Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen is here to stay

Crystal Carwin Lee (@crystalcarwin) loves food, so she is working her way through the best places to eat or drink in Edmonton. Profiles will be posted on TLG, and you can find her review of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen on her own blog.

Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen owner Spencer Thompson. Photo: Crystal Lee
Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen owner Spencer Thompson. Photo: Crystal Lee

Only in his late 20s, Spencer Thompson never imagined that, within less than a year, he would be owner of the newly opened Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen. A full-service restaurant was the 10-year plan, not a 10-month goal. Yet, his entrepreneurial spirit and a series of fortunate events has led to what could be called fate.

Spencer, chef de cuisine, already has a rather long pedigree. He apprenticed at NAIT, he has worked at Elm Cafe and The Marc as well as being sous chef under Sorrentino’s executive chef, Sunny Sung, at Bistecca. Spencer also owns and runs Toast Fine Catering, which serves the public out of the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market on Saturdays and provides catering the remainder of the week.

With an already full plate, it didn’t seem likely that Spencer would add the title of restaurateur to his list. However, when his friend Ido VanderLaan, event planner at Yellowhead Brewery, suggested that Spencer look into taking over the recently vacated space at the Alberta Hotel, the wheels started to turn.

For reasons that are still unclear, Tavern 1903, the restaurant that was previously housed at that location, closed rather abruptly near the end of 2014. Just as local architect Gene Dub had reconstructed the landmark Alberta Hotel out of its original materials, the bar in the restaurant had been pieced together using original hotel materials including tiles, lighting fixtures and chandeliers. Tavern 1903 had provided people with a link to the past, but would its unexpected closure mean the end of that?

In stepped Spencer (and then business partner, Brandon Baker) with their concept of the Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen. The name of the new establishment pays homage to the old Alberta Hotel that first stood on Jasper Avenue over a century ago (where Canada Place is now located). The food menu consists of locally sourced meats and produce, some of which come from Spencer’s eight-acre farm in Mirror, Alta., that one of his Toast Fine Catering staff members convinced him to start.

Speaking with Spencer, he is polite and reserved. But, there is also a palpable sense of excitement when he talks about his craft and vision. Spencer has countless ideas to grow the Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen; some may come into play a year from now or maybe five years down the road. What is important to note is he says he believes the restaurant is here for the long haul.

Spencer knows that there will be challenges along the way. Every business runs into obstacles — opening at half capacity, slightly delayed liquor licence, etc. It is how those issues are dealt with that will determine their success. In the case of the Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen, Spencer says he knew it was crucial to take the opening slow. A number of friend and family evenings were held during the soft-opening period. What Spencer learned then helped him to polish the food, his team, and gave him a better understanding of the eatery’s clientele.

The most unexpected setback since debuting was the parting of Brandon as general manager and lead bartender right before Christmas. Despite that, the show had to go on and the first holiday season went on as planned, which included a big New Year’s Eve party. Since, Spencer has hired Jillian Fonteyne as the new general manager. From observation, Jillian provides another friendly, welcoming face to the establishment, and the staff has indicated that Jillian has done an excellent job of bringing the employees together from the day she came on board. 

As part of the food and cocktail community in this city, Spencer agrees that everyone who works in the industry are there for the same reason. They love food and drinks, but they love serving people more. Through his service, Spencer has learned to take all criticism constructively, allowing him to continually improve the experience and make the restaurant more approachable. He has also found that regulars are wide-ranging, supportive customers who recognize that, in order to build your town, one cannot leave it.

Spencer certainly has no intention of going anywhere. He says he realizes that Edmonton has presented him with ample opportunities. There is not a lot to hold him back here. He is open to possibilities and he knows that if he puts the effort in, he will see the results.