As a guide and tour operator, so many questions I receive are food related.
There is always bias in taste and I certainly have my preferences (I prefer thin-crust pizza, light cheese and always order steaks medium-rare to rare), however, my culinary view of this region is seen through the eyes of visitors from the UK, Europe, the USA, Latin America, Asia and across Canada.
Canada may have very few of its own truly national dishes (poutine!), but we are a wealthy, educated, immigrant-based society and our children grow up being exposed to so many different foods. From the predictable days of meat and potatoes (or fish and potatoes), Canada may now arguably be a culinary destination.
Over the last two weeks, I have eaten Japanese (sushi is everywhere), Alberta beef, French duck, a gourmet hamburger, Brazilian BBQ and more salmon than I can remember. This is typical. Tonight we are preparing elk.
Whenever in Toronto or Vancouver I am almost overwhelmed by choice, but even here, that diversity is celebrated.
Our entire permanent population in the Canmore / Banff / Jasper / Lake Louise area is fewer than 30,000 people, yet we boast somewhere around 500 eating or drinking establishments. These are tourism-driven communities and next to lodging, food services dominate the visitor experience – and expense!
As I have explained to visitors for years, the hardest single challenge in recommending restaurants is the constant turnover of staff. So many employees are seasonal or temporary (particularly foreign work visas), that as staff and management change, so do standards and quality. I definitely frequent places where I know the managers are locals.
Among the many challenges for food services is staff accommodation.
Housing is such a serious challenge due either to poor quality or as in Canmore’s case, a total lack of availability.
Over the years I have seen standards rise, fall and rise again! In my younger years, I worked in restaurants in Canada, Ireland, and France as a temporary worker. Restaurant work offers an excellent way to meet new people, earn OK money and to travel.
More specifically to my experience, I owned a restaurant in Canmore for four years and experienced all the trials and tribulations of restaurant ownership.
Recruiting staff was often difficult. Some would last only a few weeks as they moved on to another adventure or better paying job.
Even more difficult was staffing around a fickle schedule. There were the typically busy weekends and summer months, but other times there was virtually no reason to even open. Mid-week November would always cost me money, but if the restaurant did not remain open on a regular schedule, we would risk losing our regular customers.
This is certainly not exceptional in such a business but perhaps exaggerated in an expensive resort region.
Food and Drink Costs
The cost of dining in the Rockies is generally in-line with the cost of living. Eating out is not inexpensive, but drinking out can really damage the credit card.
For foreign visitors, some of this expense is offset by the recent steep decline of the Canadian Dollar. Whereas in 2010 the $C was on par with the $US, it currently sits around .76c. One British Pound (after the BREXIT vote) is worth about 1.70 CDN and the Euro is about 1.3 CDN.
Booze is expensive everywhere in Canada and in the heavily touristed regions of Canada prices are particularly high and pours are strictly controlled.
As a guideline, a pint of beer (with tax and tip) will easily cost $10. Wine is roughly 3-times the store cost and mixed drinks range from ‘special’ $6 to $20 for two-ounce specialty cocktails. These prices are particularly high in better restaurants and certainly in the Fairmont properties such as the Banff Springs Hotel
In terms of food, prices are higher, but good-value, good-quality is easy to find.
A hamburger (excluding chain fast-food) is $15-20. A good steak (very Albertan) can be $50 ($CDN). Most starters cost $10-$15 and main meals range from $18 – $50.
Due to the healthy, sporty nature of the region, diets are becoming greener and most menus offer good vegetarian options. I am usually happy with a starter and a salad.
*Many restaurants have lunch menus and off-season specials can be exceptional.
Canada is as much a tipping society as the United States. Personally, I would love it if the tax and tip were included (and this would be easier for the government to track) but alas it is not so. Fortunately, the sales tax in Alberta is a mere 5%, whereas tipping runs 15+%. 25% really is excessive, but calculating and extra 20% when reading the menu is reasonable.
Our local water is extremely clean, fresh and cold out of the tap. It is filtered through our limestone mountains and is perfectly safe to drink! As a favour to our environment, please drink tap water and use reusable containers when visiting this pristine environment. Have a look at Campbell River on Vancouver Island.
Style and Dining Culture
As tourism numbers have recovered and vacancy rates have dropped to nearly zero, there has been a trend to more sophisticated restaurants in the region. Prices have risen accordingly, even in the older, more established restaurants.
Certain fast-food and mid-level chain restaurants have remained – or expanded (Tim Horton’s is now in Banff), this logically fills a void. One must however note, MacDonald’s did close in Jasper many years ago!
Dining almost never has to be formal in the Canadian Rockies, although a few restaurants clearly cultivate an exclusive feel.
The Fairmont properties are the obvious example of this formal environment, although their food is often a letdown. The Post Hotel at Lake Louise has an excellent restaurant in which one must wear long trousers.
Overall, the Alberta Rockies can offer a vibrant and enjoyable dining environment.
The mix of Albertan, Canadian and international influences in a resort setting is fun and interesting. Because so many people are attracted to the mountains for activities, it is perfectly acceptable to go straight into a better restaurant in hiking or apres-ski gear.
On weekends the tone does change. Many visitors are from Calgary and Edmonton and until the decline in oil prices, there was a distinct feel of wealth. Because these regional visitors are familiar with the area, some come specifically to eat, drink and even dance. As a resident, I can feel a little underdressed on a Saturday night in Canmore or Banff (of course, we’re probably not trying to eat in a restaurant those nights).
Year round the mountains of western Canada are a world class destination. From very refined, to cooking over a campfire, our small communities are important enough that they offer a bit of everything. Hopefully, we may remain accessible to continue to welcome the world (not just the wealthy) and to survive the next eventual economic downturn!