At The Wheelhouse Restaurant in Whitehorse, you can order your elk cannelloni with a side of Yukon history.
“Right now we’re standing on Main Street, Whitehorse, 1930s,” says owner Art Webster as he begins the tour from the restaurant’s lobby.
On the right are signs for the White Pass Hotel and Whitehorse Grill, with doors that lead to office space and a staff room.
On the left, a sign for the historic Taylor & Drury store, complete with archival photographs of the old storefront.
The restaurant is themed in homage to a time in Whitehorse history when the sternwheeler ruled.
It opened three weeks ago at the new Waterfront Station building, just beyond Shipyards Park on the shore of the Yukon River.
The paper place mats tell a story of a time when the town looked very different.
In the 1930s, Whitehorse was a major transportation hub, where people and goods transferred from the White Pass & Yukon Route railway to the sternwheelers headed for the Klondike gold fields and Dawson City, Yukon’s capital.
Squatter communities popped up along the waterfront to house the transient, seasonal workers who built, maintained and staffed the boats.
By the 1950s, they numbered about 1,100, one-third of the town’s population, according to the place mat.
“The story really hasn’t been that well told – the boats themselves, and the people who worked on those boats,” said Webster.
It was Yukon’s rich history that, in part, attracted Webster to Dawson City nearly 40 years ago.
“I did what most people did coming up here when I was young and without any money,” he said. “I chose my own lifestyle living in a cabin without any electricity or running water.”
Since then, Webster has been an MLA and cabinet minister with the NDP, the mayor of Dawson City and a businessman.
He sold the North End Gallery on First Avenue in Whitehorse, which he started in 1999, two years ago.
Not quite ready for retirement, Webster decided to tackle a completely different project.
“It’s remarkable how many people harbour the idea, quite fondly, of opening up their own restaurant. Even people with as few skills, culinary skills, as myself.”
He calls the Wheelhouse “Yukon formal” – fine dining without pretension.
Local offerings include Arctic char from the Icy Waters fish farm in Whitehorse and organic produce from Rivendell Farm off the Takhini Hot Springs Road.
Diners can choose from a variety of seating options.
The main dinning room has table settings, booths, and a communal side bar.
The wharf, up a small set of unfinished wood stairs, offers a more intimate setting.
A wide deck overlooking the riverbank will seat up to 40 diners on warmer summer nights.
Customers will not be subjected to a local history lesson unless they ask for one, said Webster.
All of the serving staff have been provided with a one-page cheat sheet explaining the origins of the restaurant’s 1930s artifacts and furnishings, he said.
Many of the items, including old tin cans and wooden shipping containers, have come from Webster’s own private collection, amassed over the years.
The bar is a nearly-to-scale replica of the wheelhouse – where the captain would sit – of a Yukon River sternwheeler.
It was built by Troy Suzuki, who worked on the restoration of both the SS Keno and the SS Klondike, said Webster.
Everything down to the menu is designed to make people feel as if they are first-class passengers on a river trip through history.
The Wheelhouse is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 5-10:30 p.m. Call 456-2982 for reservations.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at