Crystal’s Double Dozen: A Born and Bred Edmontonian’s Top 24 Eateries for 2018

Potato Leek Soup from Aarde

Every year, for the past five, I’ve been sharing a list of my 24 favourite Edmonton eateries at the end of December. Does anyone really care what I have to say? Not necessarily. But, if you come across this post and you live in the city, I hope that it sparks a memory of a place you already love, reminds you of somewhere you want to go to, or encourages you to try something new.

These are my picks for 2018:

1. DOSC

This quickly became a favourite haunt for me and Kirk. The espresso cocoa dry rubbed skirt steak is to die for. They also make some of the best Brussels sprouts with crispy pancetta we’ve ever had. Their bar menu is excellent, and the café is a relaxing spot, too. Every single time we’re there, we feel taken care of.

Review of DOSC

2. Ampersand 27

We picked this venue for our wedding, not only because it’s already gorgeously designed, but because we knew they could deliver on the food. The chef has actually changed since we reserved the space, but they’ve kept our go to dishes, including the Pork Buns, House-Smoked Beef Brisket, and In-House Cured Meats for their build-your-own cheese and charcuterie boards.

Review of Ampersand 27

3. Aarde

Open for just under two months now, I’ve been twice, and, although there’s always room for improvement, Chef Guru Singh, has shown great promise with his European influenced menu. Try the Vandaag Soup, Mushroom and Artichoke Tartine, Chorizo Sausage, and Dutch Almond Cake.

4. Partake

Also new to the city’s food scene (it’s only about 4 months old), this is the latest from the minds behind Urban Diner and The Manor Bistro. It’s French-inspired with a very boozy cocktail menu. We’d highly recommend the Croque Mon’Soubise’ and their more modern take on Beef Tartare. Don’t skip out on the baked brie pastry for dessert either.

Review of Partake

5. Prairie Noodle Shop

I finally wrote an actual review of this restaurant in 2018! The Spicy Garlic Miso Ramen always satisfies. But, what I love best is that they feature handmade dumplings from Gourmai (a.k.a. MasterChef competitor Mai Nguyen) on their menu. Pretty soon, they’ll have a sister location next door that focuses on just that! We can’t wait.

Review of Prairie Noodle Shop

6. Red Star Pub

I’d never actually eaten food here until this year, and I’m so glad that I took the time to try it. The light and fruity Beef Carpaccio and the thick, juicy Mini Burgers with piled high bacon apple relish are a delight. It’s also a cozy space to hole up in on cold or wet days.

Review of Red Star Pub

7. Destination Doughnuts

I quickly jump on the latest sweet treat bandwagon, and when it comes to doughnuts, what’s not to love? We’ve been blessed in Edmonton over the last few years with more and more shops popping up. This location on 124 Street has made a fan of me and my co-workers. Personally, I find the doughnuts are large, fluffy, and flavourful without being overly sweet. I can usually eat a whole one and not fall into a sugar coma.

Review of Destination Doughnuts

8. Fumaca Brazilian Steakhouse

This was our first Brazilian Steakhouse experience. We opted to try out their weekend brunch as it offers seven cuts of meat (now including grilled pineapple), standard brunch items like French toast or pancakes, and a salad bar for $25.99. I can’t compare it to their competition; however, we were blown away by the signature beef rumpsteak, pork sausage, and the droolworthy crispy pork belly.

Review of Fumaca Brazilian Steakhouse

9. Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya

This is one of the latest Japanese restaurants to grace our city’s streets. Instead of being located in Old Strathcona, it can be found downtown on Jasper Ave. Their sushi rolls are well-presented and tasty and they have awesome Honey BBQ Pork skewers, which are on special every Monday to Friday during happy hour. For dessert, the Matcha Crème Brûlée may have too thick of a caramelized sugar top for my liking, but the custard is A-OK.

Review of Let’s Grill Sushi Izakaya

10. Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

First thing that we love about this place is that there’s actually a location in our neck of the woods (far southwest corner of the city). Second is that they make an enviable meat and cheese board at a super affordable price — $12 for 2 to 4 people and $20 for a group of 4 to 6 — during their social hour.

Review of Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

11. OEB Breakfast

Expanding into Edmonton at the end of October, this Calgary-based business has built up its popularity in record time. When we stopped in, we arrived early and managed to snag a table a few minutes after walking in the door. Within an hour, the entrance was jam packed with patrons waiting for seats, making for a very crowded space. The question of comfort aside, the food is tasty and fresh. It’ll be better when they get their liquor license, so the $5 mimosas can flow. In the meantime, their famous breakfast poutines (those crispy bacon lardons!) will have to do.

12. Rebel Food and Drink

There might be some people who disagree with this choice because I’ve heard and read some awful reviews of this spot in the Parkview neighbourhood. Nevertheless, the experiences I’ve had have been pleasant. Particularly, Kirk vouches for their Rebel Chz Brgr. It’s a dirty diner-style burger, but in the best way possible. I always enjoy the mini lobster rolls and the mussels, which are even better when discounted for happy hour.

Review of Rebel Food and Drink

13. Sushi Shop

Another debatable choice? Maybe, maybe not. For a quick, decent, and affordable sushi meal, this is where Kirk and I go to get takeout. Considering that it’s a fast food restaurant, they have an extensive selection of maki and sushi. Plus, the staff still take the time to make the items look aesthetically pleasing. We’ve never had a bad meal from here, and it’ll continue to be our spot when we need something less expensive to quell those sushi cravings.

Review of Sushi Shop

14. Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria

This local success story has expanded across western Canada and into Ontario over the years, and it’s easy to see why it has done well. The quality of their pizzas is very consistent no matter the location. Only recently have Kirk and I opted to build our own pies there, and I’m not sure we’ll go back to the ones on their menu (not that there’s anything wrong with them). Our personal creation, The KC, with sun-dried tomatoes, Soppressata, chicken, fresh prosciutto, and fresh feta hits the spot every time. Their pastas are also delicious.

Review of Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria

15. New Dragon Palace

Over the years, the quality of the food here has fluctuated. Yet, it’s a family favourite, and it’s probably been around for almost as long as I’ve been alive. Of late, we’ve all noticed that the kitchen’s standards have gotten better again. The portions are very generous and the food is flavourful.

If you go, definitely pre-order the Peking duck. The skin is super crispy, and the meat is plump without a ton of fat. Placed in those steamed wraps with sauce, cucumber, green onion, and carrot, they’re pockets of delight. The broth made from the bones is addictive and the stir fry created from the rest of the meat is enough of a meal in and of itself.

Review of New Dragon Palace

16. The Colombian Coffee Bar & Roastery

This shop in the Glenora neighbourhood makes a robust chai latte. What’s better than that though? Their Pain au Chocolat pastry is amazing! The treats are flash frozen and shipped from France to be baked right here in Edmonton. Soft, flaky, and the perfect amount of dark chocolate.

Review of The Colombian Coffee Bar & Roastery

17. Joey Restaurants

I’ve come to realize that of all things, they do sandwiches and burgers really well. The California Chicken is often Kirk’s top choice there. The Ahi Tuna Club is forever going to be my favourite. Nonetheless, when corporate made the mistake of taking away the Ahi Tuna Club (thank goodness other customers complained and got it added back onto the menu), I found a replacement in the Butcher’s Sandwich. Sure, it’s a glorified beef dip, but damn is it good.

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

Review of Joey Restaurants

18. BAR94 & LUX Steakhouse

Between the bar and the restaurant, I’ve sampled a number of the items on the menu. I tend to go back to the sides and appetizers, which are great for sharing or as a sizeable dinner for one. I’d suggest the ‘Bucket of Bones,’ Truffle Perogies, and Truffled Lobster Mac & Cheese. Oh, and $3 glasses of Prosecco or sparkling cocktails on Tuesdays in the lounge can’t be beat.

Review of BAR94 & LUX Steakhouse

19. The Art of Cake Café & Bakery

I’ve been a long time supporter of this bakery turned café. I used to walk over from work to their shop in City Centre Mall for a midday pick-me-up. I was so sad to see them move out of that space. However, I’ve since patronaged their new location in the Oliver area, and it’s wonderful to see how they’ve expanded to serve beverages (including wine, beer, and liquor), breakfast, and lunch alongside their usual baked goods. They still make some of the best scones, cakes, and cookies. It’s arguably a plus that they’re no longer so close by. Otherwise, I’d most likely be much heavier.

Review of The Art of Cake

20. Characters Fine Dining

My friend and I decided to treat ourselves to a multi-course tasting menu here at the beginning of 2018. The setting is beautiful, but not too stuffy despite the fine dining stigma. All of the dishes were impeccable, and they were able to cater to the dietary needs of my friend. The items change seasonally, but, if you ever have a chance to try the Cured Salmon, Beef Tartar, or Venison Wellington, do not pass it up.

Review of Characters Fine Dining

21. Dorinku

It’s a shame that I don’t make it here more often. Still, the Appetizer Platter and the Carbonara Udon continue to be some of my preferred items when they’re available. The pressed sushi is also tops.

Review of Dorinku

22. Villa Bistro

This business is never busy when I’m there, so I’m hoping it’s not a sign of things to come considering that the food is actually delicious when ordered properly. I mean, the pastas are decent, but the Braised Boneless Short Rib and/or the Loaded Villa Burger are where it’s at.

Review of Villa Bistro

23. Accent European Lounge

I’m not sure if you’ve figured this out yet, but I loooove beef tartare. For a really traditional take on the dish, this is the place to go. From the fried toast to the garlic cloves and the massive patty of raw meat, I’m in beef tartare heaven whenever I’m there.

The excellent and rich steak tartar with garlic and fried bread.

Review of Accent European Lounge

24. Biera

Full disclosure: I have not eaten at Biera yet. But, I did attend Avenue Magazine’s Best Restaurants 2018 event in March where Chef Christine Sandford was showcasing their Grass-Fed Beef Tartare. The sample was out of this world. I went back for seconds and thirds. It’s remains as one of the eateries on my list to visit, and I plan to be there sometime in 2019. It’ll give me something to look forward to.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Partake

Croque Mon’Soubise’ was the star of the menu.

This past spring, the owners of Manor Bistro and Urban Diner, chef Cyrille Koppert and his business partner, Lisa Dungale, announced that they would be opening a third location called Partake. Situated next door to the diner at 12431 102 Avenue, it’d be the sister restaurant to the long standing brunch spot. Partake would also help to ease them into life without The Manor when it closes upon the expiry of their lease at the end of this year.

I kept my ear to the ground through the summer, and, come early fall, my friend and Partake’s bar manager, Clayton Kozak, informed me that opening day was happening. Sadly, I did not have a chance to make it there right away. In fact, I only managed my first visit towards the end of November, but, boy, was the wait worth it.

Check out those rounded built-in shelves!

From my understanding, the eatery does not accept reservations as the 30 seats are for walk-ins only. The place is made to look like a charming French bistro. A few small round tables reminiscent of what you might find outdoors at a Parisian cafe line the windows. The rest of the space is filled by three large booths and about a handful of bar stools. It’s casual and simply decorated, but you can tell it was created with love. I especially appreciate the rounded element of the doorways, mirror and built-in shelves. There’s also a version of their logo done in mosaic tiling embedded into the wooden floor. The pressed tin ceiling is gorgeous, too.

If only I could have admired all of the details in the daylight. However, now that winter had greeted us, even an early dinner at 5:00pm meant we were dining in dimness. I suppose it added to the ambiance though. It was cute and romantic in the candlelight. Plus, not knowing how busy it’d get on a Saturday evening, we opted to take one of the smaller tables for two, leaving the more spacious ones for others, and making it cozy and intimate as we dined.

Our server was helpful throughout the night. Since the items on the menu were created for sharing, we followed his suggestion and opted to split a number of dishes for supper. We selected five in total from the succinct list, which was more than enough (for two people, you actually can stick to three or four).

To start, I also ordered the Empyreal cocktail ($13 for 2.25 oz.) made using the gorgeous blueish-purple Empress Gin, Maraschino liqueur, Giffard Crème de Violette, and citric acid. Presented in a small fluted glass with a twisted lemon peel, it certainly packed a punch. It was a boozy and smooth drink that was great for sipping, and it paired well with all of our food. As a snack, we were also offered a petite bowl of popcorn (daily from 4:00pm to 6:00pm, complimentary snacks are provided with purchase of a beverage) to whet our appetite.

Soon after, plates started arriving from the kitchen. I was very concerned about where everything was going to fit at first. As I mentioned previously, the surface area we were working with was tiny. But, being professionals, they carefully timed each dish, so that only one or two were brought out at once. Sure, that meant, I diligently polished off all of the plates before they would be taken away and I probably overate (in the future, I should ask that they bring me to go boxes), yet I commend their staff for allowing us to savour and enjoy our meal at a leisurely pace.

Dish number one was the Beef Tartare ($16). Bright red minced beef topped by an egg yolk and beet-barley relish was mixed table side with capers, mustard, and chives. A garlic puree was supplied as additional garnish for the perfectly toasted crostini. Although it was a different take on beef tartare, I thought it was wonderful. Full of flavour in every aspect, the tender beef was a real treat.

Mushrooms on toast

Following that was the Mushrooms ($9), a combination of at least three, maybe even four, wild Albertan mushrooms laid on thick toast. Drizzled with truffle oil and accompanied by large shavings of Grana Padano cheese, it was an uncomplicated, but decadent option. My recommendation? Make sure to get all of the components in each bite. Separately, the taste lacks a little. Together, it’s complete harmony.

Dipping the Croque Mon’Soubise’ in sauce.

Continuing with dinner, we then had the Croque Mon’Soubise’ ($18). This sandwich was layered with about an inch and a half of thinly sliced Meuwly’s ham, melted Gruyère cheese, and served with a creamy soubise sauce (butter and onion) for dipping. This was, far and away, the best of the night. Kirk and I agreed that Partake hit it out of the park with this item. That stringy, crisp cheese and soft toasted bread with incredibly well-seasoned ham and rich soubise sauce was so satisfying. Honestly, I’ve been thinking about it ever since that night.

Sausage with braised cabbage and mostarda.

The house-made Sausage ($9) was our fourth dish. A hearty meat, this was paired with braised cabbage flavoured with cinnamon spice and mostarda. Again, it was straightforward and tasty. It was also piping hot. When it came out we could see the steam rising from the plate.

To finish off our main meal, we had the Aligot ($12), also known as Potato Fondue. This had a down-home quality of mashed potatoes and garlic blended with a significant amount of Gruyère and Emmental. The cheese pull was beautiful and the side of bread created an excellent base of starch on starch (endless starch throughout the night, really).

Rounding out the evening was dessert. Despite being insanely full, it didn’t take a much for our server to twist my rubber arm. I caved and went for the Piss-a-la Dessert ($12). The origin of the Southern France-inspired dish (pissaladière), from what I could find online, is really more of a savoury-style pizza. But, here, the base was a deliciously flaky pastry crust covered in fig jam, melted cuts of brie, crunchy roasted nuts, and drizzles of caramel sauce. It had a salty-sweet balance that was at once warm, comforting, and divine.

Ultimately, Partake gave us one of the greatest and most memorable meals I’ve had in the city this year. Superb service was had throughout the night, the portions were large, and the prices were reasonable. More than anything, the chef has pared the menu down to about a dozen and a half items that truly showcase the simplicity and simultaneous complexity of French cuisine. That’s not exactly an easy thing to do. Nevertheless, Partake has succeeded. For Cyrille’s and Lisa’s latest endeavour, here’s to another 25 years in business.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Prairie Noodle Shop

Prairie Noodle Shop’s custom interior

About three years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a Get Cooking event where Prairie Noodle Shop‘s upcoming business was showcased. I was really excited to get a legit ramen restaurant with an Albertan twist. Their dishes were going to incorporate freshly made noodles while utilizing local meats and produce to infuse flavours familiar to our region. From the beginning, they’ve largely stuck to that formula, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Sadly, I don’t make it to the eatery on 103 Avenue and 124 Street as often as I used to. But, I really wanted Kirk to try it for once. So, we stopped by approximately a month ago to give the menu a once over during lunch. To start, we chose to sample the Baowich (2 for $10) and Dumplings (6 for $12). Each of us also got a bowl of the Spicy Garlic Miso Pork Ramen in Broth ($17).

The Baowich were interesting since I’m so used to other places serving their bao with a single steamed bun being topped with filling and then folded for consumption. Here, they sandwich the ingredients between two steamed buns. Thankfully, the amount of filling inside the sandwich provided a decent ratio to the bun. If there was too much bun and not enough of the selected pork belly, I would have been disappointed. The pork belly was covered with their house sauce (no idea what this is made out of), pickled and fried onions, and shredded lettuce. This made for a good combination of textures and it had that umami flavour. My only wish was that the pork belly would have been cut a tad thicker and cooked until a little bit more crisp.

Featured dumplings by Gourmai.

I’ve previously posted about a Dumpling Pop-Up by Gourmai. The chef is better known as Mai Nguyen. She supplies all of the featured dumplings on offer at Prairie Noodle Shop. The day we were there, the dumplings weren’t the most adventurous. Still, we decided to try the half dozen chicken and veggie selection. They were quite voluptuous and juicy with beautifully seared skins from being pan fried. The dipping sauce gave them an extra shot of flavour without over-salting the dumplings. If you are ever at Prairie Noodle Shop, ask about the day’s feature. Mai makes every single dumpling by hand, and they’re delicious.

Now to the best part, the ramen! Their Spicy Garlic Miso Pork Ramen is my absolute favourite bowl to get at Prairie Noodle Shop. The roasted pork belly is essentially the same as what we had in our Baowich; however, when submerged in soup, it doesn’t matter so much about how crispy the meat is. It also comes with smoked and pulled pork, sweet corn, sesame seeds and their umeboshi egg. The soup itself is pork-based and full-bodied; the flavour profile is amplified with miso, garlic, and a house made chili oil that adds a kick of heat at the back of the throat without becoming overwhelming. Their noodles have a nice bite to them (never overcooked), and that seasoned umeboshi egg is to die for.

Fire & Ice and Black Sesame Ice Creams

We finished off our lunch with their Fire & Ice and Black Sesame ice creams ($4 each). The Fire & Ice was a combo of two different flavours: one sweet and one that was sort of peppery. I was intrigued by the idea of the duo and I was the one who decided to order this, but it wasn’t our cup of tea. Partly it was to do with the texture. It reminded me of when I leave a tub of ice cream in the freezer for too long and the cream starts to separate and rise to the top. It gets thick and goopy. That’s what this felt like. I even asked the server if that was normal. It sort of seemed as though she wasn’t sure what to say. In the end, she told us it might be that any fruit puree in the ice cream that wasn’t mixed in well enough might have frozen into clumps and produced that texture. I can’t verify it, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt there. The Black Sesame was much better. The flavour wasn’t as saturated as other black sesame ice creams I’ve had in the past though, so it could use some improvement as well.

After serving the city for the past few years, I can safely say that the petite Prairie Noodle Shop continues to hold their own where it matters. The ramen is just as tasty as I remember it to be when they first opened and the service is commendable, too. I hope that they will always strive for that same consistency with their broth, noodles, and personability for many more years to come.

Edmonton Bakery Review: Destination Doughnuts

Snickerdoodle, Strawberry Cheesecake, Birthday Cake, All the Reese, Ode to Sunshine and Triple Play

Opened by a father-daughter duo who saw the potential in the growing food trend, Destination Doughnuts‘ storefront resides in the equally fashionable pocket of 124 Street in Edmonton. Unlike most businesses in the neighbourhood, the shop on 105 Avenue has several free parking spots in the building’s front lot, making it prime real estate.

The bakery space is very open and you can see everyone working in the back.

On our first visit, we were meeting friends for a snack and we decided to walk over. Upon entering the shop, you’re immediately greeted by visuals of their open kitchen and a lineup of the day’s doughnut selection behind a long glass partition. To the far left side is also a self-serve mini doughnut machine ($5 per bag). If intending to stay, I suggest keeping it short as there are only a few tables. Let others have a chance to sit down as well. In our case, our friends arrived a little early and they managed to snag spots for the four of us. On a side note, it seemed like there was a bit of a yellow jacket issue as several were getting into the bakery. Hopefully they were able to take care of that.

Kirk left me to do the purchasing. He mistakenly assumed I was just going to buy a single doughnut each ($3.50; I question how well he knows me), but I showed up at the table with a box of a half-dozen ($18.45). Considering that we made it there later in the afternoon and Destination Doughnuts closes by 3pm every Tuesday to Sunday (or when sold out), I was happy to see that they still had a decent variety available.

My box of a half-dozen doughnuts: Crème Brûlée, S’mores, Angel Flakes, Snickerdoodle, Strawberry Cheesecake and Oreo.

We snacked on two sizeable desserts while we hung out. Kirk thought the Oreo had a bit too much chocolate with the glaze and cookie crumble topping all being the same flavour. Although I did agree that, for the sake of aesthetics, it would have made more sense to use a white glaze in order to emulate the look of an actual Oreo cookie, the doughnut itself tasted very much like the real thing, so they hit it out of the park there.

I decided to sample the White Chocolate Coconut doughnut. It was sweeter with the white chocolate glaze as a base. Yet, the coconut shavings were plentiful and a delicious combo. Both of the yeast dough foundations were really fresh, light and fluffy. Neither one of them felt overly sugary, contrary to some of the choices from the popular Doughnut Party (I’m only able to eat maybe a quarter or half of their doughnut at once, otherwise it feels like too much).

S’mores

The remaining four doughnuts were devoured through the evening and into the next day. Surprisingly, the quality didn’t degrade as I was worried they would. We simply left the covered box out on our counter overnight. Even as day-old doughnuts, they retained their soft texture. The glazes stayed in tact (little to no melting) and the fillings kept fine without making the surrounding dough soggy. I’d say the last one we ate, the S’mores, probably fared the worst of the quad. It did dry out a little by the time we got to it. The Strawberry Cheesecake, Crème Brûlée and Snickerdoodle were excellent though.

Look at that cinnamon sugar dusted Snickerdoodle doughnut!

More recently, at the office, we convinced our co-worker to upgrade our usual order of Timmies treats to those from Destination Doughnuts. While I did find that particular batch to be a tad greasier than normal (perhaps a change of oil in the fryer was soon in order), I’ll just say that everyone was a convert. It’s really difficult to go back to the Tim Hortons ones after trying pretty much anything else from the several local and independent businesses now on the scene.

Personally, when it comes to the more elaborate style of fried dough confections, I think Destination Doughnuts may do it best in this city. They refrain from the standards and stick to specialty options that are just the right amount of sweet.

Edmonton Business Review: Table Top Cafe 2.0

Table Top Cafe 2.0 filled will customers on a Saturday evening.

Back in 2013, Table Top Cafe opened their initial board game cafe location at 57 Avenue and 75 Street. With its popularity, the owner expanded less than two and a half years later with second spot on 102 Avenue and 124 Street. The two are differentiated by the addition of a “1.0” or “2.0” to the end of its name.

I never did take the time to check out the original. However, I’ve been to the one that sits between the Oliver and Westmount neighbourhoods twice within the past eighteen months. My fiancé and I visited in the fall of 2016 because of a Groupon I had purchased. The deal covered both of our entrance fees and included about $15 to use towards food and drinks. On that occasion, we chose to grab a couple of the wraps (all are just under $10 each). I can’t say that the food was all that impressive and I wouldn’t make a point of going there to eat. Yet, they do serve some great beverages and beer.

Another couple met us that afternoon and we stayed for a few hours playing games until we were ready for dinner. What’s so awesome is that this form of diversion is so affordable. If one isn’t inclined to order snacks or drinks, the cost to play all day comes to only $5 per person. Several shelves house hundreds of available games that are sorted based on type and difficulty.

The business has made it really easy to get started, especially for those that aren’t too familiar with all of the choices out there. I mean, board games have moved well beyond the classics that I grew up with like Scrabble, Monopoly, or Life to include more risque ones such as Cards Against Humanity, strategic ones like Quantum, or puzzles such as Sagrada. There are so many to explore and likely not everyone can afford to buy them all, so spots like Table Top Cafe provide fantastic opportunities to test them out first. Staff are also more than willing to take the time to explain rules whenever anyone gets stuck. Should patrons find something they love, there’s a good chance that there’s an unopened copy in stock to purchase before leaving. Plus, sign up for a membership and a percentage of every game bought can be accumulated and used towards a future buy.

My most recent visit was at the end of January. After supper at The Manor Bistro, we made our way over to Table Top Cafe 2.0 to continue our double date. It was a busy Saturday night, and, luckily, we managed to snag the very last table out of maybe 17 to 20 in the space. When we arrived, we had to check in at the counter to start up our tabs. While we were standing there we placed our orders for drinks (hot beverages, cold refreshments and alcoholic choices are on the menu) and snacks (Magic Maize, a big bowl of popcorn, was $4).

Coaster Park was put back when we realized it was a bit more difficult to get started than we expected.

Then, we got busy looking for some games to try out. The guys started out with a round of chess, so my friend and I kept perusing the shelves. In the end, the two of us decided to bring a few games to the table: Unlock! The Nautilus’ Traps, Pass the Pandas, and Coaster Park. Ultimately, we set aside Coaster Park. Although the box stated that the playing time is between 30 to 60 minutes, when we opened the box, we realized it was more complicated than we expected. Everything else we worked our way through that night fell into the easier category and were essentially card based. They were all quick to learn and none took more than an hour or so from start to finish.

While the men were completing their chess game, us ladies learned Pass the Pandas. It’s a simple, speedy dice game with about four rules. The first to rid of their dice wins.

Unpacking the Unlock! box to play a card escape game.

Our toughest challenge was definitely the Unlock! game. It’s basically an escape room in card format. All four of us had tackled other games in the Unlock! series before. But, we had yet to play together, so we thought we could do that here. Even though the game is rated at a difficulty level of two out of three locks, it was tough and we didn’t technically survive by making it out of the “room” in the allotted hour. I’d chalk up our failure to it being too loud in the cafe to hear some of the recordings we needed to listen to within the accompanying app.

Rhino Hero was so fun! I couldn’t stop laughing as I was attempting to balance the Rhino on that stack of cards.

Once we had muddled our way through that game, we moved on to Rhino Hero. Admittedly, we kind of mixed up the rules a bit, putting each of us at a disadvantage at some point. It’s in the vein of Jenga and the object is to stack the houses higher and higher without knocking the tower over. The downside was that all the roof cards had been folded (we’re guessing this was a mistake by a previous group), which increased the difficulty slightly. No matter though. This was still super fun with a straightforward concept. My girlfriend thought it’d be a perfect game for her kids, so she bought a copy to take home with her.

Check out my monsters towards the end of our game of Bears vs. Babies!

Finally, before we had to head out for the evening, we played a full game of Bears vs. Babies. I’m bad at following rules and directions, so I’m sure I can do better next time, but the gist of the game is to build super strong monsters that can fight off baby armies which periodically attack when someone at the table provokes them. This was designed by the creators of Exploding Kittens, so you can expect things to get a little weird. The whole group enjoyed this one and often chuckled when we saw the combinations we were coming up with for our monsters.

All in, we were there for about four hours and I’d say each person spent, on average, approximately $10. Not too shabby for a full night of entertainment. I have no comparison to any of the other local board game cafes (I would like to stop by all of them down the road). Yet, my experiences specifically at Table Top Cafe have been wonderful. I’d highly recommend that Edmonton residents who want to get into the board game resurgence, or who are already board game enthusiasts, support this local gem.