Bookers BBQ Grill & Crabshack
By Ellis Choe

Seafood and Southern Barbecue

Situated downtown in a century-old red-brick warehouse across Riverfront Avenue Southeast from the Bow River, Booker’s BBQ Grill & Crab Shack was created in 1998 at a time when barbecue and casual seafood eateries didn't exist in Calgary. Serving top-quality, Southern-style, smoked barbecue fare and fresh seafood and presenting live local rock ’n’ roll and blues bands plus a savvy selection of bourbon, Booker’s has become a destination spot for good food and a good times.

Booker’s is a fun place,” says Lance Hurtubise, CEO and president of Vintage Group, which operates a number of city restaurants including Booker's, Redwater Rustic Grille and Vintage Chophouse. “It’s a big party place. It’s party central.”

Booker's BBQ Grill and Crab Shack serves Southern barbecue and seafood.
Executive chef Myles Learning feeds 90-kilogram batches of spice-rubbed meat into Bonnie, the restaurant's meat smoker. Photo courtesy of Vintage Group.

Smoked Low and Slow

The restaurant is also barbecue central. All its meat dishes are smoked, not grilled. “It’s the complete opposite of grilling," explains executive chef Myles Learning. "Grilling is high heat and fast cooking, whereas smoking is low heat and slow."

The restaurant’s giant smoker, affectionately dubbed “Bonnie”, works 24/7 cooking up 90 kilograms of meat at a time. Her longest shift is the night shift when her slow-burning wood fire smokes the top-selling beef brisket and pork side ribs for 12 hours. The result: tender, smoky and flavourful meat seasoned with house-made rubs.

It took some research and experimentation to produce the perfect smoky flavour that suits the Calgary palate. “We use hickory here generally because that’s pretty much the most neutral wood,” says Myles. “In Texas, they use a lot of oak and it’s pretty heavy smoke flavoured. We’ve used it here, and let’s just say Calgarians aren’t necessarily used to that.”

Research and development of the tasty, carnivorous variety led the Booker’s team to visit the best barbecue districts in the United States.
“We took the best from each region,” says Myles. “From Nashville, we learned lively atmosphere and service technique. In other words, lots of napkins. From Chicago, we learned to hand cut to order to preserve flavour of the original whole brisket. From Austin, we learned the value of simplicity. It doesn’t have to be fancy to be good. We saw lineups to food trucks and trailers selling smoked barbecue. It was the best quality and it was packed every day.”

Entering its 19th year in business, the Booker’s crew clearly did its homework.

Booker's BBQ Grill and Crab Shack serves Southern barbecue and seafood.
All-you-can-eat-crab-and-rib Sundays are a customer favourite at Booker's. Photo courtesy of Vintage Group.

Crab and Catfish

Another crowd favourite is the steamed snow crab. "Everyone goes crazy for it,” says Myles, especially on all-you-can-eat-crab-and-rib Sundays while they're watching an NFL game on any one of 15 large-screen TVs. Blackened catfish is also a weekend bestseller. Dusted with a custom-made Cajun rub, the catfish is cooked in a very hot cast-iron pan, creating a mouth-watering, spicy crust. To wash it all down, the restaurant offers an extensive list of 38 Bourbons including the rare, award-winning Canadian Whistlepig Rye Whiskey and one of Myles’s personal favourites, Knob Creek Smoked Maple.

Having worked in restaurant kitchens since the age of 12, Myles feels at home at Booker’s as he knows customers do. “I can be myself here,” he says. “It’s relaxed, but there’s a lot of pride in bringing high-quality technique to a casual setting. As a patron, you’re getting that quality and value in jeans and a T-shirt.”

Booker's BBQ Grill and Crab Shack serves Southern barbecue and seafood.
Just east of downtown Calgary, Booker's sits across Riverfront Avenue Southeast from the Bow River. Photo by Ellis Choe.
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