John Gilchrist checks out Unicorn Superpub
Unicorns can be tricky creatures, appearing when you least expect them and disappearing just as quickly. So when Bob Bradley says it took five years to move his Unicorn Pub half a block, it seems a touch glacial. But there are reasons for the pace.
“Back in 2011 it looked like our lease in the basement of the Lancaster Building was going to end. So I leased the building at 223 Stephen Avenue S.W. with plans to move the pub that year.”
But things changed and Bradley’s lease was renewed, giving the Unicorn Pub, which has resided in the lower level of the Lancaster since 1979, another five years. But he had already signed the other lease. So Bradley changed gears and opened The Libertine and Below Deck Tavern on three floors of the new building. All was well for the next few years, until his Lancaster lease came up again. This time, with no chance for renewal, he closed the Unicorn.
Many thought Calgary’s iconic pub was gone forever. But since last September, Bradley and partners Wendy Irvine, Neil Dave and Mark Jennings have been slowly transforming the “new” Libertine space into the Unicorn Superpub (403-2653665). Each of the three floors now has its own identity — the Sports Cantina on top, Classic Calgary on the main floor and the Celtic Cellar downstairs. Each floor has a touch of the old Unicorn to preserve the legacy. That includes the orange exterior signs, the heavy wood doors and a huge collection of beer pull taps. Bradley’s goal was to make the place “comfy and cosy,” to retain as much as possible of the old Unicorn and to not turn away the loyal crowd he and his team had built over the past five years at Libertine.
The second floor, predominantly an event centre in the Libertine days, is now the Sports Cantina. It’s loaded with television screens and sports jerseys and a menu of queso dip, chili fries, tacos, burgers and nachos along with a long list of craft beers and tequila. It was Bradley’s idea to blend the sports theme with a Mexican theme. “People asked why we’d put sports and Mexican together,” Bradley explains. “I said, exactly!”
The main floor, now titled Classic Calgary, has changed the least since the Libertine days. It was always busy and had a reputation for good pub food for both business lunches and after-work meetings. Executive chef Mel Lafleur says the menu is the most similar to the old one. “We’re known for good pizzas and sandwiches and salads with everything under $20. So we’ve kept that,” she says.
“We’re local, so we support as many local producers as possible,” she adds, describing her approach to the menu.
The dark lower level, previ- ously known as the Lower Deck Tavern, is most reminiscent of the old Unicorn, and not just because you descend a long flight of stairs into a dim space devoid of natural light. Many of the Unicorn’s thick wood tables and stools and stained glass windows have been transplanted here. With the exposed sandstone foundation as a backdrop, the Celtic Cellar looks like it’s been there for decades.
The large kitchen in the Cellar kicks out a blend of Irish pub classics (steak & Guinness pie, fish & chips, butter chicken) and Atlantic Canada staples (Brothers fried pepperoni, meatloaf, Halifax donair) to satisfy the regulars and acts as the commissary to the other floors. (The main floor has a busy kitchen that also handles orders for the Cantina.)
Lafleur says about 15 per cent of the menu is shared between the floors and that menus have been developed to give patrons a different experience on each floor. It’s a challenge running three menus out of two kitchens, but she says things have smoothed out over the transition period and sales are edging up.
Bradley concurs. There are not as many alcoholic beverages being consumed during lunch these days but people are as hungry as ever. So this Unicorn is slated to stick around for a long time.
“I hope to be here for at least 20 years,” says Bradley. That’s a long time for the flighty unicorn.