Now that summer is upon us, our minds turn to fresh air, sunshine and perhaps a road trip or two – especially to towns within easy reach if you have kids or visitors. Alberta has excellent pit stops – or make them your destination!
Better known for dinosaur bones than dining options, while Dinosaur Valley is largely populated with chain restaurants and fast food stops, there are a few hidden gems lurking in the badlands for the discerning food lover. Bernie and the Boys Bistro (305 4 Street W) is one of Drum’s most popular spots — it’s a simple burgers ‘n’ shakes joint, which fits the bill for anyone looking for a quick road trip meal. Bernie’s has become known for its $32 Mammoth Burger (with a 25 oz patty), but those with more reasonable appetites can explore the menu full of wraps, subs, pizza, and salads.
For some old-school Alberta charm on your way to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, stop at Whifs Flapjack House (801 N Dinosaur Trail). It’s kitschy and a little run-down, but that’s part of the fun when it comes to a roadside pancake house. Stick to the breakfast if you can — it’s affordable and suitably tasty. For something slightly more refined, Sublime Food and Wine (109 Centre Street) owned and operated by Chef Dennis Standage and his wife Stasha, is Drumheller’s best fine dining fare.
A selection of entrees like lamb sirloin with a cucumber and mint salsa, citrusstuffed trout, and the house specialty “sublime” chicken (with a creamy asiago and basil sauce) are all served in a quaint family-run atmosphere. And a trip out to Drumheller isn’t complete if you don’t venture off the beaten path to visit the Last Chance Saloon (555 Jewell Street) in nearby Wayne, Alberta. Not only is the Last Chance a perfect picture of Western Canadiana (it’s in an old hotel filled with antiques and artifacts) and also doubles as a unique music venue, but the kitchen serves up a mean burger.
There’s a lot to do in Medicine Hat — the Eastern Alberta city is home to many summer festivals (the Medicine Hat Jazz Festival is in late June) and every Albertan should make a point of visiting the historic Medalta Potteries factory (pick yourself up a bean pot while you’re there!). Luckily, the town also has some great places to grab a bite while you’re on the road. Any visitor’s first order of business should be to get a cup of coffee and, blissfully, downtown Medicine Hat is home to a disproportionate number of independent coffee shops, all of which are excellent.
The Station (644 2 Street SE) has a hip, big city feel and serves lunch as well as fresh baked goods alongside seriously caffeinated creations, like the Root Beer Godfather — an iced combination of espresso and artisanal root beer. For something on the unexpected side, Medicine Hat is home to one of Alberta’s top-rated Thai restaurants, Thai Orchid Room (36 Strachan Court SE).
Locals and visitors alike rave about the authenticity of this family-run restaurant, which specializes in Thai delights like papaya salads and traditionally flavoured seafood dishes. Beer lovers should check out The Local Public Eatery (579 3rd St SE), a spot that offers elevated bar fare, like super-crispy chicken sandwiches and goodie-laden meal-sized salads.
Better yet, The Local is ground zero for craft beers, including local Medicine Hat brews from Hell’s Basement Brewery and the Medicine Hat Brew Company. For a road trip splurge, local Medicine Hatters favour the Redwood Steakhouse (1051 Ross Glen Drive SE) in the Medicine Hat Lodge hotel. The menu skews towards traditional Alberta beef (with seafood, if you like surf ‘n’ turf) with creative touches like bacon and mushroom dust, and fun appetizers like lobster corn dogs and a wild mushroom fondue.
Whether you’re a hiker, photographer, wind surfer, fisherman, or golfer, or just love the beauty of Alberta’s national parks, Waterton has to be high on everyone’s road trip list. You can walk round this tiny town in under an hour – unless you’re tempted by one of the eateries along the way. And when you meet the owners, you’ll be impressed with the pride of local families doing local things, and you’ll be a part of the family in no time.
Wendy West has been in restaurants for 54 years, and return customers are her mainstay at southern BBQ joint, Trappers Mountain Grill (106 Waterton Avenue). They come for the house hickory hot smoked meat, and sweet potato poutine with smoked brisket or pulled pork… and regularly leave with a souvenir from the gift shop.
A few doors down, you’ll find Zum’s (116 Waterton Avenue), famous for fried chicken and eclectic décor. It’s only open in summer though, and can be insanely busy at weekends. There’s a beautiful view over the lake from the Glacier Inn’s dining room (107 Windflower Avenue). Known for steak, the focus here is local, organic produce; be sure to make reservations as it’s pretty much full every night from the beginning of June. Wieners of Waterton (301 Windflower Avenue) is just down the road though, and the Low brothers’ will see you right with their choice of local sausage hot dogs, homemade buns and toppings, and multiple sauces for your fries.
If you still have room, hop next door to Waffleton, their decadent Belgian waffle shop. And if you’re looking for a quick, easy and healthy bite, 3rd generation Waterton local, Julie Millar’s Taco Bar (300 Windflower Avenue) is across the road, offering up home-cooked Mexican food. Don’t forget to autograph the wall!
Turner Valley and Black Diamond
Don’t wait until you have visitors to take a drive down the Cowboy Trail. There’s such good food and libations to be found at the southern end that many locations are destinations themselves. Tiny Turner Valley is home to Alberta’s first independent craft distillery, Eau Claire Distillery (113 Sunset Boulevard NW). Housed in the old movie theatre and dance hall, you’ll not only learn how their gin, vodka and whisky are made, but be entranced with stories of prohibition and the oil boom, and the original artifacts on display.
Right next-door is legendary Chuckwagon Café (105 Sunset Boulevard NW), and their rib-sticking menu including their own ranch-raised Murray Grey beef. Don’t miss the flatiron steak eggs benny, which comes on a homemade butter croissant, or the shaved roast beef melt piled on a brioche bun. You’ll know why this cafe was featured on Food Network’s “You Gotta Eat Here” after ordering a burger or any dish from the all day breakfast menu, and you’ll be glad that you did – come very hungry!
Just a few minutes away is Black Diamond, an arts community with more excellent eats. Stop at The Westwood (123 Government Road) for memorable and beautiful plates; the bison tartare, wild boar, and homemade pasta are noteworthy. Sunday makers and growers markets start June 4-October 1 in the yard outside too. For fried munchies – kettle chips, pickles and avocado – as well as bison, beef and lamb burgers, Westwood burger bus is only a few metres away.
Before heading home, Marv’s Classic Soda Shop (121 Centre Avenue W) is a must-visit – a classic diner straight out of the 1950s, complete with a 1957 jukebox and table top boxes. Servers are in authentic costumes, and if you’re lucky, Marv himself might serenade you with “Hey Good Looking.” Choose a malt or a shake, or build your own float from a choice of seven flavours of ice cream and 150-200 types of pop (ranch dressing flavour or maple bacon soda pop anyone?) and treat yourself to Marv’s famous peanut butter burger.