Downtown Dining Week, Why Not YEG Restaurant Week?

The Downtown Business Association (DBA) is celebrating the end of, what I suspect was, another successful run of Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) in Edmonton, Alberta. For the eleventh year in a row, they have brought diners out to try menus from 30 different restaurants located in the city’s core. Over a period of ten days, people were able to sample a variety of menus that included $15 lunches as well as $25 or $50 dinners.

An ad for Downtown Dining Week that I pulled from the Edmonton Journal website.

An ad for Downtown Dining Week that I pulled from the Edmonton Journal website.

Being that I work in the area, I took every chance I had to eat at as many places as I could over the 10-day period. It only amounted to five meals for me, but, personally, I couldn’t imagine having such rich meals for both lunch and supper every day in such a short amount of time anyway. I especially savoured the opportunity to visit restaurants that have a reputation for great food, but that I may not typically go to on a whim because of the prices, which meant I ventured over to the Hardware Grill, Madison’s Grill, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Sorrentino’s Downtown and Normand’s Bistro. All of them did an excellent job of helping us to watch our wallets while delivering top-notch food, even when the dish was as simple as a pulled pork sandwich.

Although, in my opinion, a few establishments should have worked a bit harder to entice people; they could have ventured away from their regular dishes to experiment with something new, or refrained from picking the least expensive plates from their usual selection of fare (if it costs the same to dine with them during DTDW as it does on any other night, it means it isn’t really “specialty-priced” as per the description on the DBA site) as part of the attraction of the event is that it provides deals where they aren’t typically found, making it a lot more affordable. Regardless, the majority of the DTDW menus had variety, giving you the choice of more than one item per course that ranged from salads and sandwiches to hearty pork and steak dishes or fish to pastas. Every lunch consisted of two courses and each dinner had at least three (appetizer, entrée and dessert).

The Downtown Dining Week menu at Madison's Grill, along with their regular menu.

The Downtown Dining Week menu at Madison’s Grill, along with their regular menu.

Now, my qualm with DTDW is that it continues to remain the same size. The food festival, if you will, hasn’t really expanded year after year. In fact, it may have even shrunk slightly in terms of the number of restaurants participating. Some of the same restaurants come back annually, others are replaced with new ones (the Confederation Lounge, Tavern 1903, Normand’s Bistro, The Burg, De Dutch (see previous review) and Fionn MacCool’s are the latest additions). I like that there are repeats because, if I didn’t have a chance to go to one the previous year, maybe I’ll be able to visit the next time. However, I would love it if the list of new places partaking got bigger every March.

To me, Edmonton is a city with a burgeoning food scene that deserves to be showcased. More and more chefs and entrepreneurs seem to be taking the leap and succeeding at making Alberta’s capital first-rate in terms of the availability and assortment of quality places to dine out. In my mind, DTDW should be growing, not just sustaining. I picture it being at least as large as Calgary’s The Big Taste, which is citywide and has more than 70 “Revolutioneateries” getting involved over ten days. Ideally, it would become similar to NYC Restaurant Week, lasting about three weeks (sometimes extended) and runs both in the winter and summer seasons.

Of course, this might be wishful thinking on my part. I can only speculate as to the difficulty of putting something like this together. I’m sure the DBA has attempted to increase the number of establishments taking part in DTDW. I asked my friend who works for the urban planning office with the City of Edmonton what streets constitute the downtown area and while she wasn’t able to answer me right away, I did Wikipedia it. According to the information logged on the wiki, downtown Edmonton is bounded by 109 Street, 105 Avenue, 97 Street and 97 Avenue. If that’s the case, the DBA has stuck within the appropriate grid. Yet, some consider surrounding communities like Oliver to the west to also be part of downtown. That would include everything from 109 Street up to 124 Street from Jasper Avenue to 105 Avenue. Can you visualize how amazing DTDW would be for all you foodies out there if that area were included?

More delicious food like this dish from Hardware Grill - Fresh Burrata Mozzarella!

More delicious food like this dish from Hardware Grill – Fresh Burrata Mozzarella!

Dishcrawl, an online community of culinary enthusiasts, with a branch in Edmonton has organized events focused around various parts of the city, 124th Street being one of them. I attended a crawl where we walked door-to-door between eight establishments tasting samples and drinks, but not full-out meals. I think that those restaurants, having participated in Dishcrawl’s Neighbourfood event, would be highly interested in adding their names to a dining week list (I could be wrong; I don’t know how it ultimately affects the costs and revenues for the restaurants, but the publicity that may lead to repeat business is a big positive for them, I would think).

Would that mean the DBA would still be the sole host of Dining Week in that type of incarnation? Maybe not. It would likely mean several separate dining weeks spread out throughout the year, or more hands in the pot with a joint event put on by the DBA and the 124 Street Business Association (really, any number of other groups that are willing to take part) to make this something that brings the Edmonton restaurant community and food lovers together.

It’s all about providing extra exposure to those that participate, no matter where they are located, and expanding the dining week (or month!) theme so that Edmontonians can truly appreciate the diversity of amazing food that exists in this city while, hopefully, finding some new favourites. That’s the goal I see!

NYC Winter Wonderland: Photostream

Wow! My trip to NYC really crept up quickly this year. My friend and I booked it all the way back in March (see my April post about planning for our vacation) and, at the time, we were thinking it was forever and a day away. But, before we knew it, it was the end of November and we only had a few more days to prep for our holiday. If there’s nothing else I’ve learned with this trip, I will walk away with the knowledge that time sure slows down for no one as we get older. I mean, it’s already been three weeks since we returned home and I’m only just getting to this post.

Aside from my contemplation of the passage of time, this, my sixth visit to the Big Apple, proved to be as spectacular as ever. All of my vacations in 2013 sprung up as a result of a concert and this was no different. Shopping and shows was the name of the game, along with a bit of sightseeing and partying, lots of eating and getting into the Christmas spirit.

What never ceases to amaze me is how much of Manhattan you can cover in the span of a day. It is also an extremely walkable city. My friend’s wireless fitbit® surprised me by telling us that on Day 2 we took over 28,000 steps, climbed more than 40 flights of stairs, walked over 12 miles and burned over 2,000 calories, and I wasn’t even tired. That’s the thing with New York; it’s a little like Las Vegas where you don’t realize how long you’ve been awake or how much you’ve been doing until you get home and you’re completely burnt out and you need another vacation from your vacation. New York City is like this magical place where the atmosphere completely makes you forget that you require sleep to survive. New York City right before Christmas is like that times a hundred.

My photos are grouped into galleries by day and I’m going to let them do most of the talking, but I thought I’d give a little synopsis as well.

Day 1:

Compared to last December in New York City as well as what we left behind in Edmonton, Alberta, we were extremely lucky when it came to the weather. Goodbye -30 degrees Celsius! Hello +14! It was so nice outside that, unlike the rest of the New Yorkers and tourists we encountered, we walked around in just our sweaters and still felt warm. I certainly wasn’t complaining. After we checked into our hotel, 6 Columbus, we started off our first afternoon with a Japanese meal at Natsumi, a quick jaunt to Times Square and then followed up with a Broadway musical called First Date. We loved the show – it was a little clichéd, but so true and very funny – and we left the theatre with newfound crushes on Zachary Levi (@ZacharyLevi) whom I already was a fan of from NBC’s Chuck and Disney’s Tangled. I’m a bit sad to share the news that the show closes on January 5, 2014, so I’m glad that I had the chance to see it while I was there. The night ended with a trip to Whole Foods (please open up a location in Edmonton!) for sustenance to keep us energized for the rest of the trip.

Day 2:

The day started with one of my favourite meals ever. Norma’s Lox & Lox of Bagel and their Waz-Za Waffle. I sort of feel like it’s the quintessential breakfast place and if I’m going to eat anywhere whenever I visit New York, Norma’s is definitely going to make the list. Ever since my cousin took me there, I haven’t skipped it once on any subsequent trips. That breakfast powered us through a visit to Statue of Liberty Island, a shopping excursion to Century 21, a walk through St. Paul’s Chapel and an introspective look around the 9/11 Memorial site. That evening, we had a delicious Greek meal at Ethos Gallery, strolled along Fifth Avenue looking at the holiday window displays and made our way back to our hotel and another stop at Whole Foods (seriously, this place would make so much money from us if they opened in Edmonton).

Day 3:

After a couple of late nights staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning for no reason whatsoever, we started the day a bit later and headed over to one of the better rated sushi restaurants according to Yelp and Urbanspoon. Aoki provided us with a comfortable atmosphere and an affordable and tasty lunch of miso soup, assorted rolls and über fresh salmon sashimi. We took an express train to Brooklyn and got a little lost (we shouldn’t have been on the express), but we eventually made it to the borough where we met a couple of friends for dinner at The Burger Bistro, completely stuffing our faces with burgers, fries and sangria. Then we ventured to Barclays Center for the first Knicks vs. Nets game of the NBA season. Apparently both teams are doing abysmally this year, but I would say that the Knicks are doing better based on this particular game. Since we missed out on the tree lighting festivities the night before at Rockefeller Center, we went back to Manhattan and took pictures in front of the rink and the giant tree. It was so beautiful! As it lightly snowed we hopped onto a carriage and Benny the horse towed us over to the bar, so we could ring in our friend’s 30th birthday at midnight.

Day 4:

We slept in a bit and upon waking we headed to Central Park where we found the fabulous Columbus Circle Holiday Market, which had been set up for the Christmas season by UrbanSpace. Locally made gift items, Christmas ornaments and festive snacks and drinks to warm up customers really helped to bring out the cheerfulness of the season despite the rainy day. After browsing around for a little while, we made our way to Greenwich Village for a pre-booked dessert tour. Unfortunately, the guide did not show up to meet us, but thankfully, we were just a few steps away from Joe’s Pizza (even after a half dozen trips to New York, this was my first time enjoying a famous Big Apple slice) and numerous other food establishments where we decided to create a tour of our own. If plans don’t pan out, you just have to make the best of it! Since we had some time to kill upon finishing our impromptu meal, we ventured back to Fifth Avenue where we came across the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Afterwards we enjoyed supper at a cozy Italian restaurant in the lower east side called Grotto. And, last, but not least, we, again, met up with our friend to officially ring in her 30th birthday at Tao Downtown and then Le Souk.

Day 5:

I have to say this day was a bit of a write-off. We were at Le Souk until 5am and I was wired from the night out dancing. I didn’t sleep until we got onto an 8:30am shuttle bus to Woodbury Common Premium Outlets just outside of Manhattan. Dead tired, but determined, my friend and I were real troopers and pretty much got our shopping done within the first few hours. Maybe if we had more energy and it wasn’t so bitterly cold in contrast to the first few days of our trip, we may have walked around a bit more. But, after days of late nights and next to no sleep for at least 24 hours, we just couldn’t do it any more. Once we made our way back to the city, we went to Aoki for dinner (becoming regulars) and then I bought myself a last minute ticket from the TKTS Discount Booth in Times Square to see Big Fish at the Neil Simon Theatre, which I am, again, sad to say has ended its run as of December 29th due to poor sales. The night I attended, it was a packed house, probably with those wanting to catch the well-reviewed show before the curtains officially closed, but it was too little, too late.

Day 6:

This was another slightly late day where we worked our way to Murray Hill for lunch at S’MAC. The portion sizes of our mac and cheese dishes were massive and I only finished about half of mine. A walk to burn off the heavy meal led us to Grand Central Terminal and the MetLife Building and back to Fifth Avenue where we shopped at Saks and Bloomingdale’s before having our final three-course meal in New York at David Burke at Bloomingdale’s (delicious by the way!). A stroll back to the Columbus Circle Holiday Market for one last look around before it closed for the night and a quick stop at our hotel to drop-off of all our stuff from the day and we were off to Barclays Center to finally see what we had booked the trip for in the first place – P!nk’s The Truth About Love Tour! Let me just say that I have seen many concerts over the years and this one just blew me away. P!nk is a topnotch performer who entertained us with her acrobatics, dancing, and incredible voice, which, to my knowledge, was live and not recorded. She was everything I hoped and, honestly, her show was a perfect cap to our holiday. I left thinking that if I could still get just a single ticket to her sold out, but postponed Edmonton show on January 16, it would be worth it to see her one more time.

I really hope you enjoyed my adventure and that it inspires you to visit New York soon. Whether you go on your own, with family or friends, you’ll be sure to have a great time.

I thought I would leave you with some extra information that would be useful for your travels to New York or wherever your next trip finds you.

General travel tips:

– Use deal vouchers – Groupon and LivingSocial can save you a lot of money on what would be otherwise extravagant meals or shows!

– Prepay for what you can (it’ll help take the sting out of it come bill time if it’s all spread out). Although make sure you can cancel and get a refund in case plans go awry.

– Make reservations for restaurants that you really want to try out – many restaurants, in the States especially, use Opentable and it’s a great way to ensure you get a table.

– If you don’t have a particular show in mind and you’re willing to take a chance, get last minute discounted tickets – in NYC go to the TKTS locations to see what Broadway and Off-Broadway shows are available the day of.

– Check Booking.com for hotel deals – many of the hotels offer free cancellation up until just a few days before you are supposed to arrive. They also don’t charge booking fees and most hotels don’t require that you pay ahead of time, so you can keep a watch out for better deals in the meantime.

Tips for NYC in December:

– Layer – you never know if the weather will take a turn!

– Mix and match pieces, so that it looks like you’re wearing something different everyday even though you only brought a few things.

– Winter items are heavier, thus taking up more space, so re-wear items, such as pants, throughout the trip, but bring enough, so you can alternate.

– Bring an umbrella, a hat and gloves. While we were there, it was balmly (to us anyway), wet and snowy within the span of 6 days.

Things to check out in NYC in December:

– Rockefeller Center – the Christmas tree is a must see!

– Columbus Circle Holiday Market was lovely, especially if the weather is nice and you can take your time. Grand Central Terminal also had a market set up for Christmas and it’s indoors, so you can stay nice and warm.

– Fifth Avenue – Christmas displays at the department stores are quite exquisite. I didn’t even get inside Bergdorf Goodman, but the windows were beautiful!

Lastly, I wish I was going back to NYC in 2014. I want to see Neil Patrick Harris (@ActuallyNPH) kick serious ass in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, which is playing a limited engagement run from the end of March through to almost the end of July 2014. I’m so jealous of anyone who is planning to see that. If you’re going, take me with you.

If you liked my photos, please follow me on Instagram @crystalcarwin.

Lighten Your Load: Learning to Travel Compactly Through the Seasons

Heys 21″ Peacock Hardcase Luggage

I’ve once again gotten the travel bug. I used to fly away for leisure a few times annually, but in the last few years I’ve been lucky to have the time to take one trip per year. 2012 seems almost an anomaly having been to both Las Vegas and Toronto. Now, I’m anticipating my next holiday, whenever and wherever that may be. What strikes me everytime I’ve traveled with friends or whenever I visit anyone is that they always seem surprised to see how little I pack. I likewise am surprised when I look at their giant suitcases. Why carry such a large piece of luggage when all the things that are necessary can fit into carry-on sized baggage?

The explanations I’ve been given for packing heavy are 1) sometimes you don’t feel like wearing something you’ve packed and options are good, 2) you can never have enough shoes, and 3) you can never be too prepared. My reply is that if you pack properly and think about how you will pair pieces together, 1) it simplifies your days while you’re away from home, 2) you know you’ll look good if you stick to what you brought, and 3) you can pack a small suitcase for a week and still have room to bring a few things home.

In actuality, my obsession with packing compactly started five years ago after I returned home from a six week European bus tour. Being gone for that amount of time I undoubtly took a large suitcase with me. That was proabably a mistake. There is a reason why people go backpacking. Aside from it being a lot less expensive, it guarantees a lighter load. I learned then and there that I never wanted to drag around something so large again. Therefore, no matter where my trips have taken me, my suitcase is now always 21″ or less in size.

It’s come down to a bit of a science. Only the basics for makeup come with me and all other toiletries are travel size. For the days I’ll be on the plane, I wear leggings and a top or a dress with flat sandals or shoes. I avoid wearing metal entirely to help get me through security faster. I usually have a jacket or a sweater in my bag in case it gets cold on the plane or the weather is a bit chilly when I land.

I have a general plan for my outfits before I pack. The pieces I bring can usually be mixed and matched, so I don’t feel like I’m without any choices. Items that are interchangeable, layerable and able to be accessorized are absolutely necessary. Pick clothing that resists wrinkling and is comfortable. Comfort does not mean dressing like you’re heading to the gym though.

The key is to bring a pair of walking shoes – optimally cute ballet flats or strappy sandals that you know won’t hurt your feet – to wear while you tour around during the day and a second pair of dressier heels for nights out on the town. Both should be in a metallic or neutral shade to make it easy to match all of your looks. The second thing is to pick a neutrally colored jacket or coat. Thirdly, choose clothes that can be dressed up or down depending on how you put things together. A great pair of jeans can be worn out to dinner, dancing, a concert or a show when matched with a sequin top. By the same token, a dress that might typically be meant for more formal occassions can be dressed down by wearing a pair of casual flats and a leather jacket. The fourth thing is to color coordinate everything. Your shoes and clothes should be able to be intermixed as if you were at home with your full closet. Bring seven different outfits to give you at minimum seven days worth of clothes. If you are traveling for longer, those pieces should be able to be switched around to create alternate looks.

You can be comfortable without sacrificing style on holiday. Afterall, every city is a new place to show off your personal fashion sense.

With the help of Polyvore I’ve compiled packing blueprints to help you prepare for your next trip. I’ve created each set of suitcase essentials based on the seasons, so that you have a general idea of what to bring depending on the time of year and where you’ll be going. There’s also a special beach/hot weather blueprint for those who are heading to Las Vegas, Hawaii or any other all-inclusive destinations.

Update: My friend has made it known to me that I did not think (I did, but decided to ignore it initially) about the fact that some people have to bring their hair dryers, diffusers, curling irons and hair products with them when they travel. My first thought is that if you’re staying with a friend or at a hotel, check to see if they have those items and if they’ll let you borrow them while you’re there. Those items take up room and increase the weight of your luggage. If it’s not entirely necessary just think twice about it first. If you absolutely must bring those items along, make sure you take a medium sized overnight bag with you as carry-on. I usually stuff my purse into it and pack slippers and a change of clothes and my jacket or sweater, so that I only have to carry the one piece. By putting those items into an extra bag, that frees up space in your main luggage (check-in or not) for more of your hair and product essentials.

Spring

Summer

Fall

Winter

Beach

Do you have any packing tips? I’d love to hear your ideas. Please share in the comments section below.