“I come from a solid line of people caring about what you eat and drink,” says restaurateur Mhairi O’Donnell.
She was born in London’s Covent Garden, in a pub from the 1400s that survived the fire of London, where her trailblazing parents were publicans, and early champions of the campaign for real ale. Molson approached them in the ‘80s to open British pubs in Canada, and when an opportunity arose to partner with publicans in Calgary, they immigrated.
O’Donnell studied history at Mount Royal, and following a short spell living in Wales with her boyfriend, she transferred to study fashion design at Kwantlen, in Vancouver. She started a business there making custom wedding dresses, but the death of her fiancé brought her home to Calgary.
She’d worked summers in her father’s painting company as he believed it was a skill that she would need one day. “And he was totally right,” she says. “So I started a painting company and it went extremely well.” But by 2010, she’d had enough of working with chemicals, and missed social interaction, so with her savings she opened Mission Diner.
Badly flooded and denied insurance money, in 2013 she was forced to shut for six months, but opened “The Loop” cafe in Marda Loop. “Finally, by the end of 2014 everything was really looking rosy,” explains O’Donnell. “And then in 2015 oil prices fell, and we‘d gone through too much and couldn’t hold on. We were let out of our leases, so we left and I started Grate and Barrel, which I had popped up at Mission Diner.”
O’Donnell had a photograph of her grandmother and a man sitting on a dock, with ”Moonlight and Eli” written on. It was the most romantic thing she’d ever seen, and decided one day she would open a champagne bar, and call it “Moonlight and Eli.” That day came in July 2019, with the logo in her grandmother’s handwriting.
And what goes perfectly with Champagne? Cheese fondue! “Absolutely,” O’Donnell laughs, “I opened what I wanted to go to.”
While closed for COVID, she’d created a fondue kit, and it went so well that she’s now expanded to offer online kits for delivery in the Bow Valley at weekends to meet the demand from Canmore, Banff, and Lake Louise, with a special après ski wine list too.
So what bottle is O’Donnell saving for a special occasion?
“My true love is vintage champagne,” she says. “We’d had Throwback Thursday, where we’d open vintage champagne, the craziest I could find, and sell three and five ounce pours. I want people to be able to drink champagne, so I sell everything for a bit less than I could, then it’s affordable for people – and I get to try all these beautiful vintage champagnes too. The neat thing about vintage wines is that they aren’t anything like what you drink. The older champagnes get, the more peculiar they become, and I love that so much.”
O’Donnell had read a book about the widow Clicquot, and it had captured her imagination. “Champagne has a really interesting history, and it really sucked me in,” she explains. “And the house is also really supportive of women; it was the female aspect of Veuve, and of champagne, and of the region, and of the history of the houses, which I love more than anything. I love when women’s hands touch things.”
Her 1989 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Cave Privée Rosé is special as it’s the time O’Donnell came to Canada, and Veuve Clicquot was her path into champagne.
And when will she open it? “I think I’m just going to sit on it, and see how old I can make it,” she says. “I was able to taste a bottle of the vintage, which I’ll never forget, so I will be able to compare it. Something amazing happens every week in my life, so I’m sure something amazing will happen in 30 more years – and I’ll be like, “today’s the day!”