What was supposed to be Calgary’s most talked about restaurant of 2020 has been sitting completed – and empty – since last April.
The province’s largest hospitality group, Concorde Group, which is also behind Bridgette Bar, National and Pigeonhole, had finished work on Major Tom on the 40th floor of Stephen Avenue Place. But the planned opening coincided with the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, when widespread businesses closings shut down the restaurant industry and hollowed out the downtown core.
The dining room, brought to life by Frank Architecture and Interiors, boasts floor-to-ceiling windows and a panoramic view of downtown Calgary with no diners to enjoy it. The restaurant is now a best-kept secret, though not by choice.
Executive chef Garrett Martin is preparing to open this spring after a rescheduled launch in the fall was scrapped. That will involve retooling the menu again and putting together a team in an environment where many restaurant workers have moved on.
“We have to keep focused on the end goal, keep the wheels moving forward and [know that] there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.
The pandemic has prompted restaurateurs in Calgary and across the country to put expansion plans on hold, causing some projects to lose steam throughout 2020 or halt completely. Other restaurants that were open have shut down permanently or been forced to reinvent themselves in a dramatically changed market.
Calgary’s First Street Market – an impending contemporary food hall – on the corner of 14th Street and 1st Street S.W. has seemed deserted from the outside. Likewise, the District at Beltline, a multilevel office space with an anticipated sizable main floor and outdoor space brimming with food and drink vendors, seems still very much in need of restaurant operators to take on stall leases.
Rumours about Major Tom have been swirling for more than two years. It was originally said to be a new crown jewel endeavour for former Concorde Group restaurant operator Justin Leboe. When he and Concorde went their separate ways at the end of 2018, chefs Mr. Martin and JP Pedhirney moved to the helm in terms of menu development.
While Mr. Pedhirney oversees a variety of the group’s concepts, Mr. Martin’s sole focus over the past year and a half has been Major Tom. With a postponed opening last spring and another last fall due to rising case numbers (and an eventual lockdown), the chef and his team have had to scrap multiple menus.
Perhaps third time’s a charm as Major Tom has now set its sights on opening in the early spring.
“It’s not as easy as just taking the items we wrote last spring and plugging them in for this year,” Mr. Martin says. “As creative people, our head chef, Garrett Rotel, and I don’t enjoy just replicating year-old dishes. We like to always feel like we’re moving forward and pushing ourselves, so that comes with more redesign.”
Major Tom’s general manager Brittany Thompson has obviously felt the same stops and starts as Mr. Martin when it comes to the front-of-house operations.
“We were mentally set up to execute this incredible vision we’ve had and introduce this special restaurant to the public, and instead found ourselves in a stunning room with a legendary view, with no team and no guests.”
She says that over the past year they have seen plenty of cocktail menu redesigns among other things, but have also learned from other concepts in the city to open up feeling fully confident in health and safety procedures related to the pandemic.
“By the time we are able to welcome our full team and guests, we’ll have undergone nearly a year of perfecting our COVID procedures and protocols at other venues,” she explains. “It has just become the new normal … [and] the beauty of starting with a fresh slate is that we have the ability to configure the room in a safe and responsible way.”
With the majority of her serving staff being at the ready since the fall, the general manager explains that they have done their best to keep staff morale high and have everyone feel excited to finally open by way of virtual meetings, small training groups and spaced-out food and drink menu tastings.
“A trip to the 40th floor of Stephen Avenue Place may be the farthest destination many of our guests will have travelled this year. Our main goal is to ensure [they] find value and consistency in their experience,” Ms. Thompson says. The energy that people add to a restaurant is what I miss the most ... It’s something that I’ve truly taken for granted until now.”
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.