This cover story was originally published as part of the Calgary Herald’s Swerve magazine in May 2014.
They say some things are best kept secret. Well, try saying that when testifying in front of an ad-hoc public inquiry. As far as Alexander Lucas, Calgary’s mayor in 1892, was concerned, it’s best not to borrow from Brainyquote if and when giving testimony to a royal commission.
According to the transcript of his appearance before the Royal Commission on the Liquor Traffic, Lucas said that, despite Prohibition being in effect, there were rumoured to be at least 13 secret saloons in Calgary when he arrived in 1886. The saloons had doors fitted with spring locks; admittance was granted if you rapped at the door and were acquainted with the owner, and those with a taste for something stronger than temperance could get all the liquor they wanted at 20 cents a glass.
The process of getting a glass of the stiff stuff has eased since then, and Calgary bars and restaurants now openly advertise responsible liquor consumption to everyone and their salty dog. Aside from the occasional “special tea” (a teapot filled with beer) ordered after hours in a Chinatown alcove or two, the subversive, spring-locked secret rooms of the city’s Prohibition-era past have seemingly been replaced with private dining rooms that cater to the mainstream. Forget the special knock; all the average birthday girl needs to get in is a familiarity with OpenTable.
What a snooze. Sure, these private rooms come with an air of exclusivity that has been all but eliminated from most of our democratized modern life, but it’s a bit contrived. How exclusive can something be if it can be found in a Yelp search?
Thankfully, there are still a few Calgary restaurateurs who understand the appeal of a secret room. These secret spaces—a chef’s table, an attic and an old movie-reel storage area—are unadvertised, not because they harbour anything subversive (though one of them boasts a pull-down bed), but in the name of exclusivity.
Lucky for you, I believe secrets are best shared with a good friend (or the readers of your favourite magazine).
THE CHEF’S TABLE at Fleur de Sel
A Jugo Juice and hot dog shop do not scream “Vive la France!”, but between these two businesses you’ll find Fleur de Sel, a Mission brasserie with a plain, white exterior that proves you can’t judge the contents of a crepe by its cover.
Just inside the entrance, the dark, double-leather drapes give way to light, colour, conversation, the aroma of French cuisine, and a long, oak-finish bar carved into a wave that beckons you to join the party. The sensory overload makes it nearly impossible to rest your eyes on any one thing for more than a second, much less the secret suspended above the main dining room floor.
Most patrons will be seated at tables with white tablecloths that pop against a less traditional backdrop of primary colour, a deliberate design choice made by the restaurant’s off-the-wall owner, Patrice Durandeau, who came to Calgary in the early 1980s.
If you ask Durandeau, the primary colours are a nod to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which caused a stir in 1977 due to its unconventional design, including an exposed skeleton of brightly coloured tubes that house mechanical systems.
It should be no surprise that a restaurateur with an affinity for the controversial claims Fleur de Sel “is the only one” when it comes to French cuisine in Calgary. Specialties include the magret of duck and the ostrich tenderloin grand veneur, entrees which are accompanied by nine kinds of fresh vegetables, or bouquetiere, coming together as plates that are as colourful as the interior walls.
All of it is served up under a disco light by an energetic staff worth its salt, and dinner is the show. But that’s not all there is. As emphatic as Durandeau may be, he knows how to keep a secret—a secret room.
Through the kitchen, up some stairs and suspended above the line of sight of seated patrons, there is an unadvertised chef’s table with checkered floors, tasteful place settings and a pull-down bed (for staff to take naps when the room is not in use, Durandeau insists).
An homage to the chef’s tables that are more commonly located in the kitchens of restaurants in France, the room is intimate in size and decor, comfortably seating about four and featuring a photo of the view from Durandeau’s downtown apartment toward Fleur de Sel. There are original pipes encased in glass on the back wall of the room, preserved to be enjoyed as a reminder of the heritage building’s celebrated and sometimes sordid past. (The building initially housed the Tivoli Theatre, but has been repurposed over the years to accommodate everything from Italian and Chinese restaurants to a porno theatre.) But the fact that the room is partially enclosed in glass is arguably its biggest draw; the room is a perfect perch for people-watching in privacy.
The real attraction of the room, however, is its exclusivity. Durandeau says the chef’s table is frequented by the Calgary Opera and Alberta Ballet crowds, friends of the restaurant who often “choose their own menu,” and occasionally the children of families who attend Fleur de Sel’s infamous dinner and disco parties. Fittingly, he says with an edge of vagueness and mystery, “it is not open to the public too much.”
THE ATTIC at the Rose & Crown
A few blocks north on 4th Street S.W., the Rose & Crown restaurant and bar has been a popular spot since opening in 1986. The pub is best known for filling two floors with patrons and live music (three nights a week), but there is also a third-level attic that, despite being off limits to most people, does occasionally entertain select people who are more interested in the paranormal than a musical pint.
Originally a funeral home built in the 1920s, the building’s attic is believed to have been the angular living quarters of a groundskeeper. The relatively untouched space is now mostly used for storage, but also for the occasional selective tour terminating at a drafty corner closet of what had been the bedroom.
The Calgary and Alberta paranormal societies and Clairvoyant Kim are among the few who have been allowed a private tour of the attic, according to general manager Dennis Madden. The corner closet is where the paranormally sensitive among us say they get a “cold reading” from the presence of a ghost, apparently that of a little boy who was locked up there at some time in the past.
Madden says he’s sensed something since he started work at the Rose in 2000, 17 years after first setting foot on the property for the funeral of a high-school classmate. Some Rose regulars and staff have also described having sixth-sense experiences.
While reports of unexplained activity have ranged from noises to seemingly autonomous party balloons or the occasional apparition, Madden says that nothing has ever been malicious.
“This may be the last place (the spirits) were before they were buried or cremated, or maybe they decided to hang around here because what better place to hang out than a bar? It’s a lot better than a Safeway or something,” says Madden. “At least here they can float around and there’s music and people having fun. If I was a ghost, I’d want to hang out here.”
Based on a work-in-progress business plan to restore the attic to its original state and either give historical tours or add more seating to expand the pub, the fun may be moving even closer to the alleged spirits in the near future.
THE MOVIE-REEL ROOM at Theatre Junction Grand
While so-called spirits make it near impossible for Madden and his bar staff to forget there is a restricted-access level of rooms at the Rose & Crown, staff at Theatre Junction Grand, Calgary’s 101-year-old “original culturehouse,” were unaware that their establishment had a hidden room until just last year.
Nicknamed the Anniversary Room in honour of the year of its discovery, the second-floor space has an interior of exposed brick, one wall of which leads up to an old projection booth that was in use until the 1970s. Believed to have been used as storage for stacks of movie reels, the room was only re-discovered when staff working on plans to overhaul the theatre’s restaurant and bar spotted an unexplained blip on the building’s blueprints and cut through the wall to gain access.
Despite having been fitted with a transparent door to enable its use as a meeting or meditation space, the room goes unnoticed by most theatre-goers milling about the Grand’s second-floor lobby. Kenny Kaechele, the Calgary chef who won the bid to reconceptualize the restaurant and bar, wants to keep it that way.
Kaechele says that the room is being included in the renovation plans as a second-floor “steampunk-chic” speakeasy for up to 25 people, but it won’t take reservations. Only those “in the know” will be able to access the room when it opens (the target date is this September) and they will do so via a separate, 6th Avenue entrance that was formerly used as an emergency exit.
In the words of Kaechele, it will be “more than just another bottle-service room” for Calgarians looking for a nightlife experience so private that it’s hidden.