JIM BYERS PHOTO
104th St. in downtown Edmonton is filled with hip spots.
EDMONTON – This might be the next great Canadian city.
Or at least the next cool one.
Lots of folks in Toronto pooh-pooh Edmonton. Yeah, it’s a city that’s still rough around the edges. And, yeah, it’s a tad chilly in winter.
But there’s a very sizable gentrification going on, not unlike what has happened in Winnipeg and Calgary and St. John’s, and I get the feeling that folks won’t recognize this Alberta city’s downtown five years from now. Not that it’s turning into Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, but there are some very cool things happening in town and some spectacular food options and a real sense of optimism.
I had probably the best tacos of my life at a place called Tres Carnales in the heart of the city. It’s run by a trio of guys, one of whom grew up in Mexico. They’re wildly passionate about what they do and it shows in the marvellous food they prepare. No burritos, no chimichangas, no taco salad; just fabulous, fresh ingredients and tasty chorizo tacos and fish tacos and beef cooked with chocolate and chiles and beer and a crazy-good dish of clams with caramelized onions and pork with pineapple and a squeeze of lime.
It’s very colourful inside, with a focus on fun “Day of the Dead” figurines from Mexico instead of sombreros (thank you) and a cool mural done by a local artist. And they do a land-office business, sometimes with lineup 90 minutes long.
They’re opening a new place in the Mercer Building at 104 th St. and 104 th Ave., where there’s already a very cool bar/restaurant called The Mercer Taver n and a funky space for start-up businesses and fledgling companies. The idea, in part, as I understand it, is a place that serves rotisserie chicken Mexican-style.
The Mercer is sleek and sophisticated, with wooden pillars still charred from a fire in 1929 and exposed brick walls and a giant, old-time vault in one-room and a games arcade with Skee-Ball, foosball and Pac-Man, too. There’s an old bathtub behind the bar that they fill with ice and beer on weekends.
There’s a gorgeous flower shop in the building and a start-up space filled with twenty-something with perfect goatees (well, not the women, thankfully) and spectacular architecture. It’s kind of like the Distillery District in Toronto, but lower-key and much more hip, I’d say.
There’s not a million of these around town, of course, but even one is quite cool and a great start. The new Edmonton Oilers arena is slated to open across the street in 2016, and that’s when this area should REALLY take off.
“Five years ago a night out was a guy wearing an Oilers jersey,” one of the Tres Carnales partners tells me. “But the city is changing faster than any city in Canada, I think.”
104 th St. (see main photo) has some great shopping opportunities, with fun clothing options such as Coup and The Helm and wine bars and a fun bit of old neon signs mounted on the wall of a building across from the Mercer Building. Included is a great sign advertising the Toronto Star Weekly, so thanks for that, folks.
Downtown on Jasper Ave., which is still pretty hit and miss in my opinion, is the very sexy and very wonderful Bar Bricco . They do killer charcuterie, some of it flown in from Uruguay, as well as egg and cheese dishes and a wonderful filled pasta (agnolotti?) that you dip into a lemony sauce and then roll in a small pile of freshly grated Parmesan for a fun appetizer. The meat slicer looks like an Italian espresso maker, and the room is sleek and grey with lovely candles and great light.
I finished off the night with a drink at the wonderful patio at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald , one of the best hotel patios in the country. There’s a lovely formal garden with benches and great views down to the river valley, and the Fairmont drinks menu is always top notch. I was comfortable in a shirt and light jacket at 8:30 p.m. in May, when there was still plenty of light in the sky, and sipped away on a nice drink called a Bay Area Daisy with tequila, lime, VSOP and orange.
I bedded down for the night at the Matrix Hotel , a short block off Jasper Ave. It’s a boutique property that seems very popular with business folks, and it’s got a lot of cool touches. There’s a pretty waterfall in the lobby, free Wi-Fi, nicely appointed rooms with mini-fridges and a GREAT shower. The breakfast is quite nice, with oatmeal and fruits and cereal but also hot egg dishes, apple strudel and other things you won’t find at other hotels.
It’s not quite Le Germain or The Drake, but it’s a very nice property in a convenient part of town that’s good for business folks and people who like the personal treatment of a boutique property. Highly recommended. As is Edmonton for something new and different, especially with summer on the way and all that extra light they’ll be getting for patio season.