth and increasing polish.
“It’s the ultimate meritocracy,” he said, of a business/political culture where things get done quickly and no one cares where you came from. I couldn’t help but think that this frontier spirit pervades the arts too. It’s not an old-money kind of place. “The wealth is younger and edgier here,” said gallery director Mehr. “This city is so excited about supporting young talent.”
WHERE TO STAY
Book hotels up to a year in advance for visits during the July Calgary Stampede.
Inglewood Bed and Breakfast (1006 Eighth Ave. SE; 403-262-6570; inglewoodbedandbreakfast.com) is a block from shop-lined Ninth Avenue SE and next to the Bow River path, which offers easy access to other neighborhoods. Rooms from Ca$100, roughly equal to US dollars.
The year-old Kensington Riverside Inn (1126 Memorial Drive NW; 403-228-4442; kensingtonriversideinn.com) offers 19 rooms. From Ca$219 for a double.
Hôtel Le Germain Calgary (899 Centre St. SW; 403-264-8990; germaincalgary.com) for downtown luxury. From Ca$279 for a double.
WHERE TO EAT
Charcut Roast House, 899 Centre St SW; 403-984-2180; charcut.com.
Notable, 4611 Bowness Road NW; 403-288-4372; notabletherestaurant.ca.
Roasterie, 314 10th St. NW; 403-270-3044; roasterie.com.
WHERE TO SEE ART
Barbara Edwards Contemporary, 1114 11th St. SW; 587-349-2014; becontemporary.com.
DaDe Art and Design Lab, 1327 Ninth Ave. SE; 403-4540243; dadegallery.com.
Esker Foundation, fourth floor, 1011 Ninth Ave. SE; 403-930-2490; eskerfoundation.com.
The Glenbow Museum, 130 Ninth Ave. SE; 403-268-4100; glenbow.org.
– The New York Times