As Stephen Avenue’s premier gastropub, Libertine Public House serves high-quality food along with great drinks
A lot of pubs pour the pint, dish out the burger and fries and call it a day. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but when you can seat a few hundred people (presumably hungry and thirsty ones at that) and need to juggle a plethora of group reservations and events, there’s a lot more to consider than just serving a cold beer and hot food.
Libertine, which turns 3 in June, is Stephen Avenue’s premier gastropub. That is a word that people throw around a lot these days, so what exactly does it mean? Coined in England in 1991, ‘gastropub’ stands for a pub (surprise!) that serves high-quality food. In other words, come for the food, stay for the booze.
Opening around the same time as Craft Beer Market back in 2011, many other gastropubs began popping up shortly after, like Beer Revolution, National and The Pig and Duke, just to name a few, proving that the upscale pub trend had officially hit Calgary. Still to this day, it doesn’t really show any signs of slowing down.
Walking through the doors of the restaurant, you’ll find the front area flooded with natural light coming from the floor-to-ceiling windows. When the snow melts and temperatures rise, they also pop open, making way to a small patio facing the bustling Avenue, a seasonal addition that adds to their seat numbers, which is already at a whopping 400.
“A lot of people don’t even realise that we have an upstairs here,” says Kelly Mandeville, Libertine’s marketing manager, on the unexpected size of the establishment. “People come into the pub several times before they even ask what’s up there! Ha, ha, ha.”
Primarily used for group bookings, the upstairs is also a bright, open room with another set of floor-to-ceiling windows, polished concrete floors and an accent exposed brick wall. If you’re not sitting in one of the many booths – either upstairs or down – lit up by old kegs turned into light fixtures, the long ‘U’ shaped bar makes for a great spot.
Essentially, Mandeville is in charge of making sure things run smoothly here. As important as cuisine is to any quality establishment, in spaces like this, it’s equally important to have someone who’s able to juggle (and promote) all of the events, like cask nights and brewmaster dinners, as well as the never-ending list of big party bookings.
“It’s kind of the best of both worlds, I’m able to pull from everything I enjoy doing. I like being organised, I like having fun, it’s just the best fit for me. I’m able to keep moving, stay creative, meet people and it’s interactive, and I have as much fun with it as I want to.”
She continues, “Sometimes we’ll have, say, 250 upstairs and about 150 down here or 70 over there, 50 in the corner, 50 up there, 50 there…It can be a lot. You need to have people that know what they’re doing because people will be coming and going and coming and going. You have to plan the crap out of it.”
Kelly Mandeville, Libertine Public House’s marketing manager and Mel LaFleur, executive chef. Photos by Ingrid Kuenzel.
Manning, er, heading up the kitchen here, is seasoned local chef, Mel LaFleur. After joining the 3 Horn restaurant group back in fall 2013, LaFleur brings with her years of experience from The Vintage Group, as well as time spent in charge of the kitchen at National 17.
“I think the food scene has gotten a lot more laid back, it’s not so hoighty-toighty, you know, as ‘white table linens’ like it used to be.” says Lafleur on the style of food Calgarians look to nowadays. “I think things are a lot more comfortable and easy. I mean, look down 17th Avenue, everything’s so casual, and that’s great!”
Since coming on board, Lafleur has happily reworked the restaurant’s menu with her more home-style take on pub food, drawing inspiration from her family and comforting dishes from her home kitchen.
“Being on Stephen Avenue, you do have to be a bit more meat heavy, obviously.” Lafleur admits as she smiles. “But, more fresh fish and things that I would want to cook and eat at home are things I am bringing to the menu here.” She continues, “At home, I love cooking up a lot of things that my grandma taught me how to make…I love making curry, especially vindaloo from scratch. It’s really amazing.”
Out of the chef’s love of warming curries, a big bowl of rich and comforting pappardelle has found its way onto the menu. A house-made curry sauce, using her own blend of spices, coats big noodles, langoustines and tomatoes, making for a surprisingly aromatic dish that’s fitting for a rainy (or snowy) early Spring day.
Also, you’ll find dishes like a big, meaty elk burger on the menu, topped with mushroom ragout and sweet fig jam or a flatbread – perfect for sharing – topped with a spicy bison salami, nicoise olives, mozzarella and more.
Lafleur’s elk meatballs are especially satisfying, coming out of the kitchen piping hot in an iron skillet with a sweet and salty soy-based sauce and double-smoked bacon, finished with crumbled blue cheese for a little extra punch. Last, but not least, the confit duck clubhouse sandwich is a triple-decker piece of heaven. Tender confit duck meat is layered with crisp lettuce, tomatoes, bacon, smoked Gouda and house made red pepper jelly. You‘ll never look at a standard clubhouse the same way after having this one.
Another thing that helps in a buzzing atmosphere, chock full of happy drinkers, is having a personable demeanour, and that goes for the front of house and the back of house! Especially these days when customers are increasingly interested in who’s running the kitchen and executing their food, it helps when a chef can put on a smile and engage in conversation. Luckily, Lafleur has personality in spades.
“She’s so fresh. Ha, ha. She has a ton of energy, she’s positive and she’s so talented,” explains Mandeville of working with Chef Lafleur. “But, she makes good food, that really is the best part. It’s like having that one friend that you know will bring good food to your party. Then you know you’re set!”
The Libertine’s pappardelle, pizza, and confit duck clubhouse. Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel.
On the drinks side of things, Libertine’s beer selection does pale in comparison to the tap selections of micro-giants (perhaps the most perfect oxymoron to ever be weaved into a sentence) Craft or National. Having said that, they pride themselves on traveling, researching, and offering their patrons an interesting array of microbrews throughout the year.
Whether it’s a seasonal pint from local microbrewery, Village, or a few kegs from Phillips Brewing Co in Victoria, or Rogue Brewery in Portland, rest assured that the bartenders here can pour you a glass of something even a beer aficionado would be proud of sipping.
When they’re not dishing out the regular menu to a packed restaurant of downtown 9-5ers over the lunch hour, the pub is also known for their signature pig roasts in the evenings. A big, bad smoker in their kitchen allows groups to enjoy a succulent, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, hog with all the fixings for a get-together.
“Every Wednesday at 5 we do the free pig roast here and we pack the house with it!” says Lafleur.
Mandeville continues, “A lot of people who have never had a pig roast, but are interested in doing one with us, then it is the perfect time to come down to try it out. Peoplealways ask, ‘Is there an apple in its mouth?’ or ‘Is there pineapple on it?’ Ha, ha, ha. Just come, just come down and see!”
The synergy between the two women at The Libertine, a balancing act of food and service quality, and a revolving door of happenings, are what helps to keep establishments like this successful for years to come. Cheers to many more years of cold beers and good food at this great definition of a ‘gastropub’.