Teatro restaurant’s historic building looms large at the heart of the downtown arts district in Calgary, the southern Alberta city of Canada not too far from the U.S. border of Montana. Why should you explore this corner of the world? Spoiler alert: Here, you’ll find a feast for all your senses, a restaurant to pin on your culinary bucket-list map.
It’s a storied fine dining institution with a maze of wine cellars in what used to be the vaults of the Dominion Bank, circa 1911, protecting an award-winning collection of almost 10,000 bottles. The dizzying selection of over 800 labels focuses on wines from Italy and Bordeaux, worth nearly a million dollars. “It’s not a bad place to get locked in, provided you have a bottle opener,” jokes Devin Morrison, Teatro’s director of operations, as he gives a late-night cellar tour. But the bounty of sensory pleasure for the taking here is no joke.
The iconic restaurant blends this history with the culinary arts, as well as architectural, visual, and musical arts. The Italian-born proprietor, Berloni, selected the modern art since opening in 1993, but he did it in a way that it fits seamlessly with the Beaux-Arts style of the historic 1911 Dominion Bank building made of sandstone and marble, designed by architect George W. Northwood. Original tile work rests underfoot the white wine and Champagne cellar.
Upstairs, past the red couch shaped like a woman’s lips and a series of black-and-white historical photographs, highly curated modern works by Calgary’s celebrated artists adorn the walls, starting with a 23-karat gold leaf piece by Christian Eckart. The latest art acquisition is an eye-catching multicolored Bocci chandelier that will have you craning your neck to look at it longer.
All details are attended too: Velvety royal blue banquets curve around tables cloaked in white linens. Curiously shaped dinner knives engraved with the Teatro name. And lastly – but certainly not least – the modern Mediterranean dishes come dusted, swooshed, and draped with fresh, carefully sourced ingredients presented with inventive, playful passion. It’s all part of bon vivant Teatro founder Dario Berloni’s vision of enjoying the finest things in life.
The restaurant highlights how Calgary is no podunk midwestern town. With close to 1.5 million people, it’s the fourth largest metropolitan city in Canada, according to the country’s census. Nothing exemplifies this big-city better than the restaurant scene in downtown Calgary, where Teatro Restaurant laid the foundation in 1993 for connoisseurs of the culinary arts.
Residents and visitors treat Teatro as a special-occasion destination in Calgary, which was once considered merely the Cowtown of Canada, known primarily for its annual summer rodeo festival, the Calgary Stampede. No longer. As the economy swings back from plummeting oil prices, the last few years have seen an influx of more sophisticated food and beverage offerings in this metropolis. Make reservations, and come dressed in (at least) business casual attire. Few places require a dress code in this welcoming culture, but consider that special dress or suit for Teatro, just this once.
The year 2018 marks the restaurant group’s talent for thriving 25 years by staying ahead of the curve, offering the area’s new craft microbrews, locally sourced, seasonal produce and yes, meat — sustainably raised. And it does this while diners enjoy a unique, on-trend atmosphere at each eatery.
“We have seven amazingly talented chefs who fundamentally believe in the craft of cookery,” says Teatro’s Corporate Executive Chef Matt Batey, as he checks on a table of diners reveling in a duck confit tagliatelle with pistachio-orange pesto and asparagus at Cucina Market Bistro. “That’s what’s great about this industry: It’s a choose-your-own-adventure ride.”
Here’s how some of the group’s restaurants showcase global dining trends.
After years of complicated concoctions that make the food unrecognizable, the world’s best chefs are now simplifying their dishes. They’re breaking it down to the most essential elements to let each part shine. Teatro’s signature restaurant exemplifies this with its scallop crudo, spotlighting fresh, hardly touched slices of conch, laid alongside cubes of late-summer melon, wide ribbons of prosciutto, and a sprinkling of patio-grown basil. You can taste each ingredient separately, yet together, they are much more than the sum of their parts. Take the duck breast pastrami, resting amid lightly browned brioche croutons, and mini mounds of bulbous mustard seed. “Calgary is not what it was in 1998. I think we can get away with more today,” says Certified Master Chef Michael Allemeier, as he sprinkled fresh fennel seeds into a roasted halibut with shellfish cioppino broth during a cooking demonstration. Allemeier helmed the Teatro kitchen from 1998 to 2003, and now teaches at the culinary campus of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.
Desserts on the Edge
Dehydrated milk crackers, crumbles and dessert dust may fleck your dish at Teatro, wheras Alforno Bakery & Café bucks the tradition of gelato by elevating soft-serve, transforming into seasonally changing flavors that translate like a palate-cleansing sorbet. At the bakery — which uses 200 pounds of flour daily to make fresh breads and baked goods for all of its seven restaurants — pastry chefs conjure fresh macarons with crackly crusts and oh-so soft insides in ever-changing playful flavors, from blueberry-tarragon and cinnamon bun to smoked maple and s’mores. The crème brûlée at Royale is infused with a hint of preserved spruce. At Two Penny, a nearby restaurant co-run by Teatro alumnus Andrea Robinson and Cody Willis, the soft-serve ice cream is so rich and creamy, it’s almost like gelato and comes in surprising flavors like black sesame or five-spice pineapple. For the really adventurous foodies, add one of those flavors to a Slurpee-style icy slush, called a Screamer. “There’s a lot of opportunity to be playful. People are open to it. To me, restaurants are supposed to be fun and an exploration,” Willis says.
People who aren’t even vegetarian find themselves eating more plant-based meals, not out of ethical or health motivations, but because the food just looks delicious. Have you noticed how colorful plants are? Yeah, we have too. Woven throughout the kale salad with chewy cranberries and almond slivers at Cucina Market Bistro, the shaved cauliflower looks like delicate slivers of hard, aged cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano. At Royale, the Vegetarian Tasting rivaled the elk carpaccio with tallow and truffle. Fried bars of pureed chickpeas, delicately sautéed squash blossoms, butternut squash, fiddleheads and stalks of broccolini sat in a shallow pool of beetroot molasses.
Like the nitro-brewed hibiscus tea at the new microbrewery ’88, several of Teatro’s newer, more casual restaurants offer something else besides beer on tap. Cucina has milk and cream on tap to lighten their sustainably sourced Fratello espresso beans, roasted in Calgary.
At Alforno, there is blueberry-cinnamon sausage, mixed with bacon (which is usually found in the gorgonzola arugula fig jam pizza), “we actually get it from a local farmer,” says Chef de Cuisine Stephanie O’Brien. As for its pork dishes: It comes from Bear and the Flower Farm, which raises free-range Alberta pork packed with Omega-3 fatty acids and no hormones, antibiotics or animal byproducts. Even when the product isn’t local, it’s sourced by meeting the farmer in person. Director of Operations Devin Morrison visits farms to tour the grounds and see how the food is treated as it’s raised.
Situated in the Calgary arts and theater district and named for the Italian word for theater, Teatro, a perfect dinner choice before a music, dance or theater show a stone’s throw across the Olympic Plaza, where the medal presentation ceremonies were held for the 1988 Olympics.
Not much is overlooked at Teatro. Servers strive to anticipate your needs before you are aware of them, Morrison says: “When you come here with your date, we want you to feel like a king.” ■