Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Calgary restaurants in mid-March, an air of change was wafting through the industry. Thanks to both a difficult economy and an evolving food culture, restaurant customers seemed to be drifting away from heavier and stereotypically “gourmet” food and towards menu items that provide a balance of comfort and affordability.
Cam Dobranski and Jacqueline Warrell opened their Brasserie Kensington restaurant a decade ago when the idea of rustic but indulgent European-inspired food was still a novelty in Calgary. Already a well-regarded chef and restaurateur, Dobranski’s unapologetic love of opulent ingredients like foie gras and duck fat felt downright rebellious at the time. But things change. Before COVID-19 struck, Dobranski and Warrell had already decided that it was time to reinvent Brasserie Kensington and two months of shifting gears to sell intimate to-go “isolation kitchen” dinners to their regulars confirmed that it was time to do something new.
Brasserie Kensington officially closed its takeout doors in late May and later this month it will reopen as Eat Crow. While the first phase of post-pandemic reopenings may seem like an odd time to launch what is, for all intents and purposes, a brand new restaurant, the pair decided it was as good a time as any for a fresh start. Kensington has taken a hit as far as business closures go during the pandemic and they’re hopeful that Eat Crow will be part of a new wave of community-minded businesses that compliment each other.
“Every restaurant has its life span and we were ready for a change,” Warrell says. “And Calgary is ready for a change. So we’re really excited about it.”
Dobranski and Warrell are very clear that this isn’t just an update of an aging concept — they’re adamant that Eat Crow is its own thing. Brasserie regulars will recognize the bones of the place, with added features like a front vestibule and a gleaming bar stretching across the span of the front windows, creating a perfect Kensington Road people-watching perch. Brasserie’s cozy woodsy feel has been swapped out for brighter and fresher colours and high-top tables (spaced for social distancing, of course) to create a more vibrant atmosphere.
The changes go beyond the renovation and new furniture — Eat Crow has its own distinct concept, positioning itself not as a dinner hotspot, but as a “snack bar.” As a restaurant veteran with plenty of technical skills at his disposal, Dobranski will lead a chef-driven kitchen team bent on showing off some impressive techniques, but the food itself will fall into the realm of familiar and affordable bar snacks. The emphasis is on flexibility: customers can come in for a bite and a beer before (or after) heading elsewhere in the neighbourhood for dinner, or order a buffet of snacks to make a meal.
Dobranski plans to keep his menu relatively small and filled with approachable items that range from $6 to $12 in price. The Brasserie’s isolation kitchen stint taught Dobranski that there’s a demand for both vegetarian and gluten-free comfort food, so he’s kept those kinds of requirements in mind while putting together a selection of bites like sliders, chicken wings, root vegetable tartare, handcrafted perogies, and Dobranski’s version of General Tso’s Chicken. Dobranski says he’s fought the temptation to include some old Brasserie favourites and is instead really going to focus on putting his mark on dishes that even new customers will be familiar with.
While food will remain the primary focus, Eat Crow can’t declare itself a “snack bar” without carefully thinking about the bar side of the equation, and as with the food, Dobranski and Warrell have taken a “simple but done right” approach. The highlight behind the bar is the set of six taps of custom-created house cocktails. The beer selection will lean towards the cheap ‘n’ cheerful category, with classic food-friendly lagers (yes, Lucky will be served with pride) playing a prominent role alongside some easy-drinking local brews.
While Brasserie Kensington may be no more, Dobranski and Warrell’s other restaurants Winebar Kensington (which is directly underneath Eat Crow) and Container Bar (a seasonal bar in the alley just to the east of the restaurant) will remain, though Container Bar will be streamlined to share a menu with Eat Crow. Both Winebar and Container Bar reopened in late May as part of the first wave of Phase One reopening.
“I see this as us getting back to our roots,” Dobranski says. “We’re looking forward to having a little bit more fun and letting our guard down rather than being pigeonholed into a single genre of cuisine.”
Eat Crow is located at 100, 1131 Kensington Road and can be reached at 403-457-4148 or eatcrowyyc.com. The restaurant is expected to open within the first half of June at 50 per cent capacity to comply with social distancing protocols.
Elizabeth Chorney-Booth can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @elizaboothy or Instagram at @elizabooth.