“Party where your parents did.”
The tagline for The Unicorn Pub is a phrase very few Calgary bars could pull off. It seems like every year another well-known bar shuts down and comes back rebranded, renovated and renamed – a clever marketing tool that works wonders when a new shtick wears off.
But while having a grand reopening every few years works for some, the “we changed our name and darkened the lights” thing completely nullifies any chance of using longevity as a profitable selling point – something The Unicorn has been doing successfully for decades.
Located below Calgary’s Lancaster Building, a structure completed in 1919 and the first 10 story building in the downtown core, The Unicorn opened its doors in 1979. First owned by The Irish Rovers, the bar has naturally progressed, evolving from just another Irish pub to a Calgary institution.
The pub features a central bar with full-circle seating, a stage, stained wooden railings and pillars providing an atmosphere that nods to the days of old while entertaining a modern crown. A projector set in one of two open seating areas provides Calgarians the opportunity to cheer on their Flames on the big screen while Vancouver fans continue to annoy everyone around them.
Salvation from the summer sun can be found by enjoying the pub’s signature Twisted Horn Brown Ale on their bar-front patio.
Co-owner Bob Bradley took over 11 years ago. He says that a large part of The Unicorn’s progression is based on how the pub has built a culture that focuses on people on either side of the bar.
“We keep our staff happy so they’re keeping customers happy,” says Bradley. “It’s like a big Unicorn family. At the end of the day, all our staff are here to have fun and make sure our customers do the same.”
As trends in the bar scene come and go, Bradley – who also co-owns Stephen Avenue favorites The Libertine Public House and Below Deck Tavern – says that while The Unicorn has stayed true to its roots, a customer base with ages ranging from 18-80 means the bar is always looking at the evolving beer market.
Outside of the impressive beer selection, The Unicorn’s drink menu features more than 20 varieties of scotch, an array of wines from as far away as New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, and three types of Caesar, including one staking the claim as the hottest in town.
“We did a hot sauce experiment a few years ago and we came up with the key ingredients to make the hottest hot sauce in the world. The sauce in here is our level three,” says Bradley, referring to the “Hotter Than Hell” Caesar.
The suicide wing selection at the bar incorporates this same hot sauce, with Level 4, the hottest wing on the menu, being referred to as “Satan’s Candy.” For wing connoisseurs hesitant about eating food named after Satan, The Unicorn also features the classics, Teriyaki, Salt & Pepper, Honey Garlic and a variety of other pub favorites.
The food menu at The Unicorn features a combination of classic pub items and an assortment of dishes unique to the bar. Given the high concentration of restaurants in the area and the diversity that exists in the downtown core, head chef Jeremy Wells says that many of what might be called “non-conventional” menu items are chosen to reflect the multiculturalism that can exist in a Calgary pub setting.
From poutine to Korean lettuce wraps to jiaozi to the Jamaican jerk, Wells’ desire to incorporate a host of world influence is evident and makes the menu one of the most diverse and appealing in Calgary.
“I think living here, we have influence coming in from everywhere and we all blend together,” says Wells. “So I try to go with some international flare and be a little bit more creative than a lot of other bars.”
Coming to The Unicorn from another popular Calgary bar where he worked for more than eight years, Wells says The Unicorn is original in a lot of ways when compared to the choice of pubs in the city.
“To me, I think our attitudes are a bit more eclectic and we survived by being unique and not taking ourselves too seriously,” says Wells. “We put out good, honest, service and that’s really what we’re about.”
It’s a pub with a history and atmosphere like no other. Whether it’s a burger, fries and a pint of ale, butter chicken with a cabernet sauvignon or a Sunday morning Caesar, there’s something for everyone. No matter what you or your friends put in your glasses, come raise them up.
It’s a 30-year tradition.
— Justin M. Wilson