While the pop-up restaurant is a relatively new trend, the Calgary Stampede has been running its exclusive version since 2001. Open for only 10 days in July, ranahans is corporate Calgary's private clubhouse, a unique mix of fine dining and western hospitality. "Someone once said to me, ranahans is like an urban myth," says Mike Friesen, the Calgary Stampede's premier seating/restaurant food and beverage manager. "A lot of people have heard about it but few people get to experience it."
Of the estimated 1.26 million people who will visit the Stampede during its centennial celebration, taking place July 6 to 15, only 6,000 guests will get to ride the discreetly hidden elevator up to the 300-seat restaurant on the third floor of the Grandstand. As a sign of the west's economic exuberance, ranahans has been sold out since late spring, with oil companies, banks, law firms and developers scooping up tables for four that start at $7,950 for five days.
While the staff is professionally tight-lipped and declines to name names, the invite list includes gold-plated members of Calgary's Petroleum and Ranchmen's clubs, as well as visiting directors on the boards of the country's blue-chip companies. Power brokers make as many deals as they do friendly bets for toonies over the course of the nightly chuckwagon races.
"It's all about corporate Calgary and being responsive to the community," Mr. Friesen says. "The need was there and so we built it."
Two weeks before Stampede starts, the restaurant's rustic-modern trappings come out of storage, then are packed up after the last guest leaves on the final Sunday.
The room was recently renovated for the Stampede's 100-year anniversary, including the addition of a wine bar and walk-in cooler, as well as two new fireplaces. But it's the view that's the real scene stealer. Ranahans hosts two seatings every day, for the rodeo in the afternoon and the "chucks" and Grandstand Show in the evening. After meal service, guests move, along with their servers, outside to a secluded deck, where they can continue to sample ranahans' 400,000-bottle wine list (not included in the "membership" fee) while watching the action in the infield. And yes, there's also a secret wine list for those commemorating particularly promising deals.
Table rights also bring access privileges to the restaurant's 250-seat lounge, as well as on-site parking for 10 days, which Mr. Friesen describes as "worth its weight in gold." A team of "cowboy concierges" will meet guests at their cars with bottled water if the fickle Calgary weather is co-operating, and umbrellas if it isn't, then help them find their way through the midway to the private elevator.
"We're more than just corn dogs and mini doughnuts," Mr. Friesen says. "We've got a phenomenal catering department that does catering year-round. They've cooked for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. They've cooked for the Queen and presidents."
The menu, which is refreshed every year by chef Rene Jaurin, is reminiscent of a top-notch steakhouse, with a growing emphasis on local products. While slow-food aficionados might appreciate the addition of Noble Meadows Farm's goat cheese, Ewe-nique Farms' lamb and Valta bison, it's still very much about Alberta beef. Calgary is the heart of unpretentious ranching country, and few folks come to ranahans for the salads.
In fact, the pop-up pioneer's biggest draw is its service. Up to 90 per cent of the 65-person wait staff, who are hand-picked from the best restaurants in Calgary and come from as far away as Vancouver and Singapore, book off from their day jobs to return each year for the 10-day stint. They are retrained every July to walk the fine line between discretion and enthusiasm, with an emphasis on providing an authentically western experience. How many waiters in Toronto or Vancouver can help visiting CEOs and celebrities navigate cowboy hat etiquette – real cowboys always take off their Smithbilts at the table – or set up a betting pool on the bulls? (Insider's tip: listen to the servers, who know the best beef on the field as well as on the plate.)
George Hatajlo is about to notch his seventh year at ranahans, where guests continually ask for him by name. Even a heart attack less than two months before the 2011 Stampede couldn't keep the 58-year-old fine-dining veteran, who is normally the maitre d' and sommelier at the Bears Den in Springbank, Alta., away from overseeing the 12-seat private wine room ($5,450 per show). "You know their life a little bit, but it goes nowhere but the table," he says. "To know someone is a comfortable thing for them because they are usually invited by someone else."
And for 10 days, it's the best invite in town. "There's Stampede," Mr. Hatajlo says, "and there's Stampede. At ranahans, you're rubbing shoulders with CEOs of companies and you'd never know. Everyone is in western gear and everyone is having a great time. It's just so friendly and not pompous."