Après ski remains a necessary evil in Banff, like anywhere in snowcountry. Sure, you could still ski Norquay under the lights, cross-country on moonlit trails or put in some time at the Willow Stream spa at the Springs. But sooner or later, it’s bound to happen. Come sundown, Banff changes. In fact, old-timers say the place is returning to its infamous past, when its party spirit drew visitors as much as the great outdoors. Thus I embarked on a quest without equal—to discover Banff’s best bar.
Every hero needs a trusty sidekick. Holmes had Watson, Robinson had Friday, Bart has Millhouse. I had two: number-one-son Shaun, who was all too eager to help me out, and Swanee, my old high school drinking buddy. Swanee is no mere high school chum, but the proprietor of one of Banff’s self-proclaimed hoppingest bars, Wild Bill’s Saloon. And before you scream “conflict of interest,” let me assure you that if they gave out awards for partying, Swanee would hold the Order of Canada.
But he comes with other qualifications, not least among them is the fact that Swanee played Don Quixote’s sidekick Sancho in our high school production of “Man of LaMancha.” Sure I’d be battling shooters instead of windmills, but he’s still on the quest. And his promise of “what happens on the road, stays on the road” set my mind at ease. I may have sipped the occasional brew with my son, but I’d never planned free-? owing consumption under public scrutiny. Besides, his mother couldn’t question either my judgment or parenting skills—she would be busy taking the photos. After all, my quest would be pure research.
So here doth our quest beginneth. A humongous plaster cowboy guards the entrance to Wild Bill’s. Just to the cowboy’s left lurks this wood-panelled pub festooned with ri? es hanging above a great wooden bar. The stuffed antelope heads and buckboard wagon strung from the ceiling seem to spell line-dancing—one of the curses of western civilization. A live band plays on the stage, ampli? ed by one of the best sound systems in Banff. The roster of performers Swanee cites is a who’s-who of entertainment. I may never have heard of any of them, but Shaun is duly impressed: it’s Stony Creek on stage tonight.
“Sure we do country and rockabilly,” admits Swanee, “but Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights are ABC—Anything But Country.”
At any rate, he’s my host, the ambience is great and the wait staff are very attractive (I Number-one-son (aka Shaun) recuperating never noticed, honest; Shaun pointed that out).
So our mission begins in the bar with the antelope heads, where we inhale a couple of local brews and the house shooters, “Cowboy fellatrixes.”
A quartet of offerings comes to mind when you think pubs in Banff. To wit, St. James Gate, Rose and Crown, Tommy’s and the Pump and Tap.
It’s an older, apparently sophisticated crowd at St. James, and the dress code is fairly upscale in this delightful establishment built in Ireland and transplanted here. All glass and crystal and dark wood, it’s a place “with nice atmosphere and a great place to sit and chat,” says Mount Norquay’s director of marketing, Rob Cote.
Just don’t be surprised if you burst into “O Danny Boy” after quaf? ng several of the 33 different draughts or 45 Scotches with a gaggle of hearty Brits on a Thomson Holidays package.
Tommy’s is a popular local hangout located in a basement on Banff Avenue. Lots of wood, dart boards and picnic tables complete the decor of this comfortable establishment. Beer is plentiful and reasonable, the food is good and the ambience is relaxed and friendly. Great place to sip après ski with the boys.
The Rose and Crown is full of young people—lots of freeskier-types, boarders, liftees and more than its share of female hotties. The live band pounds out punk covers at an acceptable skill level, and the long L-shaped upstairs lounge sports a ? replace with a comfortable couch in front of a stone ? replace at the back end. A television set by the ? replace plays non-stop ski vids. We take up positions by the bar and meet Clark the bartender, who promptly pours shooters. “This one we call liquid cocaine,” he says. “Here’s one I call vitamin J.”
“It’s medicine,” advises Swanee. “Good for what ails you.”
According to Shaun, the girls are looking even better after the second shot and I realize that if you’re into a great bar with few pretensions but lots of action, you can’t go wrong here.
The Pump and Tap is well hidden in the basement of a mall right behind Rude Boys snowboard shop. A couple of pool tables round out decidedly casual decor, though the tables seem to be real oak. Stuccoed arches reach to the ceiling from above wood wainscotting and there’s a bit of a pub ? avour to the place. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” it ain’t, but you could mass-consume here and still afford a lift ticket in the morning.
If nightclubs and discos are your thing, your list must begin with the Hoodoo Lounge and Nightclub or the Aurora. As one would expect, both start up later at night but soon downright throb with hormones and energy. Also both are packed with really good-looking girls showing far too much ? esh given the fact it’s January outside (not that I would notice but Shaun certainly enjoyed the view).
As I sip a drink at the Hoodoo, it’s obvious a whole lot of people will be going home happy tonight—judging by the wealth of nubile bodies writhing on the dance ? oor to a disc jockey with a pulsating sound system, all housed in a decor of natural stone and wood.
Despite its obvious attractions, it’s not a place to hang with your dad. I was the only one in the shivering queue outside who didn’t get carded. Number-one-son, however, gives it an A+.
Aurora, on Banff Avenue, is more suited to my tastes, particularly the cigar lounge at the back, full of comfortable leather chairs and a fireplace encased in logs. The main club hops every night it’s open, and a huge cloud photomural adds a surreal quality to the place. And the martinis in the cigar lounge are the best in the Rockies. There are worse places to take that special someone if you want them to think you’ve got a bit of class.
Whether due to Swanee’s diabolical plan to ensure I’ll never find these places without his help, the mass consumption thus far or our roundabout route down back stairways and dimly lit alleys, I’m unprepared for one particular secret pleasure called Johnny Ray’s. Unprepossessing from the street and nestled in the same mall as the movie theatre, it’s my nose that guides me to this fabulous little bar, best described as beach meets Banff.
Once inside we dine on some incredible coconut shrimp and more shooters, while propping up a table decorated with sand and seashells. We’ve staggered past great pilings and fishnets that make you feel as if you’ve just stepped off your boat. And in the background a great little blues band pumps out tunes in the corner. The place is a mix of 70 per cent locals and 30 per cent visitors, and as bartender Geoff Hunt points out, “You gotta be good to get the locals.”
Another secret gem lies on Tunnel Mountain in the lounge at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, complete with massive stone ?replace, upscale and unique furnishings, a massive chandelier made from elk horns and a great jazz trio. It’s the classiest and most romantic bar of the lot.
Okay, I admit it. I never did ? nd Banff’s best bar—at least not that I remember. But if it means that I have to drink in every bar this side of Whistler, I will not be swayed from my quest on your behalf. I will ?nd it. That’s just the way I am.