Like most larger urban centers, Calgary has more than its fair share of glitzy fine dining rooms and trendy award-winning restaurants, but some of the city’s best food can be found in the smaller, more intimate spots scattered throughout the city. From central neighbourhoods like Inglewood and Kensington to the sprawl of the suburbs, Calgary is full of off-the-beaten path restaurants that reflect the vibe of their respective communities and often surprise with the quality of their food and friendly service. While locals love the city’s big-name restaurants, the smaller neighbourhood joints are where long-time Calgarians are most likely to be found eating out.
Almost every neighbourhood in Calgary has at least one or two gems worthy of more widespread attention, representing the hard work and passion of its chef and proprietors. Whether it’s specializing in casual fare, such as pizza and burgers, or something more special like curries or tagines, these local favourites are all worth discovering.
For old-school Italian, with a twist: Cardinale
Cardinale started life as La Vita é Bella, but after a decade operating as a fairly standard Italian restaurant, in 2017 the owners decided to give it a hipper, more modern twist. It’s still essentially a neighbourhood Italian joint, with a selection of hearty pastas and antipasti, but with a more bustling feel. In addition to the pasta, the star of the show is the fun cocktail list, with drinks utilizing unique bitters and plenty of Italian spirits.
For Italian and Japanese fusion: Carino
Carino’s owner Toshi Karino has a varied background: Originally from Japan, he came to Canada to work as a sushi chef and later became a cook at Teatro, one of the city’s most prestigious Italian restaurants, before shifting gears to work as a sommelier. All of those skills come together at Carino, his little bistro in the Mission area. Here, Japanese and Italian culinary traditions come together beautifully, with dishes like pork gyoza dumplings with meat sauce and mozzarella cheese, seafood with curry risotto, and rack of lamb served Sapporo-style.
For rock ‘n’ roll and a touch of whimsy: Gorilla Whale
Gorilla Whale doesn’t claim to be a Japanese restaurant, but the chef and owners are clearly fans of Japanese food and culture. There’s a clear rock ‘n’ roll vibe going on, with old Japanese band posters throughout the dining room and a raucous soundtrack to create the right mood. The food is approachable but playful, with menu standouts like the crispy karaage chicken burger, “gorilla” fried rice with mortadella and fried egg, and halloumi skewers.
For top-tier beers and upscale pub grub: Inner City Brewing Company
This roomy taproom in Calgary’s Beltline neighborhood doesn’t just serve up award-winning beer favored by many of the city’s most serious beer nerds, it also has a food selection impressive enough to attract non-beer drinkers. Inner City’s menu was developed by Keith Luce, a James Beard Award-winning chef and former sous chef at the White House. Luce’s menu was made to pair with Inner City’s core beers, with salty selections such as everything bagel-spiced popcorn, nachos in a bag topped with smoked wagyu brisket, and juicy burgers.
For a taste of Canadiana: Klein/Harris
Klein/Harris is right smack in the middle of Calgary’s downtown, but it still feels like an intimate neighbourhood hangout, thanks to its strong independent spirit. Chef James Waters and cocktail curator Christina Mah work together to create meals and libations that reflect Canadian experiences and ingredients. Waters whips up dishes like Alberta lamb loin with seasonal vegetables or salads made with regional heritage greens, which pair perfectly with Mah’s “True North” cocktails, made with local spirits and house made ingredients such as spruce needle-spiked maple reductions or leek-and-lettuce syrup.
For some live music paired with Asian fusion cuisine: Koi
While live music still isn’t quite what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Koi is managing to put on socially distanced live performances in the heart of the Victoria Park neighborhood. While music fans are in the house they can dig into plates of ginger beef, kimchi fried rice bowls, and vegetarian black bean burgers, along with other Asian-fusion fare. The restaurant also showcases art by local visual artists, making it a haven for artsy types.
For churrasco-style barbecued meats: Minas Brazilian Steakhouse
There are a few steakhouses offering Brazilian-style meat in Calgary, but Minas chef Jose Montes prides himself on offering a particularly traditional experience with his juicy cuts of meats and sausages. The restaurant’s rodizio service (where waiters carve skewers of meat tableside) has been modified for COVID-19 considerations, and diners can order churrasco meat and side dishes a la carte or for take-out. Minas also serves tempting Brazilian-style desserts, like tres leches cake and passion fruit mousse.
For a casual meal any time of day: Vendome
Situated in the historic Vendome block in Sunnyside, for years Vendome operated as a café and brunch spot, but it recently renovated its kitchen to expand to a full all-day menu of upscale casual fare. Brunch dishes such as chicken and waffles and Vendome’s famous benedicts are still on offer, alongside midday and dinner options including gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and burgers, house made pasta, and fresh salads.
For an inspired brunch: Namo Café and Bistro
Every neighbourhood needs a good brunch spot, and while the community of Crescent Heights has several, Namo Café and Bistro is one of the homiest. The owners initially considered opening it as a vegetarian restaurant, but instead they’ve created a menu full of interesting and often quite healthy brunch and lunch options, with a little bit of indulgence and international inspiration thrown in. Menu items include the Far East duck breakfast bowl with duck confit and kimchi or a Penang satay stew. Walk-in only.
For authentic Neapolitan pizza: Pulcinella
Thin-crust pizza has been a dominating force in Calgary for well over a decade now, with Pulcinella, tucked into a quiet location in Kensington, as one of the pioneers of that movement. Owner and chef Domenic Tudda’s family originally ran the Stromboli Inn in the same location, but he later converted the restaurant into a contemporary Neapolitan pizzeria. Authenticity is no joke here: Tudda was the first Canadian to earn the Associazione Pizzaioli Napolitani (APN) designation, with simply dressed, ultra-thin pizzas that look and taste like they were made in Naples.
For a casual bistro in Oakridge: Purlieu
This 35-seat bistro from restaurateurs Jason Armstrong and Eric Mah offers hints of French cuisine with a modern twist. Sitting in the sleek, mid-century accented dining room, it’s easy to relax with a glass of wine and a table full of dishes such as Gallo mussels in a vadouvan French curry broth with a side of fries, or an Alberta-sourced lamb sirloin with smashed garlic potatoes. The restaurant is currently open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday.
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.
Lauren McDowell contributed reporting to this guide.
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