Is Calgary’s Pigeonhole Really the Best Restaurant in Canada?
Contributing Editor Julie Van Rosendaal finds out.
If back in 2007, when chef/restaurateur Justin Leboe first moved to Calgary, someone had told him that less than a decade later he’d open a restaurant with a menu that was 50 percent vegetarian, and 60 percent of the fresh produce would be sourced from urban gardens, he wouldn’t have believed it.
“It’s a testament to where this city is at,” Leboe says of the menu at Pigeonhole, which includes 36 items, ranging from sea urchin to beef heart, half of which are vegetarian.
Earlier this fall, Pigeonhole placed first on enRoute magazine’s annual Best New Restaurants list—the third time Leboe made it onto the list, but his first time at the top. An extension of the uber-successful Model Milk, Pigeonhole is all about small plates, with a focus on socializing and sharing.
“It had to be the right concept,” Leboe says. “I was worried about opening something that was going to cannibalize Model Milk, and I didn’t want to open a breakfast joint. I feel like there’s a generational shift away from 15-course tasting menus—it’s just a sign of the times. People don’t want to go out and sit down for formal meals.”
During the first year Model Milk was open, 90 percent of the orders were coming in at seat 9—restaurant speak for sharing (there is no seat 9)—which made Leboe wonder if they were on the cusp of a new way of eating out. The space next door had been vacant for years; Leboe and his partners wanted a place you could stop in for a quick drink, or have the option of sticking around for the entire evening. They tossed around the idea of tapas, and of focusing one particular type of food, until someone questioned why they would limit themselves to one ethnicity—or pigeonhole themselves. It became a working name that stuck.
“It evolved into you choose your own adventure,” Leboe says. “The restaurant will not allow itself to be pigeonholed.”
The space is cozy and hip, with a long table in the raised half level of the restaurant, where chefs assemble and prep, making it feel as if you’re in a home kitchen. Mismatched plates are piled high underneath—a collection that took years to accumulate. The vinyl is as well-curated as the list of high-end wines by the glass. They’ve managed to create a unique series of details that people come to feel like they want to be a part of.
“Chefs and restaurateurs of this generation open restaurants that reflect their tastes and personalities,” Leboe says of his decades-long stint cooking in fine dining kitchens, and the space that he feels finally reflects who he is and what he wants to do. “Restaurants of that generation reflected a formula of what a good restaurant had. I wanted to open a place that gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to do: to barbecue ribs and put them on the same menu as fried chicken and waffles and terrine and apple pie. You have more freedom to do stuff like that in a restaurant like this. You don’t have to worry about preconceived expectations.”
It is in spirit a snack bar, Leboe says, but it has come to be much more in terms of how people use the restaurant. “You can come in and do a tasting menu by virtue of the course sizes, or you could come in with a bunch of friends and order things to eat family style—it’s really formatted for whatever you want to use it for. It’s for sharing.”
They open at 4 p.m., and stay open late—and are always busy, with customers of all ages, from all generations. “People have higher expectations—less mass produced, more interesting, more artisanal,” Leboe says. “Its fun, we use the same ingredients and techniques, we just take the pretense out of them. That’s something that has served the restaurant well,” Leboe says. “We’re not dictating the terms to anyone.”
“We’re not just offering meals, we’re offering an experience,” Leboe says as the restaurant bustles with activity, preparing to open for the evening. “You’re part of something, you’re not just sitting at a table eating dinner. The food has to be good, but without the rest of it, it doesn’t matter. You create this sense that it’s a dinner party—the focus is the whole experience, not just what’s on the plate.”