Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has altered how we celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions, most of us are still inclined to mark milestones with some kind of food. Some people are choosing to gather at home with a lavish take-out spread ordered from a favorite restaurant, while others are getting together with small groups of close friends or family to savor a good restaurant meal.
Calgary is full of restaurants ideal for celebrating life’s special occasions, whether you’re looking for a luxurious multi-course tasting menu or beers over a fully loaded pizza. While the pandemic has limited how many revelers can come to the table, most of the city’s celebratory restaurants are open for business and ready to help diners feel like they’re escaping the weight of the world, even for a couple of hours or so. These Calgary restaurants are all worthy of hosting small celebrations.
For eclectic fine dining: Alloy
Despite its unusual location near an industrial park, Alloy has been a go-to date night spot for Calgarians for more than a decade. Not only do the dining room and adjacent patio offer a gorgeous contemporary oasis that belies the restaurant’s oddball location, chefs Rogelio Herrera and Uri Heilik’s fusion of Latin, Mediterranean, and Asian cuisines also never fails to impress. Dishes such as the pork striploin with grilled apple salad and organic salmon with lemongrass coconut sauce always offer the right balance between surprisingly unique and comfortingly familiar.
For tacos and tequila: Anejo
There’s no need to wait for a Tuesday to celebrate with a plate of tacos and one of Anejo’s famed chile coconut margaritas. Located on a strip of 4th Street SW that has long been a hotspot for independent restaurants and bars, even in pandemic times, Anejo is a vibrant and lively restaurant. Its selection of over 200 bottles of tequila is probably the best in Calgary, matched with a menu full of Mexican fare like ceviche, flautas, and, of course, tacos.
For an old-school steakhouse: Chairman’s Steakhouse
For those nights that call for white tablecloths and servers decked out in tuxedos, Chairman’s fits the bill. A rare fine dining restaurant located in the deep suburbs, the large dining area has plenty of room for social distancing, with the convenience of being in a residential development. Obviously, the house special is high-quality steak, with many cuts on offer along with classic sides like hickory-spiced fries or an over-the-top black truffle double-stuffed potato.
For pan-Asian fusion: Foreign Concept
Chef Duncan Ly is one of Calgary’s most celebrated chefs and Foreign Concept is the ideal encapsulation of his expansive culinary vision. Ly draws inspiration from all corners of Asia, melding together Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and Canadian flavours and techniques. The restaurant’s cool contemporary design is the ideal setting for an intimate celebration over plates of squid ink spaghetti, pork siu mai, and beef short ribs with king oyster mushrooms.
For late night club vibes: Lately Restaurant and Bar
Lately opened in 2019 as an alternative for people who like the feel of a nightclub, the comfort of a lounge, and the food options of a full restaurant. COVID-19 has made the party vibes a little more low-key, but it’s still a chic place to safely settle in for some cocktails or bottle service and nibble away on char sui cauliflower, crispy rock shrimp tempura, or duck wings.
For sushi, noodles, and sake: Goro + Gun
During non-pandemic times, the downtown Goro + Gun is an after-work happy hour hot spot. While it may be a bit quieter these days, it’s still a great place to safely share a toast over a glass, bottle, or flight of sake chosen by the in-house sake sommelier. As for the food, the rich and tasty ramen is the specialty here, but the kitchen also puts out some top-notch sushi and Japanese appetizers.
For a new-school steakhouse: Modern Steak
Calgary has its fair share of opulent steakhouses decorated with dark wood and classic décor, but Modern Steak’s owner Stephen Deere wanted to do something a little bit different while still serving some of the best beef in Alberta. Both of Modern Steak’s locations (and their sister restaurants Modern Burger and Modern Ocean) boast contemporary styling, cool music, and a laid-back atmosphere, but the menu is completely serious when it comes to the steak. All of the cuts are specific to Alberta ranches, with the prized Modern Benchmark black angus beef coming specifically from the offspring of a bull owned by the restaurant.
For an elegant Indian dinner: Moti Mahal
Calgary is full of restaurants that serve tasty meals from every region of India, but Moti Mahal has thrived for decades thanks to its refined décor, family-run atmosphere, and extraordinarily prepared Indian dishes. The menu is extensive, featuring a wide range of complexly flavored curries and other Indian fare, including a large selection of vegetarian items. Because of the pandemic, Moti Mahal is currently only open for dinner, and diners who would rather celebrate at home can order take-out from a specialized menu for items that travel particularly well.
For a pizza party: National on 17th
Calgary loves its beer halls, as is apparent from local success of the National chain. The original National is the location on 17th Avenue, which got a light and bright renovation shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The large room has plenty of space for safe celebrations involving brews from the lengthy beer list and above-average bar food ranging from meal-sized salads and bowls to one of the best (and possibly most underrated) pizzas in town.
For a hands-on feast: Abyssinia Restaurant
This down-to-earth restaurant located along 12th Avenue SW specializes in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. Many dishes are served with injera, a sourdough flatbread that’s traditionally used as a ‘spoon’ for scooping up other foods, making dinner here all about rigorously digging in and savouring every bite. True to traditional Ethiopian cuisine, there are plenty of vegan options, and varying spice levels ensure there’s something for diners of all tastes. If you’re in the mood for something spicy, opt for the doro wot, a chicken stew recognized as the national dish of Ethiopia, or try one of the t`ibs featuring stir-fried, roasted, or fried meat for a milder but equally flavourful meal.
For a classic Calgary experience: Teatro
Sitting in a gorgeous old bank building right across the street from Calgary’s Arts Commons theatre complex, Teatro is without a doubt one of the city’s most iconic places to celebrate a special occasion. With tall white columns, a gleaming bar, and a bustling open kitchen, the room itself is all class, but it’s the expertly prepared food and robust wine list that truly dazzles. Some of the best chefs in the city have worked in this kitchen, and current chef Daniel Pizarro is no exception, with his menu of Italian-inspired dishes such as risotto with roasted mushroom, chicken with brown butter gnocchi, and Teatro’s legendary seafood lasagna.
For vegetable-forward dining: Ten Foot Henry
One of Calgary’s most consistently well-regarded restaurants, Ten Foot Henry isn’t a vegetarian restaurant, but it prides itself on having enough veg-based dishes to let vegetarians and meat eaters dine together in harmony. Sharing is the best course of action here (for those dining with others in their family or cohort, of course), as the restaurant specializes in small plates that are packed with flavour. Everything tastes good, but first-time customers shouldn’t miss out on the cauliflower with spicy gochujang, the tuna crudo with chimichurri, or the much-lauded butterscotch pudding with salted caramel and sponge toffee.
For Italian food from the heart: Vero Bistro
Vero Bistro isn’t the most famous restaurant in Calgary, but it definitely has one of the most loyal customer bases. Regulars flock to the small Kensington restaurant to enjoy food prepared by chef Jenny Chan, whose passion for Italian cuisine shines strong in all of her dishes. Her regular menu is full of Italian classics such as veal meatballs in Bolognese sauce, bucatini cacio e pepe, and Broxburn Farms tomato bruschetta, but Chan is also known for her specials, including evolving creations available for take-out meals.
For small plates and interesting wine: Von Der Fels
Since it opened in 2016, Von Der Fels (previously known as Bar Von Der Fels) has been serving some of the city’s most deliciously imaginative food. While it’s well-positioned as a trustworthy wine bar — anything they’re pouring is going to be good — dishes such as the signature hasselback potatoes with Fogo Island crab and brown butter are what really make VDF stand out. The dining room recently reopened to comply with COVID-19 guidelines; the restaurant is very small and tables are limited, so reservations are essential.
Elizabeth Chorney-Booth is a Calgary-based freelance food and travel writer whose work has appeared in the Calgary Herald, Avenue Magazine, CBC Radio and many other local and national publications.
Jessica Huras contributed reporting to this guide.