Banff in the winter is a wonderfully happy place, perfectly festive when it needs to be, and that cozy place to warm up, eat well and hunker down under ironed sheets after a day out exploring. It’s the place we’ve retreated to on weekends since I was a kid, a comfortable hour’s drive through the Rocky Mountains I try not to take for granted – just long enough to feel like you’re away from it all, but not so far that you have to forfeit half a day and pack snacks. (OK, I always pack snacks anyway.) We rarely venture out in that direction too close to Christmas, knowing so many other families take the opportunity to (our schedule is more flexible than most), but this year we went out for a few days the first week of winter holidays, post-school and pre-Christmas, which allowed for some gloriously quiet shopping, coffee and games by the fire, and some exploratory food research to kick me out of my old Banff eating habits.
Nostalgia is a strong draw for me in Banff – as kids, my sisters and I loved going to Magpie & Stump, and now W loves the craziness of it. For decades, Giorgio’s was our default dining location – the first place Mike ever ordered something as exotic as fettuccine Alfredo, back when we were teenagers and he was invited along with our family. I was crushed when they closed it – until they opened a distillery in its place.
Somehow, I blinked and Banff transformed into a town that’s becoming as much a culinary destination as mountain retreat. Later in January, they’re celebrating all that’s edible with a newly expanded Big Taste, the culinary component of their annual SnowDays festival, and they’ve asked me to help get the word out. It started out two years ago as a single tasting event at the Maple Leaf, but this year it includes 23 restaurants spread out over five days of collaborative dinners, one-of-a-kind tours, tastings and other special experiences – the sort of things that are fun and unique and you don’t normally get to do. It’s all very affordable (or free!) and involves some of my favourite food people.
Like this guy – master distiller Matt Hendriks from Park, who is awesome and super fun to be around, who learned the art of distilling the basement of his friend’s Greek yaya – one of the original owners of the Balkan, has planned some whisky and gin seminars – you can listen, learn and taste and compare their Park Glacier Rye (made with 100% organic local rye and proofed with glacier water) alongside Alberta’s other unaged whiskies, or their Park Gin, distilled with Canadian spruce tips, alongside other local gins.
Park Distillery offers free 30 minute tours daily at 3:30pm year-round, and is worth a visit whether or not you make it to Big Taste – the distillery is wonderfully small – here they’re hand-labeling the last bottles of vanilla vodka (with real vanilla beans tucked inside – amazing) before the holidays. Sometime soon, Matt is going to crack open their first batch of barrel-aged gin. (!!!!)
Afterward, they’ll even mix you a cocktail. (The food, by the way, is campfire inspired. Cool, right?)
This time, we stayed at one of Banff’s newest hotels (the first in ten years!), the Moose, which is on the main drag coming into town, conveniently located by my favourite Banff coffee shop. It’s beautiful, with an enormous stone fireplace in the lobby and cozy rooms with a couch, table and gas fireplace in the living room, separate bedrooms and teeny kitchenettes – enough to bring your own stash of cereal and milk for 11 year olds who wake up starving, dishes and a microwave for reheating restaurant leftovers. There’s a (very small) pool, outdoor hot tubs and fire pits, a spa, and a washer and dryer down beside the underground parking. And it’s an easy walk to anything on Banff Ave.
I love that all the art throughout the hotel is by Canmore artist Jason Carter.
But my favourite part is the Leacock House, the childhood home of musician, photographer and mountain climber Leonard Leacock, which was a mail-order Eaton’s catalog house circa 1913. (They moved the house offsite and restored it before returning it to the hotel courtyard.)
The main draw of Big Taste will be the Grand Tasting Hall at the Fairmont Banff Springs (by the way, they have an amazing Big Taste weekend package), where on Thursday and Friday nights 8 local chefs will be on hand offering samples, with wines to wash them down – and 100% of Grand Tasting Hall ticket sales will be donated to the Banff Canmore Community Foundation. (I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend than lounging around the Banff Springs, eating and nibbling and hitting the frozen pond to skate, and the pool for a swim, all within walking distance of bed.) The other events are spread around town – we finally made it to the new Chuck’s Steakhouse, which took over the space that was Le Beaujolais for almost 40 years. It’s a total cowboy-themed Alberta beef experience – classic steakhouse meets Stampede, as chef Sal puts it. For Big Taste, Chuck himself (the father of the CEO of the Banff Hospitality Collective) will be joining a family-style dinner in their private Hat Room (yes, it’s full of stories and cowboy hats).
On the other end of the spectrum, Nourish Bistro specializes in vegetarian and vegan cuisine, and since this was a week of trying new things, we popped in for lunch on our way into town. Turns out they have this crazy delicious veggie burger that changes every day – check out those bits of crispy cheese.
They’re also known for their cocktails, and their resident mixologist Caleb Olney along with two other local bartenders are planning to teach a Big Taste cocktail class.
If you head up to the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity, I feel like not many people know about the Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar they have up there. Enclosed in glass on the 4th floor of the Sally Borden Building, the food is as stunning as I hear the view is – we happened to be there at a time of year when it was dark by 4:30, and looked out over a valley of colourful Christmas lights. I can’t wait to go back in the spring when we might catch a sunset, or summer, when we can linger late – the wine prices were among the best I’ve seen in the Bow Valley, and the food was truly outstanding. The biggest surprise was the kids’ menu – like a smaller version of the regular one (which I love) – W ordered a steak, which was as grown-up as the grown-up version, with similar sides, which I believe was in the neighbourhood of $12. (I have pictures, but the lack of good light doesn’t do the food justice. I’ll leave it to your creative imaginations.)
Not surprisingly, Three Ravens has been named a Top 100 Best Restaurant in Canada by OpenTable Diners, and it’s consistently highly rated on all the internet sites that track that sort of thing. Chef Sébastien Tessier and his team put together a special tasting menu for Big Taste.
Wrapping up the festival on Sunday night, there’s a really cool collaboration of local elders, Juniper’s Chris Irving and chef Nick Nutting of Wolf In The Fog in Tofino. They’re teaming up to create an “Indigenous Winter” – an interpretive culinary journey from Canada’s West Coast to our home in the Canadian Rockies. From the website: “Thousands of different plant species were foraged for food, medicine, and cultural rituals, ranging from algae to conifers and flowering plants. Meat and fish were hung, smoked, dried, salted or cached. These techniques remain important in today’s indigenous communities, and are often overlooked as traditional regional methods in modern culinary practices.” As I sit inside in two layers of PJ pants and my thickest socks, furnace cranked and oven on, I’d love to learn more about how indigenous communities foraged and preserved food through the bleakest winters. (They’re offering a hotel package too, so you can stay overnight.) And if you don’t make it to the Indigenous Winter, make a mental note that the Juniper has one of the best breakfasts anywhere – and because they’re right on the highway at the turnoff into Banff (the second one, if you’re coming from Calgary), it’s a perfect place to stop on the way in or out. (And lots of parking – something that has become a challenge in Banff these days.)
Here are a few other Big Taste events, because I’m now pushing 1500 words on the subject:
– Go for a ski and mountain lunch at Lake Louise
– witness Top Chef Banff-style at the Bison
– go for a Tequila tasting dinner at Magpie & Stump
– take a journey through Greek wine history at a Tsantali Wine Dinner at the Balkan
– learn how to make chocolate from cocoa beans (for free!) at the Cave & Basin
… and plenty of other things. For a schedule of events and to book tickets or hotel rooms, visit Banff’s Big Taste. And please to go to some of them for me – it’s a major birthday weekend in our family (3!) so I’ll be missing out on a lot of it this year. And if the events fill up, all of these spots are still more than worth the trek.
Huge thanks to Banff Lake Louise Tourism for doing great things, helping showcase our local culinary scene, and supporting/sponsoring this post!