Capital Hotel undergoes yet another facelift

The Capital Hotel has once again reinvented itself - this time as a high-end steakhouse and oyster bar. Whether it remains that way for long remains to be seen.

The Capital Hotel has once again reinvented itself – this time as a high-end steakhouse and oyster bar.

Whether it remains that way for long remains to be seen. This is the third time in three years the storied and venerable Whitehorse bar has changed hands.

But the new owners have been on a lucky streak over the past year since they opened up the Burnt Toast Cafe.

Business is bustling at their diner and tapas bar, so-much-so the Capital’s owners decided to put Christine Kent and Katja Schmidt in charge of their building as well.

On Monday, the upstairs of the Capital reopened as the Cork and Bull – a reference to the wine and steaks served.

By the summer of 2012, the downstairs space – currently a construction zone after a botched effort to open a micro brewery – is expected to reopen as a pub, also operated by Kent and Schmidt.

Its name: the Dirty Northern Bastard. It’s more highbrow than it sounds. Kent found the name in a design book that included a painting of a cheekily renamed D.H. Lawrence novel.

The two new businesses are all part of the broader ambitions of these two young entrepreneurs. Kent, 31, and Schmidt, 25, both grew up in Whitehorse and spent many years working at Giorgio’s Cucina.

They found themselves yearning for more places to grab a drink and a bite to eat.

“These are things that I wished exist,” said Kent. “So we need to open them. Things could be cool here.”

Like Burnt Toast, the Cork and Bull wouldn’t seem out of place in a trendy Vancouver neighbourhood. That’s a big change for the Capital which once boasted of having a mummified cat under glass on the bar.

The Capital’s last incarnation as Tippler’s Pub felt like a suburban dad’s den but much has changed in the past month.

Its wood panelling has been replaced with brick. Red carpet is now grey tile. And, to the horror of some regulars, the new, white marble bar top has been ripped up and replaced with sawed-up planks of vintage fir, salvaged from the old Whitehorse Copper mine.

Above, more of this wood has been bracketed to the ceiling as decorative rafters. Near them dangle simple, circular metal chandeliers.

The seats are black leather. Part of one wall is covered with a ceiling-high wine rack.

An old piano that lurked in the corner of Tippler’s now has a more prominent place – its top raised to show off its musty interior.

Big, black-and-white photographs of an abandoned mine, taken by Mark Prins, decorate the walls. The idea is to pair big-city decor with Yukon character, the two said.

The restaurant can seat 96. Prices are comparable to Giorgio’s, with appetizers ranging from $12 to $18 and entrees from $22 to $35.

The oysters are shipped in on rotation from different places, like Prince Edward Island and Vancouver. Steaks are cut from 28-day, dry-aged Angus beef.

Specials will include wild boar tenderloin and elk.

The food is dolled up with compound butters and Argentinean chimichurri sauce.

Cheeses on offer are infused with stuff like pesto and Guinness beer.

And the beer and wine selections boast special imports.

Opening the new restaurant entails some obvious risks. To start, Kent and Schmidt are betting that Whitehorse has room for another fancy steakhouse and are opening shop immediately beside one of their rivals, the Cellar.

In a city where merchants often gripe about the difficulty of recruiting dependable service staff, the two also run the risk of being spread too thin with two restaurants open and another on the way.

But Kent and Schmidt are willing to take a gamble. “Burnt Toast was never the plan,” said Schmidt. “What we always wanted was a high-end restaurant.”

The speedy opening of the new restaurant is thanks to chefs, cooks and wait staff transferred from Burnt Toast. “We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t have the staff we have,” said Schmidt.

And staying put with Burnt Toast would have involved its own risks. They’re now halfway through their two-year lease of the Second Avenue space. There’s no guarantee the restaurant will remain there one year from now.

The Capital has, at various points, served as a warehouse, a hardware store, a hair salon and possibly as a brothel.

In the early 2000s it became known as a notorious drug den, following an RCMP sting operation that busted several men trafficking cocaine.

In 2006, approximately 50 people gathered at the building to chase out a well-known drug dealer.

Former patrons also fondly recall the paintings of scantily clan women on the walls.

For now, the downstairs of the Capital is referred to by Kent and Schmidt as “the swimming pool.” Its floor is torn up, with rubble everywhere, serving as a sad reminder of Keith Jacobsen’s dream of opening a brew pub at the site.

Jacobsen found himself deep in debt, partly due to cost overruns and partly due to problems obtaining a liquor licence.

After only a year in operation, the premise was passed to Tim Cameron, who rebranded the upstairs as Tippler’s. Twelve months later, Cameron lost the lease for reasons that remain unclear.

Now it’s up to Kent and Schmidt to breathe new life into the space. Possibly, part of the building will be demolished to create a courtyard for the pub.

But the two plan to continue calling the entire building the Capital. And they hope it’ll remain that way in Yukoners’ minds.

“It’s historic,” said Schmidt. “You don’t want to take something like that away from the Yukon.”

“Everyone has a story about the Capital,” said Kent. “We want it to be a cozy, friendly pub.”

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