A fine meal on the banks of the Yukon River

As part of Yukonomist's commitment to bring you the latest insights from the frontline of the Yukon economy, I recently undertook a special fact-finding mission to one of our latest start-ups.

As part of Yukonomist’s commitment to bring you the latest insights from the frontline of the Yukon economy, I recently undertook a special fact-finding mission to one of our latest start-ups.

Which start-up you ask? The Wheelhouse Restaurant, and I can report that the elk cannelloni was excellent.

As its name suggests, the Wheelhouse aims to serve a meal in the spirit of first-class travel on the old sternwheelers. I have to admit that, deep inside my fourth-generation Yukoner soul, there was a secret hope that this meant old-style Yukon cuisine involving pork chops with mushroom soup sauce, followed by something sweet covered in fruit cocktail for dessert and plenty of canned milk for the coffee.

Instead, we had a very fine meal from a menu packed with northern food and drink choices. Excellent food of a standard one would expect in the big city, but with lots of local flourishes that will delight both Yukoners and gastronomes bored of the same-old same-old in New York and Paris.

We started with the charcuterie plate to share. It had sausage, duck prosciutto and smoked-chicken terrine, spiced up by piquant pickled beans and garlic with lots of home-made crackers.

For a main dish, I had local elk cannelloni garnished with cranberries. My companions took pistachio-encrusted halibut caught by our Alaskan friends, served on a bed of white beans and mussels, and pork tenderloin medallions. All three dishes received rave reviews.

There were a wide range of quality wine choices, including lots of single glass options. Prosecco, champagne and a broad gamut of new and old world whites and reds. And, of course, local Yukon beer and spirits.

The service was friendly and attentive. The huge windows along the river filled the room with brilliant Yukon evening light. And I enjoyed the sternwheeler decor, with old signs and photos from the old days. The bar, which is inspired by the captain’s wheelhouse on a riverboat, looks like a very nice place to spend a late afternoon with a glass of something looking out over the river bank.

All in all, the Wheelhouse is a fine night out and an excellent addition to the capital city’s nightlife.

It’s also a nice addition to the local economy. Over our New Zealand sauvignon blancs, BC pinot noirs and Shirley Temples, we debated the impact of a restaurant like this on the downtown economy.

On the one hand, it is possible that a new restaurant just takes a slice out of the existing eating-out wallet. Revenue for the Wheelhouse would be at the expense of soirees at Krusty Burger, pizza chains where the food is trucked in frozen from Ontario, or other steakhouses around town.

However, a restaurant like the Wheelhouse can also expand a market. People who would have stayed home go out and spend some money downtown, instead of saving their dosh to blow in some Pacific fusion joint on their next vacation in Vancouver.

Visiting business people and officials might make a memorable local night of it, instead of grabbing a sandwich and doing email and watching cable TV in their hotel rooms.

Perhaps high-end adventure tourists will have one last big meal, before heading out into the wild with their ultralight espresso makers and gourmet organic fair-trade freeze-dried dinners. Or dive into the Veuve Cliquot to celebrate surviving the Chilkoot Trail.

The abundance of local food and drink is also good news for Yukon jobs in agriculture and fishing, food processing not to mention brewing and coffee-roasting.

While I have a natural sympathy with the restaurant’s connection to our history, I can also see how it is smart business by restaurateur Art Webster. The Yukon government’s latest tourism survey asked visitors what was most important to them, and the historically-themed Wheelhouse covers three of the top six reasons: museums and historical attractions, Klondike Gold Rush history and experiencing the midnight sun (assuming you book a later reservation and sit by those gorgeous windows, of course).

Adding some authentic local colour via the food and decor, without going so far as to alarm clients with fruit cocktail and canned milk, makes a lot of sense.

I recommend the Wheelhouse to Yukoners and visitors alike. You won’t find a better meal along banks of the Yukon River, unless you catch it and cook it yourself.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.

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