Retrospective: The year in Edmonton restaurants

· The Pulse

Looking back at 2022, a common theme of gratitude emerged from Edmonton restaurants that made it through the restrictions that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, says a longtime observer of Edmonton's food scene.

"In all the conversations with all the local restaurants that managed to survive or expanded in the last year, the common theme was that they all recognize that many Edmontonians went out of their way to support local," said Sharon Yeo, the blogger behind Only Here for the Food and a frequent Taproot contributor on the food beat.

"That was something that I heard over and over again, that people are appreciative of the customers that are loyal in these times."

Will those customers be willing and able to continue offering that support in 2023? "I want to remain optimistic that folks will not take the local food scene for granted," Yeo said. But while the restrictions have eased, the pandemic has not disappeared, and a recession seems imminent amid efforts to control inflation, limiting some people's ability to eat out. Next year could be a tough one.

"I wouldn't be surprised if local restaurants continue to announce their closure," she said. "Unfortunately, I don't think we're at the end."

While Edmonton lost Blue Plate Diner, June's Delicatessen, Ohana Donuts, and Juniper Cafe and Bistro and others in 2022, it also gained a number of new restaurants, some of them instigated by developers looking for independents with proven track records to set up shop.

That's what drew the team behind Woodwork and Bar Clementine to Glenora's West Block to open Leopard. And Black Pearl Seafood Bar's decision to open a second location in Windermere, amid the big-name chains like P.F. Chang's and California Pizza Kitchen, also reflects a developer's interest in creating a dining destination.

"It's good business to have a vacant space filled," said Yeo, adding that it makes sense to form a relationship with a tenant that will likely last as "they've already demonstrated some success in the market and hopefully can bring that success to a new place."

The outside of Blue Plate Diner with picnic tables and umbrellas in front of the windows

Blue Plate Diner closed for good earlier this year. (Blue Plate Diner/Facebook)

Though it is less established than those examples, one could argue that Felice Cafe, which opened its doors at Stadium Yards in April, is part of that trend, too, as it filled a space in a Rohit Communities development that Jack's Burger Shack was unable to take during the pandemic. And although it was a customer rather than a developer that led Robert Spencer Hospitality to open Hayloft Steak + Fish and a third location of Woodshed Burgers in a vacant building in Cameron Heights, it began with the desire for something local to fill the vacant space.

Other restaurants expanded in different ways this year. Pal's became the latest addition to the growing collection of Old Strathcona restaurants started by the people behind The Next Act, and the group behind The Common invested in Fu's Repair Shop, which seems to be taking off with its hip vibe and pan-Asian fare on 109 Street. Century Hospitality Group's Birdog fits that trend, too, as owner Chris Lachance saw an opportunity in the downtown space vacated by Bottega 104.

Smaller establishments got into the expansion game, too, with El Mero Mero levelling up from a food truck to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the west end, and TAKOPO making a similar leap to the Phase III food court at West Edmonton Mall.

The past year has also seen the rise of a few independent cafés. The Colombian opened a third location in Parkallen with ambitions for more. Sorellina Coffee opened a brew bar on Whyte Avenue, and Fawkes Coffee & Doughnuts popped up on 104 Street.

It's encouraging to see such growth as chains like Starbucks downsize in Canada, but it's not a straight-across trade, as small independents tend not to stay open as late as the chains.

"There's definitely a big space for independents to fill in terms of desire for places for coffee and a place to meet, especially now that people are resuming in-person meetings," Yeo said. "I think there's a long way to go still in terms of people having places to meet in later evening hours that isn't a bar or a restaurant."

For her part, Yeo is a resource for those who want to continue to "dine local," whether it's through the Food Faves We Crave list she compiled with Linda Hoang, or by co-organizing Chinatown Dining Week, which will return in the new year.

"We see Chinatown Dining Week as an opportunity to ... remind people that there are lots of great locally owned small businesses in that area," she said. "(And) our mission with Chinatown Dining Week is to associate something positive with a neighbourhood that's most often discussed in the media for negative reasons."

You can tease out many more trends in Taproot's food coverage in Taproot. And subscribe to the Food Roundup to get it in your inbox every Tuesday.