BANFF – As far as former transportation hubs go, Banff’s Grizzly House has done very well for itself – in the food and beverage industry.
Yes, the Grizzly House, a mainstay dining establishment on Banff Avenue, celebrated 50 years on the May long weekend with a champagne toast for staff and clients. Another party is planned for this fall as a celebration.
Launched by Peter Steiner in 1968 after he took over the lease of Rocky Mountain Tours and Transportation, he retrofitted the property into a coffee house.
“He took over a blank slate garage and made it into this. At the front entrance is where buses used to come in,” said Francis Hopkins, who co-owns Grizzly House with Steiner’s daughter Brigitte.
An entrepreneur who arrived in Banff from Switzerland, Steiner was also an artist and architect who wanted to provide a gathering place for artists and musicians. “That was the era for that,” said Hopkins, “the late ‘60s. The kind of Beatnik, poetry, music, films, crowd. That was the early iteration of it.
“And at that time, Banff Springs was only open in summer. As Peter used to say, ‘they rolled up the sidewalks on Labour Day, then unrolled them again on the May long weekend. It was a very different Banff then, than it is today.”
The Grizzly House has seen a number of iterations over the years, of course, including as a fondue house (Swiss cheese and chocolate), something close to Steiner’s heart as a native of Switzerland. As well, at times, movies were shown on a wall at the Grizzly House, it was used as a disco, complete with ceiling disco ball, and it had one of the first espresso machines in Canada.
“I grew up in this restaurant. Eating in it, working in the front, washing dishes in the back. I went to school at Banff elementary and junior and I would come here every lunch with my girlfriends. We’d all come here for lunch since it was closer than walking home,” said Brigitte.
“We ate a lot of cheese fondues. It was the main place in summer to come and see my dad. In winter he would sit by the totem pole and in summer outside on the patio. It made him an easy person to find. I would come by here and chat with him.
“I think that was the best part, knowing my dad was always here.”
In the mid-70s, the disco days arrived and Steiner adapted to them. The disco ball was installed, along with a DJ booth, “and that was one of the peak times for the Grizzly House,” said Francis. “A lot of our customers still talk about when they used to come here in the ’70s.
“It’s been an evolution over the years. At the time of the disco, you had to have food to get a liquor licence, so there were quite a few menu items back then that were made to satisfy that requirement.
The disco carried into the ‘80s – restaurant by day, disco by night – then the fondue/restaurant concept began to grow.
“As Banff became a busier destination,” said Francis, “there was more need for more restaurants downtown and with Peter’s heritage being Swiss, fondue was important to him. They had traditional mountain food and in the ’80s, the restaurant was an early adopter of regional food such as elk and bison, venison.
“He sought out suppliers for those products and started serving Canadian wines like Calona from B.C. and Inniskillin from Niagara (Brigitte still has a couple of bottles left from a case of Inniskillin her dad gave her on her 16th birthday).”
“He said keep it for a later date, don’t just drink it,” said Brigitte. “It was a red Marechal Foch. I only have a couple left, because some of them exploded.”
So, over the years, Grizzly House changed as times changed.
Exotic meats such as caribou, ostrich and frog legs were introduced in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and many customers return for the unusual offerings. The Grizzly House has won several Outlook Best of the Bow awards for the exotic offerings.
Most recently, in 2010, Grizzly House took over some extra space that used to be various retail outlets, which added extra seating at the front of the restaurant, with patio space. Seating today is 120, plus patio.
“We’re about consistency, more than change,” said Francis. “Everything we make here is from scratch and we like to buy local. J.K. Bakery makes our fondue bread and Valbella make our sausages.”
Chef Phil Papin, a 30-year man with the Grizzly House, said the key to the restaurant’s menu is freshness.
Having designed the menu, Papin said the keywords are “fresh and quality, with a lot of teamwork involved. Long-time favourites are beef and chicken, which are the top seller. We have an Alberta fondue that has beef, buffalo, elk and venison, that is very popular and has been developed over the years.”
Grizzly House has 17 kitchen staff on a week-to-week basis, with more staff now than ever.
“A lot of our staff has been here a long time,” said Brigitte. “It’s definitely like a family. It’s small and everyone knows each other.”
“We have more staff than we need to do the job,” said Francis, “and it can be hard to find staff. We’re always looking for help, especially from local kids who want to work for the summer.”
“Our goal is to be here for at least another 50 years,” said Francis. “Our 12-year-old daughter is working here now, so that’s a third generation; it’s a family tradition.
“The main thing at the Grizzly House is that without the staff we have and the continued support of the customers, especially from the valley and Alberta, we’d never have been able to go 50 years.
“Those are the two backbones that have helped keep us going and got us here. We have a lot of hard working, dedicated people like Phil (for example, Suzy
“Our goal is to be a comfortable shoe, not a worn out shoe. And we work hard to make sure we’re comfortable. A lot of people come here every time they come to Banff. We’re the original fondue restaurant.”
For a little glimpse of Banff dining history, a 1968 menu on the wall at the rear of the restaurant shows cheese fondue for two at $3.50, chocolate fondue for $1.25 per person, a 50-cent cappuccino, 25-cent ice cream and a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich for 95 cents.