By Kim Gray
Ever since I moved from the West Coast to Calgary, Alberta, the enchanting River Café — a leader in the Canadian culinary scene — has been on my radar.
To me, the restaurant has been a special occasion destination. A place to visit when I have company in town or I’m looking for a business-friendly lunch environment. But it also comes to mind when I think of romantic nights out and milestones like birthdays and weddings.
Here, in a collaboration between Toque & Canoe and River Café, I’m pleased to bring you 30 reasons (celebrating three decades!) to love this iconic Calgary institution — a concept that was born years ago when soon-to-be proprietor Sal Howell saw an opportunity “in a park on an island, in the middle of a river, in the centre of a city.”
1. River Café launched in 1991 as an outdoor summer-only café (replacing a concrete concession stand) in Calgary’s Prince’s Island Park, a time when there were few restaurant patios in the city. “Guests just fell in love with it,” recalls visionary Sal Howell.
2. In 1995, the restaurant was rebuilt, featuring an open-concept kitchen, a fieldstone fireplace, year-round dining and a Canadiana vibe, with snowshoes and fly-fishing gear adorning the walls and a storied birchbark canoe hanging from the ceiling.
3. Nature is all around. To reach the restaurant, you need to walk through Prince’s Island Park. Depending on the season, you may find yourself travelling alongside waddling ducks or young families of Canada geese on park paths.
4. River Café’s surrounding grounds feature a sprawling outdoor terrace overlooking a lagoon, a dog-friendly picnic area and, in summer, an impressive chef’s garden bursting with herbs, edible flowers and fruit-bearing trees.
5. A River Café experience can be enchanting, sometimes even before you arrive. Kevin Kent, a sous-chef with the restaurant before founding Knifewear, loves visiting on dark winter nights when “you can see the restaurant’s welcoming lights in the distance and smell the woodsmoke as you approach. It’s pretty magical.”
6. River Café’s culinary team has always led the Canadian cuisine scene. Its inventive menu has featured dishes ranging from rabbit braised with mustard and crème fraîche to Arctic char with maple dill risotto to radishes sautéed in duck fat.
7. The restaurant’s hyper local farm-to-table approach — long before it was fashionable — is what attracted Executive Chef Scott MacKenzie to River Café. “I really enjoy the friendships we have with local farmers,” says MacKenzie, whose 30th anniversary tasting menu features wood fire-grilled Springbank Bison with parsley root and pickled chanterelles.
8. Over the years, River Café has embraced the principles of the Slow Food movement and the concept of neo (or new) gastronomy, which recognizes the strong connections between plate, planet, people and culture.
9. Much of the food prepared at River Café is cooked on a grill or in a forno oven fuelled by birchwood. The idea of using this style of cooking was sparked years ago when Howell was head cook on a backcountry horseback trip. “I prepared everything over a campfire,” she recalls, “and it was delicious.”
10. River Café’s food is as earth-friendly as possible: crops are grown without chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers. Meat comes from grass-fed, free-range animals that are treated humanely and raised without growth hormones.
11. The restaurant sources from over 60 suppliers, other small Canadian businesses that include family-run Highwood Crossing (organic flour), Canadian-owned Northern Divine (sustainable caviar) and Alberta-based Poplar Bluff (all manner of vegetables). Howell was honoured to champion Canadian cuisine and ingredients at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2006.
12. An active member of Canada’s culinary community, River Café has earned multiple accolades — including “Best of Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator for 20 years straight, Calgary’s Best Restaurants (Avenue magazine) and Canada’s Most Eco-Friendly Restaurant (Canada’s 100 Best.)
13. The restaurant was one of the first in Canada to feature Ocean Wise approved seafood. The Ocean Wise Conservation Association is on “a mission to protect and restore the world’s oceans,” empowering communities to take action for ocean health.
14. It was also the first restaurant in Canada to be certified by LEAF (Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice). The restaurant reduces its “fork-print” by using Bullfrog Power to lower its reliance on fossil fuels, encouraging staff to bicycle to work and minimizing waste at every opportunity.
16. If you’re a regular at River Café, you may have noticed that diners in the restaurant often look blissed out. “We try to ensure that everyone’s comfortable, whether they’re coming in to enjoy a latté or to experience a six course chef’s tasting menu with wine pairings,” says operations manager Heather Pedhirney.
17. A visit to this Calgary establishment feels like you’re honouring a living city landmark. “A lot of talent has moved through and grown with the restaurant over the last three decades,” says Pedhirney. “It’s helped us become who we are today.”
18. People who join the River Café team genuinely care about hospitality. “They’re passionate about what they do,” says the operations manager. “They know our regular clientele well, and they’re always excited to meet new people.”
19. The restaurant team is also passionate about River Café’s sustainability ethos — environmentally, economically and socially. That conscious connection to the world around fosters an unpretentious but elegant atmosphere.
20. You can give others the “experience” of River Café (holiday shopping alert!) with gift cards that make great presents. Bonus? These cards can also be used at the restaurant’s sister property, Deane House.
21. By its very nature (given that it’s literally in nature), River Café delivers on a rare, feast-in-the-forest vibe that takes celebrations of all kinds to the next level. Since its opening, several Canadian prime ministers and governor generals have visited during trips to Calgary.
22. The team at River Café have the expertise to pull off celebratory events. “People trust us,” says Howell, adding that this is something she takes very seriously.
23. Sometimes a River Café celebration travels elsewhere. Staff have created unique pop-up events in locations that include the Calgary Public Library, the B.C. Seafood Festival, California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Vancouver Aquarium, the James Beard House in New York City and The Four Seasons and Residents Beach Club – Pacifico in Punta Mita, Mexico.
24. Once having discovered River Café, people often make the restaurant part of their dining tradition. After moving to Calgary in 2008, lawyer Evelyn Ackah says it “was an unexpected jewel in the midst of steakhouses. I love it for fancy meals and holiday parties. I eventually even loved it for my wedding!”
25. Lifelong memories are created at River Café. Ackah and her wedding party aren’t likely to forget when, as a surprise and with a string quartet as back up, she sang a sweet rendition of Adele’s “Make you feel my love” to her new husband.
26. There’s an undeniable spirit to River Café, whether it’s felt dining next to a crackling fire in winter or while enjoying a warm summer’s breeze during brunch on the patio.
27. Constantly adjusting to the times, River Café is tenacious. In the early days of the pandemic, staff organized a spacious new picnic garden for guests so people could enjoy take-out comfortably en plein air.
28. River Café celebrates the human spirit. It’s a place where people can unwind, have a laugh and experience the pleasures of food and drink. “It’s rewarding to see our guests discover us, dine here and then make the restaurant their own,” says Howell, adding that she has a background in fine arts and she’s found her canvas in restaurants. “I love the artistry of it all.”
29. Surviving three decades in the restaurant business — through two floods and a pandemic — is a feat. “Sal Howell is a swan. Above water, swans are incredibly graceful but below the surface, they’re working like crazy,” says Knifewear’s Kevin Kent. “Sal has survived with grace and dignity.”
30. To celebrate their 30th birthday, the River Café team took a voyageur canoe trip down the Bow River. The experience infused Howell with “an overwhelming joy for life.” Still, she says, three decades is just a milestone on the journey. “I’m more concerned with the present and with tomorrow. Luckily, there will always be value in places that make people feel special and cared for.”
This post is the result of a collaboration between Toque & Canoe and River Café. As always, we’re grateful to our partners in travel who keep us paddling forward.