Alberta’s Bow Valley is one of Canada’s most beautiful regions, a paradise for hikers, mountain bikers, skiers and snowboarders. Unfortunately, a British Columbia wildfire over the ridge blanketed the valley with smoke that limited my family’s outdoor activities from August 6 – 11, 2018. We did get one semi-clear morning at Lake Louise that let us climb to Lake Agnes, plus one afternoon looping Johnson Lake, but our trip up Banff Gondola was completely shrouded. Thankfully, we did find some culinary relief in an area that’s not nearly well as known for eating. Learn about 12 interesting options for food and caffeine in Banff and Canmore, including one memorable stop on a mountaintop.
Numbers on the map correspond to listings below and appear in alphabetical order instead of order of preference.
Banff Farmers Market runs Wednesdays in warmer weather from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. at Banff Central Park near the Bow River. Erin Tetley and Conor O’Brien have been baking Flaked Pies – savory and sweet pies with flaky crusts – since early 2017. I particularly enjoyed their sausage roll and hearty steak mushroom cheese pie marked with an upraised M. From Banff Ave Brewing Co., I sampled slightly tart and light apricot rhubarb ale. A couple also makes espresso drinks and cold brew in a van under The Rocky Bean Co. brand using a Sanremo espresso machine and Rave Coffee beans. They have typical drinks, plus a Canadiano (their take on an Americano). I enjoyed my cold brew from a compostable cup using a paper straw. More unique drinks included Campfire Choco, Karma Latte, and Tonka Mocha. Buffalo hot dogs and elk sausages from Elk Smokies also looked promising, but I abstained. The market also hosts live music under an adjacent gazebo. A woman on an acoustic guitar serenaded lawn loungers with Tom Petty’s “Free Falling.”
MUST ORDER: Banff Brewing Co. Apricot Rhubarb Ale, Flaked Pies Sausage Roll, Flaked Pies Steak Mushroom Cheese Pie, The Rocky Bean Co. Cold Brew, Saskatoon Berries
2. Bicycle Cafe
Jay Balabas is an avid mountain biker who overcame a broken neck on the trails, clawed back to mobility, and now runs Bicycle Cafe in downtown Canmore. As I previously noted, coffee and cycling go together like peanut butter and jelly. Bicycle Cafe sells, repairs, and rents bicycles and gear from brands like Cannondale and Giant and features a small, but finely tuned coffee bar by the entrance. A two-group La Marzocco espresso machine brews a limited drink menu with Stumptown Coffee beans. Just don’t ask for drip coffee.
MUST ORDER: Espresso Drinks
Chuck’s Steakhouse is an ambitious meat-focused destination on the second floor of a mountain-facing downtown building. Banff Hospitality Collective founder Mike Mendelman took over in 2016, replacing a 35-year-old institution called Le Beaujolais. Now the space houses blue-grey and wood walls lined with decorative cowboy hats, arrows, cleavers, and steer skulls. They tout themselves as “The Alberta Beef Experience,” preparing “ranch-to-table” cuts dry-aged in their fridge. A detailed paper placemat details info on the Calgary Stampede, Alberta Beef, key stops along The Cowboy Trail (Provincial Highway No. 22). We also learn about Chuck, a “born and raised Albertan” and his beloved dog Blu. Chef Sal Polizzi, Mendelman’s longtime culinary lieutenant, grills steaks over hardwood and mesquite before they’re finished under an 1800-degree broiler, basted in butter, sliced and served on a wood platter. I ordered Hand Select Alberta Prime New York Steak and Benchmark Farms “Natural” Ribeye, but preferred the 16-ounce, 28-day, dry-aged ribeye. The rosy, beautifully seared steak had higher fat content and rich, concentrated beef flavor. I’d also suggest a nearly textbook table-side Caesar salad with crispy romaine, caper & anchovy dressing, grated Parmesan, and croutons embellished with bacon bits. Chuck’s also takes sides seriously, whether that means char-grilled corn seasoned with black Cajun butter; mushrooms tossed with shallots and lemon; or rich potato gratin folded with shallots, nutmeg, and molten Gruyere.
MUST ORDER: Benchmark Farms “Natural” Ribeye, Corn, Mushrooms, Potato Gratin, Tableside Caesar Salad
Jan and Richard Hrabec turned to the Audubon Book of Mountain Wildflowers for help when naming their Canmore restaurant and settled on Crazyweed. According to my server, “It’s catnip for cows.” The couple debuted downtown in 1997, relocated to a standalone space by the railroad tracks, and now features daughter/Executive Chef Eden Hrabec’s talents in the kitchen. Decor includes grey and cream colored walls lined with artistic photos, cushioned banquettes and chairs, full bar, and patio with mountain views. Overall, the meal was more Asian influenced, and spicier than expected, starting with share-friendly small plates like an Icelandic cod & prawn cake spiked with Thai chile and plated with a slurry of punchy lemongrass turmeric picada. Tangy red snapper ceviche received unexpected jolts from serrano chiles, mezcal, and crunchy corn nuts. Pickle-brine fried chicken joined mustard green wraps, honey dill garlic aioli, and shaved serrano chiles. Larger highlights included pan-seared Arctic char served in a rich lemongrass coconut broth with bok choy, charred fingerling yams, and grilled eggplant. Rosy grilled slices of Moroccan lamb sirloin topped with mint-walnut gremolata accompanied roasted beet hummus, crispy beet, and tangy crumbled goat feta.
MUST ORDER: Arctic Char, Icelandic Cod & Prawn Cake, Moroccan Lamb Sirloin, Pickle Brine Fried Chicken, Red Snapper Ceviche
Alberta-based Jacqueline Jacek is a self-styled cocoanista (chocolate designer) who got started in Sherwood Park and later expanded to Edmonton. I visited her sleek Canmore counter that sells colorful truffles and bars in the back of Stonewaters home store. This is a great place to snag gifts for family and friends, but save some for yourself. I’d recommend a 70% Peru bar with salted almond and 70% Colombia with notes of “marzipan, black tea, clove, molasses, and licorice.”
MUST ORDER: 70% Colombia, 70% Peru with Salted Almond
My family and I climbed 1,300 feet from the mobbed Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise to reach Agnes Lake Tea House, a working “tea house above the clouds” that’s perched on a cliff and overlooks a waterfall, glacier, steep rock face, and picturesque Lake Agnes Lake. This iconic log cabin has been a boon to travelers since 1905. Operating at 7,005 feet altitude (so far from a road) poses serious logistical challenges, but they make it work at this hiking hotspot, brewing over 40 tea varieties and serving light snacks. I enjoyed a large pot of wild strawberry green tea that yielded 5 cups. An apple crumble sporting substantial streusel and fluffy biscuits with jam contributed to our welcome respite.
MUST ORDER: Apple Crumble, Biscuits and Jam, Wild Strawberry Green Tea