Culturally, gastronomically and architecturally, Winnipeg is on the up and on the edge.
By Karen Burshtein
Winnipeg’s charms are not necessarily apparent right off the plane. But scratch the surface and you’ll discover a city with a definite je ne sais quoi, coupled with a certain idiosyncrasy. Je ne sais quirky, you might call it. The city is friendly, the license plates tell you so. But its artistic vein runs deep. Winnipeggers love to eat; they are so proud of their culinary scene that they claim only New York has more restaurants per capita in North America. Winnipeg is also in the throes of a golden era now, with the renaissance of the downtown and a slew of news-making cultural institutions.
Winnipeg’s multi-culti population lets you eat around the world. Venturing deep into the city’s neighbourhoods, you can have superior pho at Pho Kim Tuong, ultra-authentic tacos at BMC Market, shredded pork with crispy rice at Golden Loong or authentic Neapolitan pizza at Pizzeria Gusto. Go gourmet with innovative small plates at Enoteca, and nouvelle manitobaine at ERA, all places that visiting foodies have said knocked their socks off. As well, The Merchant cannot be overlooked; this new Latin-Asian fusion emporium, located on the first floor of the Alt Hotel Winnipeg, serves street food-inspired plates perfect for sharing. The restaurant called 529 Wellington, situated in a converted mansion, is where the city’s committed carnivores go. But there are some things that you can only get in Winnipeg, including the Schmoo Torte (a gooey caramel-drenched treat) at Baked Expectations, the Goog Special at vintage ice cream stand Bridge Drive-In (BDI), or a “Nip” (a.k.a. burger) at the legendary Salisbury House, which, by the way, is partially owned by local boy and The Guess Who luminary Burton Cummings.
Why are Winnipeggers so arty? For its relatively small size (population 700,000), Winnipeg packs a cultural punch. From the mainstream to the edgy, its arts makers and institutions are known and acclaimed around the world. Is it something in the water? More like something in the snow. Winnipeg’s long winters and isolated geography have helped foster a very creative community. Guy Maddin, Marcel Dzama, and Sarah Anne Johnson have all paid surreal or quirky homage to their city. Winnipeg’s art scene was even celebrated at a blockbuster show in Paris, called My Winnipeg. The Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art and The Actual Gallery are places to check out the work of of-the-moment local artists, including 2014 Sobey Award co-nominees Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber. The Winnipeg Art Gallery, the city’s main art centre, is shaking off a reputation for staid curation with blockbuster shows. Check out Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15, Canada’s official exhibition at the 2014 Venice Biennale in Architecture where it was honoured with a Special Mention. Home to Royal Canoe and acoustic trio French Press, Winnipeg also has one of Canada’s great indie music scenes.
In Winnipeg’s 142-year history, there have been three waves in architecture. At the turn of the 20th century, when the city was “the Chicago of the North,” fine Chicago-style and Beaux-Arts buildings came up in what is now known as the Exchange District. Happily intact, they now house galleries, indie boutiques, restaurants, and bars. The University Of Manitoba’s architecture school offered Canada’s first professional Masters interior design program. It brought with it a wave of modernists who left their own architectural legacy, including City Hall, The Centennial Concert Hall, and the Precious Blood Church in Winnipeg’s French-speaking St Boniface quarter.
Today the city is enjoying a new architectural movement. The Canadian Museum of Human Rights, launched last fall by architect Antoine Predock, features a stunning alabaster staircase and a basalt stone Garden of Contemplation, the backdrop to probing questions and discussions about human rights. The Inuit Art Centre by architect Michael Maltzan will be a new addition to the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The Cube in the Exchange District is the ideal place to listen to music during the Jazz Festival. Architecture enthusiasts will want to check out Winnipeg’s Avenue Building, the Hydro building, and the Red River Princess Street Campus, all great examples of beautifully designed sustainable architecture that meld seamlessly into their surroundings.