River Cafe
By Elizabeth Chorney-Booth

An Urban Oasis

When Sal Howell and her then business partners bought the rights to the concession on Prince’s Island Park, Sal knew the spot had the potential to be much more than an outdoor kiosk selling hotdogs and other summer snacks. In 1991, The River Cafe launched as a seasonal open-air restaurant, and in 1994, Sal built walls around the building and turned it into the full-fledged year-round restaurant that it is today (with the exception of the month of January, when Sal and her staff take a month-long break). Twenty years later, River Cafe is not only thriving, but is consistently regarded by critics and diners as one of Calgary’s best restaurants.

This is a piece of nature in the middle of the city. - Sal Howell, owner
River Cafe, Oysters, salads, soup, fish, beef, bison, seafood, brunch, wine, cocktails
The restaurant’s decor reflects its idyllic river-park location.

A Special Place

Other than the unique location — on an island park that visitors must reach by foot — it’s Sal’s personal outlook that makes the restaurant a truly special place. Her background as an arts student and her love of the Rocky Mountains inspired her to design a dining room that reflects The River Cafe’s natural surroundings and all the things she loves about nature. The large-windowed restaurant is decorated with rustic wood furniture, light fixtures covered with animal hide shades, canoes, skis and a large wood-burning fireplace.

Sal says her vision was to create a building that respected its idyllic location. “I’ve always had a very keen sense of appropriateness and things that belong,” she says. “This is a piece of nature in the middle of the city.”

River Cafe, Oysters, salads, soup, fish, beef, bison, seafood, brunch, wine, cocktails
River Cafe owner Sal Howell designed her restaurant with its Prince’s Island Park setting in mind.

Food For Thought

While the room and the location are a big part of the River Cafe’s charm, the food is the star of the show. Chef Andrew Winfield shares Sal's belief that the restaurant needs to fit in with the elements around it and the menu, filled with seasonal produce and locally sourced meat, reflects that philosophy. Andew’s creative menu is constantly evolving, but it’s likely to feature dishes such as impeccably executed bison strip loin, wild boar chops and West Coast fish.

Sal and her staff also try to run the restaurant sustainably, adhering to a series of environmental standards. She sees all of this as being part of the same thread that has guided her through the design of the restaurant, and Andrew in the creation of the menu. These are the same principles upon which The River Cafe was  built, and Sal is pleased that they’ve now become fashionable and many other restaurants are following similar guidelines.

“I’m always about the whole package,” she says. “We used to stay quiet about our values and beliefs and why we chose certain ingredients, but now we’ve become more vocal advocates on making good choices and how to improve our food system.”

River Cafe, Oysters, salads, soup, fish, beef, bison, seafood, brunch, wine, cocktails
River Cafe is located a short walk north of Eau Claire Market.
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