The Story of River Café
In the summer of 1991, we set about transforming an aging park concession on Calgary’s Prince’s Island. River Café began as a small full service café, operating summer only, with just a roof sheltering the tables from the elements. In 1995, we transformed the open air space, enclosing it with windows and walls to expanded the seating and operate year-round. We repurposed found materials and worked with local artists. Our vision was to create a unique restaurant that would feel as though it had always existed and that belonged in this remarkable setting along the Bow River. We built a fieldstone fireplace, created an open kitchen with an oven and grill that were fueled by orchard wood, and a bar made from a real boat. We created a large outdoor terrace overlooking the lagoon and landscaped it with mostly native plants which would flourish without irrigation.
At the table we wanted to serve a cuisine from ingredients indigenous to the region, a romantic notion of ‘just caught’ from the river. At that time, however, very few local ingredients were readily accessible locally through the established restaurant distribution. We had to try harder and we dedicated our efforts to source quality regional and local ingredients. We searched for foods grown and raised naturally, without chemical pesticides and fertilizers. We sought out heirloom varieties, indigenous and wild foraged foods, and delicious foods in season perfectly ripened. We developed a philosophy and important guiding principles influencing our daily purchasing decisions.
We connected with local growers and producers at their farms, at rural farmers markets and opened our back door to a steady stream of motivated suppliers ready to sell direct.
Over the years we have learned more about organic agriculture with direct participation in farms and gardens, sustainable ranching through direct connections with dedicated grass-fed cattle and bison ranchers, and have found good choices from the sea from sustainable fisheries. We search out the best producers dedicated to the best sustainable practices. We buy these ingredients at the fair asking price, acknowledging the cost and commitment involved. We honour the connection to these farms by identifying the provenance of our ingredients on our menu. We know that this has helped further develop awareness and demand in the market place, thereby helping small local farms be viable. Today, guided by our culinary philosophy, we buy direct from a network of over 60 producers. We also grow an edible garden at the restaurant, producing many herbs, berries and edible flowers during our short growing season.
At River Café we continue to explore, innovate and evolve. We are currently redesigning our infrastructure to address building efficiencies, expand our dining room and create additional agriculture on a new ‘green roof’, which we hope to launch in the next few years.