When Lawrie Crawford left her Yukon government job in the fall, she didn’t know where life would take her.
She needed a change.
After leaving her post as director of policy, planning and research for Economic Development, she hoped to spend some time lounging in the city’s coffee shops, she said this week.
Events conspired against her.
Right around the time she left, Whitehorse experienced a rapid drop in coffee bars.
Two of the city’s most prominent cafes closed up shop in close succession this fall.
The Midnight Sun Coffee Roaster, which stood on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Black Street, was razed in an overnight fire that also claimed the neighbouring used furniture shop, The Nest.
The Cranberry Bistro, on the corner of Wood St. and Third, also hung up the apron strings and placed a “closed” sign in its window.
“So here I was going to hang out in coffee shops and two were gone; we lost two coffee shops in a really short period of time,” said Crawford.
“And where was I supposed to go?”
However, Cranberry Bistro wasn’t fated for a long winter slumber.
Crawford and local chef James Smith stepped in to give the restaurant a new lease on life.
They began their deal-making in November, after spotting a newspaper ad for a restaurant for lease.
While opening a restaurant wasn’t a new idea, Smith said he wasn’t sure the time was right — until he and Crawford toured the space.
Seeing the bistro from the inside, he realized how flexible and large the space was.
After that, the two quickly began applying for the necessary licences and permits.
With the paperwork finalized, a fresh coat of paint on the walls and the pots on hot burners, Crawford and Smith reopened the bistro yesterday morning.
“We have not had a glitch,” said Crawford over the clatter of coffee cups and din of chatter.
“It’s almost like the restaurant pulled us into it.”
Smith has a longstanding relationship with the culinary arts.
He described it as the passion of his working life.
He began learning the ropes at age 16 and never left the trade.
“I kept getting better at it so I just kept doing it,” he said.
Educated for two years at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Smith is also an apprentice of Fred Zimmerman.
A chef of international repute, Zimmerman once led the Canadian team to victory at the World Culinary Olympics.
The bistro is not Smith’s first foray into the restaurant business.
He previously owned one in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. The Cranberry Bistro will take a different direction though.
While providing higher-scale fare for the city, it will have a simpler menu than his previous restaurant.
“It’ll be upscale,” he said. “A little more metropolitan than there is in Whitehorse right now.
“The things you’ll see here you’d see in Vancouver or Calgary.”
We’re talking about soupa di salsa, garnished with tortilla chips and sour cream. Or maple-glazed pork tenderloin with Yukon red potatoes and zucchini.
Having lived in the North for three years, Smith said he’s eaten out extensively.
“I’ve been going to a lot of restaurants and everybody seems to be in a bit of a rut,” he said.
“I just want to do something different and see if that works too.”
The idea is to serve high-quality meals without the formal atmosphere.
Smith described the bistro as a place with good food, where you can wear jeans.
Focusing on fresh ingredients and foods made from scratch, the bistro’s menu will be different every day for the coming weeks.
Smith’s strategy for narrowing down the menu is to tally people’s favourite dishes.
So, for the moment, warmed baby shrimp and peppers over a bed of spinach is duking it out with fresh fruit and almonds drizzled with blueberry vinaigrette over a bed of leaf lettuce.
“We’ll pick the ones that everyone raves about and make a menu out of that,” he said.
On opening day, a few tables were filled with morning coffee-breakers sipping hot drinks and munching scones.
The clientele had returned to the bistro even as the final touches were being put in place.
A small sign by the cash register tells customers they need to pay in paper not plastic until the debit machine is installed.
To add atmosphere, artist Lillian Loponen was hanging a series of her watercolour paintings on the restaurant’s yellow walls.
While there are future plans to use indoor and outdoor space differently, these ideas are secret for now, Smith said.
Although they haven’t advertised the reopening, there was a steady stream of customers, said Crawford.
Word of mouth is a powerful force in the city, Smith added, one they are willing to rely on.
“We’re just going to let it grow as it grows,” he said.