Over the last several months Whistler has witnessed some iconic changes in its culinary scene — from the sale of Araxi, to the closing of Citta', to the loss of Pascal Tiphine of Le Gros — time has shown us that nothing stands still. But how have Whistler's gastronomic gourmets influenced today's food scene and what does the future hold? Read on to find out what Pique discovered about the past, present and future of food in Whistler.
Jack Evrensel and his wife had always dreamed of opening their own restaurant.
Like other aspiring entrepreneurs, they knew location was essential, but in the case of this young Montreal couple, that consideration was less about business than it was about pleasure.
"Our idea was to open a restaurant in a ski resort," Evrensel recalled, "for fun."
Besides, how much work could it be, he thought. Sweat it out for a few hours behind the grill each day, leaving just enough time to hit the slopes and squeeze in some runs before a trip to Stoney's or the Alta Lake Inn or the Boot Pub for a little après fun. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But a life of ski-bum lethargy was not in the cards for Evrensel, who launched his West Coast restaurant empire on a chilly Halloween night in 1981 with the opening of Araxi, which would go on to become one of Canada's most acclaimed fine dining establishments.
There was no market research, no consulting with industry experts and really, no business plan to speak of. Like many of his fellow resort restaurateurs from those days, Evrensel pushed forward through sheer ambition and hard work, opening daily from morning 'til night in order to cater to the smattering of hungry hippies and expats who called Whistler home.
Araxi was, like the other three or four eateries in business at the time, everything to everyone, and the menu reflected that. You could find $6 burgers alongside fresh Dover sole, not to mention an outrageously extensive drink menu that featured 100 wines and beers.
Sure, the dearth of food options in Whistler played a huge role in Evrensel's every-man approach, but there was also something else that inspired him and that early wave of Whistler entrepreneurs.
"Basically, I fell in love with the rendering of what the village would look like," he explained, referring to Eldon Beck's grand vision for the former site of the municipal landfill that would officially open as the Whistler Village in December 1981.
That he had the prescience to foresee what Whistler would ultimately become says as much about Evrensel as it does the sense of optimism sweeping through the resort in those days — "a city on fast forward," he called it — and the pioneers of Whistler's now-thriving restaurant industry wanted to reflect those heady ideals.
"In the beginning, it was important that Araxi was a good restaurant for Whistler," Evrensel said. "I felt Whistler was world-class, so why wouldn't the restaurant be as well? Why wouldn't we do something that would rival anywhere else? Why would anywhere be more passionate than us about what they do?"
It's a maxim that could just as easily apply to the nascent resort restaurant scene of the early '80s as it can now. And while clearly Whistler and its culinary sector has evolved by leaps and bounds into the world-class status Evrensel envisioned, the traits that made a restaurateur successful back then are still applicable today: a tireless work ethic, a thorough understanding of the local market and a refusal to follow the status quo.
Talk to some of the long-time locals long enough about what made the resort's early restaurants so special and the word that keeps popping up is independence. It's the desire for independence, to free yourself from the structures of everyday life outside "the Whistler bubble" that keeps people coming back to the mountain town, even today.
So it's no surprise that the kind of person who would start a restaurant in a tiny ski enclave with less than 1,000 residents, often with virtually no prior business experience, would tend to do things their own way.
"It was a lot more independent in those days," recalled Bob Dawson, who opened the Creekhouse restaurant in 1980 with several partners before founding RimRock Café six years later. "They were passionate, loved restaurants and came to Canada and found a new life."
Along with their shared independent streak, the Godfathers of Whistler's restaurant scene, as they're affectionately referred to, were mostly European transplants looking for a little adventure and a place to share the cuisine of their homelands. You had Joel Thibault of Chez Joel, and later Bavaria; fellow Frenchman Pascal Tiphine of Le Gros; Spaniards Mario Enero of La Rua and Caramba alongside Kike Redondo and his Kypriaki Norte, not to mention Italian-born Antonio Corsi of Quattro and Umberto Menghi and his first resort restaurant, Il Caminetto.
They refused to consider themselves as rivals competing for the same sliver of business, and recognized early on that they had to work together if they wanted to forge a lasting reputation for Whistler's dining scene.
"To me, they're a group of guys that really put Whistler on the map in the '80s," said Whistler Real Estate owner Pat Kelly and resort resident for 30-plus years. "People knew these restaurants were here, and a big part of your weekend in Whistler was to come up and go to one of them. It was just part of the ritual."
But even with the village open for business, operating a restaurant in Whistler was not without its challenges.
"In '81 the recession hit, interest rates went up to 19 per cent and the real estate market went totally in the s#@*," Dawson said. "It was a struggle in the early '80s. I think everybody survived because most places were owner-operated and they worked so hard."
And often there wasn't even enough work to go around. In fact, Dawson remembers working at the Creekhouse in six-month chunks so his partners had a chance to earn some much-needed funds the other half of the year.
But even when times were tough, people still knew how to have a good time. And by the '90s, customers' spending habits followed suit, according to Scott Gadsby, GM at iconic village landmark Citta' for eight years until it closed in May.
"Back then, people typically celebrated the day a bit more," he said. "I'm not sure if that's the looser drinking laws or the American exchange rate, but it seemed to be more of a party than it is now. People were pretty loose with their money."
And Whistler's restaurateurs were more than happy to cater to that hedonistic impulse — and more often than not gave into it themselves. The tales of epic debauchery that took place at one of the local eateries from those days are about as tall as our namesake twin peaks, and added a distinctive character to the resort landscape that some feel is sorely lacking today.
"I feel like Whistler's getting a little corporate," said Jim Button, who opened the Stonesedge gastropub in July at the former site of Kypriaki Norte with his wife, April Solonyka, as a way to give diners a taste of Whistler from a bygone era.
"I've been here for 20 years, and I've seen the town grow — and I love that it has — but I also miss all those places you used to be able to go in that were quirky and different. You just don't have that anymore."
Today, what the resort does have is casual dining — and plenty of it. There will always be the Araxis and the Bearfoot Bistros and the RimRocks of the resort, established players on the fine dining scene that tend to be the first names on locals' lips when recommending that meal-of-a-lifetime to friends from out of town.
But, whether a chain or a mom-and-pop joint, Whistler is increasingly home to more places that fall in that vast middle ground between upscale eatery and quick-service restaurant.
It's a trend that's not exclusive to Whistler, and reflects the shifting tastes of Canadian diners looking for quality food at affordable prices.
"Casual dining is growing across Canada if you look at places like Earl's, Cactus Club, Joey's and the abundance of chains in Ontario, they're going more for the family-casual dining because, basically, that's what the average person is looking for," Dawson said.
There are two major factors at play when considering this trend. The first is simply that diners are much more value conscious than ever before, with the lasting impacts of 2008's global economic downturn still very much at the forefront of consumers' minds. The second is that, with the rise of food culture over the last decade plus, diners are more aware of what they want from a restaurant and aren't afraid to ask for it.
It's also forcing other local establishments to step their game up, according to Amy Huddle, head of the Restaurant Association of Whistler and front-of-house manager at Sushi Village.
"For the longest time, if I were to complain about the Whistler restaurant scene, it's that we were kind of stale, we were stuck. Everybody was doing their thing and doing it well, but nobody was changing because nobody needed to change," she said. "If nothing else, I think it is going to be a great shakeup for the restaurant industry in Whistler, just for people to re-examine their menus and ask why they don't have the volume they used to."
But not everyone sees the growth in the casual dining segment as a positive for Whistler, like one restaurant owner who said snowboarding has watered down ski resorts' client base.
"Nobody comes up with money anymore," the restaurateur said. "Snowboarding has opened it up to kids with no money, and it's shutting down the good restaurants that were here and opening up to chains.
"It's kind of sad in my opinion."
At one polar extreme of the casual dining sector is El Furniture Warehouse, the first of 10 locations launched nationwide by a crew of ex-snowboarders and skaters committed to serving up cheap eats without sacrificing quality.
With every item on the menu coming in at $4.95, El Furni has been going gangbusters since opening in its prime Village Square location in August 2012, dishing out up to 1,800 plates of food on a good day.
It's a business model that relies on a lot of moving parts to work, said GM Luke Evans.
"We have to be very careful of our labour and how many people we have on the floor, which is not always a good thing," he said. "It's a very fine line balancing the service while still making the business profitable to be able to stay open. Some of the food items we have, we're not making a profit on at all."
The key to El Furni's success is not only their low-cost, high-volume model, but the vibrant atmosphere fostered there that means you're just as likely to find a family of four chowing down on some burgers as you are a gaggle of bros doing day shots.
"We're very laidback, and I think people tend to feel that at our restaurant," Evans said. "A lot of our success comes from, obviously having a cheaper menu, but also from creating a young, fun atmosphere."
While he welcomes new players to the local restaurant scene, Dawson said places like El Furniture Warehouse will only hurt other casual establishments in the long run.
"There's guys like El Furniture Warehouse undercutting everybody, and I think that's hurting the low-end guys," he said. "When you see the lineup there, and you look across the street to Caramba, which Mario (Enero) has had for 20 years with a great product and staff, they're dead because the place across the street is only five bucks. The five-dollar place affects the BrewHouse, it affects all those places."
For his part, Evans thinks there's room in the market for different economic models, and that in a place as expensive as Whistler, a certain customer wasn't being served until El Furni came along.
"It's a level playing field for everybody, and I don't like to look at us as undercutting anyone," he said. "For us, it's about offering people a more affordable alternative, and I think we do a very good job of that. Some of our menu items we put out are almost as good as some offerings that other restaurants have at a much more expensive price."
a lack of diversity
Any restaurateur worth his salt will tell you the key to longevity in the fickle food service industry is knowing your customer. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Whistler, where it seems like a whole crop of new restaurants comes and goes with every passing ski season.
"Whether or not you're starting a restaurant in Whistler or you're a chain coming to Whistler, what you need are Whistler people to run it, manage it or own it," Huddle advised. "This is such a unique market that few people understand."
For as much as Whistler is touted as a year-round resort, the dozens of restaurant operators who've managed to eke out and sustain a profitable niche in the market for any length of time know better than that.
Despite significant recent growth in summer business, resort restaurants still have to find ways to survive the dreaded lulls of shoulder season. It means locals can look forward to discounted menus every May and October, but it also means that, for the rest of the year, the focus rests squarely on a specific kind of guest who prefers a specific kind of cuisine.
"We are appealing to a particular audience, and it's a captivated audience, but a ski-based audience," Huddle said. "It's the people who go mountain biking all day and want to have a burger at lunch, or the people who go skiing for the afternoon and want to have nachos at après."
But, as always, there are exceptions to the rule, and Pepe Barajas, president of Infinity Enterprises Group, operators of the Mexican Corner and the recently opened Marketplace taco bar, La Cantina, is proving resort diners want more than the steady stream of burgers, steaks and salads that have overrun the bulk of Whistler's casual menus.
And he's done so by offering authentic, traditional Mexican cuisine that you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in B.C.
"There are a lot of restaurants that are more Tex-Mex; a lot of sour cream, a lot of cheese, etc. But based on my research, we found out that's not what people like," Barajas said. "The main success we have is in our authenticity; some of the dishes that I eat here, I can guarantee that they're exactly the same I find when I travel down to Mexico for business."
And besides the glut of sushi restaurants here, the resort is distinctly lacking in certain ethnic cuisines that have charmed big city foodies for years. Even with a spectacularly diverse visitor base, you won't be able to find any Vietnamese pho or Brazilian barbecue or even a greasy box of chow mein, and that uniformity ultimately hurts the resort, said Barajas.
"Having a more diverse culinary scene would be better for Whistler," he said. "There would be less competing among restaurants and a more diverse culinary scene for our guests and for locals as well. I think locals would be more likely to go out if there was more variety."
But Kelly, who's seen his fair share of resort restaurants shutter their doors over the years, has an explanation, and it goes back to knowing your target clientele.
"I think it's probably due to not having operators who are particularly enthusiastic about (the market)," he said. "There was a Chinese restaurant owner here and he was very enthusiastic, the food was good, but he didn't really identify and engage with the local community, so I'm not sure he analyzed who his customers were or marketed himself effectively."
Of course, astronomical rent prices in the village tend to keep out establishments that rely on higher volumes to make ends meet — as most low-end take-out restaurants do — but the real question that needs asking, according to Kelly, is if we even need more food operators here.
"Is Whistler really capable of adding more food and beverage seats than we already have?" he asked. "There's always going to be a constant changeover, but I think adding additional restaurants seats could be destabilizing."
The answer may be for restaurants to start looking more closely at spaces just off the Village Stroll, or in other neighbourhoods away from the traditional visitor stream, or even, Kelly said, opening out of second-floor locations.
"I know the municipality is against that because they feel it's important we have animation with patios and decks, but we're not changing the physical space in Whistler much going forward, while on the other hand the RMOW has made it very clear they're not proposing to lose any existing restaurant locations, but I don't think we're going to add any either."
As Whistler evolved into the crown jewel of North America's ski industry, transforming into the world-class resort that Evrensel and his peers had envisioned over three decades ago, so too did the town's restaurant scene, flourishing into one of the West Coast's most vibrant culinary destinations.
Through it all, some have made it, many more have failed, unable to keep up with the shifting rhythms of a modern resort town. But if there's one constant that's remained amidst all the change, it's this: If you embrace your passion and a strong will to stand out from the crowd, the diners will follow.
"There will always be quirky restaurants and there will always be creative people in Whistler, and what you can always bank on is that things will never stay the same," Evrensel said.
"That's perhaps the beauty of it: every restaurant is personal and we all have a different vision of what a restaurant should be, but I don't think there's a right or wrong formula as long as you're passionate about what you do."
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