How Calgary’s longest-running restaurants do it
by Erin Lawrence
With new restaurants opening and closing every month in Calgary, it’s
easy to forget about the ones who’ve stood the test of time. Yes, dining at
the city’s newest hotspot or at a trendy room is fun and alluring, but there
are a host of places in Calgary that don’t need gimmicks, of-the-moment
ingredients or lineups to attract a constant stream of regulars.
Hy’s Steakhouse and Cocktail Bar opened its doors back in 1955, when Hy and Barbara Aisenstat saw an opportunity in Calgary’s underdeveloped restaurant market. So what’s the secret to a successful restaurant, not just year after year, but decade after decade?
“We never change our core values,” says COO Megan Buckley. “We have always treated our staff and guests like family – that has never changed.”
Calgary has always been known for its steakhouses, so it’s probably no surprise that another steak joint appears on this list of longrunning restaurants. Caesar’s first started serving premium grilled and hand-cut steaks to business types and diners downtown 45 years ago, in 1972. With its self-proclaimed “undeniably old school” décor, it’s a room to remember, for sure. Its Mad Men-era threeounce cocktails also give it a certain vintage quality that ensures customers return, both to the original location on 4th Avenue SW, and to its newer version, in Willow Park.
Not far away, The Carriage House Inn on Macleod Trail is also celebrating its longevity, after 50 years in business. Brenda Davidson, Director of Sales and Marketing, says that while a restaurant needs to be adaptable, some things must remain the same. One of the owners used to routinely walk around and pour coffee for guests. One of the Inn’s longest-serving employees also created a popular dessert that’s still on the menu today – Sally’s rice pudding.
“It’s about consistency and the reputation of the hotel, which is for great food and great service.”
It might be reputation, then, that’s sustained some of Calgary’s longest-running restaurants through tough economic times. When there’s uncertainty, most of us crave familiarity and stability, so it follows that diners will turn to trusted favourites when it comes to spending their limited disposable income.
There’s another factor at play, too – the people. An outstanding server can make a good experience truly great, while a bad one can ruin a diner’s night. The staff at many of Calgary’s oldest restaurants have been with their respective businesses a long time – decades, in some cases. They stay because they’re happy, and that enthusiasm for their work and love for the restaurant show in every customer interaction.
“One of the things that’s unique about us is our very low turnover,” says Andrea Cintula, the General Manager of Smuggler’s Group, celebrating 50 years this month. “Our corporate chef, Gary Hennessey, has been with us 23 years, manager Heidi Balogh has been with us 35 years, and that type of longevity and low turnover really does trickle down to the servers. We have servers that have been with us 16 years. That allows us to pass on (their) standards and knowledge to new staff.”
Another constant in these longtime restaurants is that they’re family-owned. Most of the restaurants featured here either started out as small family businesses, or have been operated by families ever since the beginning.
Smuggler’s Group is still run by the original owner’s children and grandchildren. The Carriage House Inn also has family ties. So does Silver Dragon, one of Chinatown’s longest-running restaurants. The bustling room opened in 1966, and serves hundreds of different Chinese dishes to hungry diners. The restaurant’s dim sum, served from wheeled carts, is a local favourite.
When it comes to keeping a restaurant running strong, is it as simple as offering great food, great service and a family atmosphere? There might be other factors at play, like location or advertising, but without those fundamentals, you won’t have happy customers – and you won’t be around for long. ✤
Read entire article in the digital issue of City Palate.