After two decades of decadence, you get the sense that the only venue truly qualified to ring in the Bearfoot Bistro's 20th anniversary in style this month is, well, the Bearfoot Bistro.
Opened on Dec. 7, 1995, the former Irish pub on the main floor of the Listel Hotel has evolved into Whistler's prime location for luxury, as renowned for its edible indulgences as its amiable ambiance. But you might be surprised to learn of the fine dining establishment's rather humble beginnings.
"When I came to Whistler and I was going to open the Bearfoot Bistro, I had a very different vision to what the restaurant is now," remembered Bearfoot founder André St. Jacques. "My vision was simple: to have a very casual restaurant with paper on the tables and crayons for people to colour with. It was a very rustic style of restaurant."
The menu was upscale but simple, serving classic French bistro fare. The laidback, Bohemian vibe extended to the in-house entertainment as well; local artists would paint and sculpt in the dining room in full view of patrons.
"That aspect was obviously something a little bit different, so it was very well received," St. Jacques said. "People were curious about eating in what was sort of an artist's workstation."
The Bearfoot also boasted B.C.'s first cigar room — located where the restaurant's Vodka Ice Room is now — which helped attract a host of high rollers and American visitors looking to get their hands on a Cuban stogie they weren't able to find south of the border.
"The cigar room was so busy and crazy that we actually sold more cigars than food in the restaurant," St. Jacques explained.
It wouldn't be long before the restaurateur realized he needed a menu that would satisfy his clientele's more upscale leanings, and switched out the steak frites and French onion soup for imported caviar and Kobe beef. The artists were replaced with a grand piano, the kitchen underwent a massive renovation, and Bearfoot officially made the move into fine dining.
The space continued to transform in the intervening years; a hole was cut in the floor (to the dismay of municipal planners) to make room for Bearfoot's massive, 20,000-bottle-strong wine cellar, and a custom-built pewter oyster bar became the centerpiece of the champagne lounge.
Over the years St. Jacques continued to prove his penchant for spectacle, hosting a series of wine dinners at the first-ever Cornucopia festival in 1996, the same year the restaurant hosted the inaugural Masquerave ball, an all-night, carnival-themed bacchanalia featuring towering ice sculptures and airbrushed models that would acquire legendary status in the community.
"Masquerave gained us a lot of notoriety, sometimes a little too much," said St. Jacques, who hinted at the return of the iconic party in 2016. "People would come in for dinner and ask where all the painted chicks were."
In 2003, the Bearfoot added another essential piece to the puzzle: award-winning chef Melissa Craig. Within a year, Craig would be promoted to executive chef, and in 2008, at the tender of age of 28, she was named the country's top chef at the Canadian Culinary Championships.
"It's now been 12 years here for her at the Bearfoot Bistro and she's done a spectacular job elevating the level of food here even higher," said St. Jacques of his now-fiancée.
For Whistler's Olympic year, the Bearfoot went on the road with the launch of its catering division. As the guest lists grew, so too did St. Jacques outsized ambitions, never one to pass up an opportunity to awe outside of the restaurant's walls. The Bearfoot experience has now been transported as far away as Montreal and Hong Kong, and as high as 436 metres for last year's multicourse SkyHigh Dinner aboard the Peak 2 Peak Gondola.
"It's a moment. Creating a moment in people's lives," St. Jacques beamed. "It's a little ostentatious... but we take great pride in what we do and we have a lot of fun doing it."
Celebrate New Year's in style on Dec. 31 with the Bearfoot's five-course dinner featuring live music, a DJ, party favours and dancing until the wee hours. For reservations, contact 604-932-3433 or Shannon@bearfootbistro.com.
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