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Across Canada, chefs and restaurateurs are increasingly seeing the small-town advantage

The success of Half Hitch Brewery is a sign that Cochrane, Alta., is ready for something a little more interesting than its typical lineup of chains and mom-and-pop eateries.

Jeff McIntosh

Driving out of town for dinner isn't the first thing that comes to mind when Friday night rolls around, but plenty of savvy restaurateurs across Canada are making it a tempting option. In the past couple of years, there has been a new wave of contemporary restaurants that aren't simply opting to operate outside of a city's main core, but well beyond its city limits.

Setting up farther afield allows chefs and operators to take advantage of lower lease prices, minimal restaurant saturation and a better food-life balance, especially for restaurateurs with families.

After opening last summer, the Salted Vine in Squamish, B.C. became the little mountain town's first truly contemporary restaurant. Halfway between Vancouver and Whistler, the town is more of a pit stop than a dining destination. However, sit down here to find informed service, thoughtful cocktails and dishes such as the signature twice-baked white grace cheese soufflé with maple mustard. It's unexpected, delicious and it's piquing the interest of Squamish residents, Vancouverites and critics alike.

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That's just one example. The Bite House in rural Cape Breton sees chef-owner Bryan Picard offering up his tasting menus to sold-out rooms night after night. Acclaimed chef Jonathan Gushue – of Langdon Hall fame– opened his restaurant, the Berlin in Kitchener, Ont., in late 2015. Similar to Vine, Mr. Gushue has proved that a place serving up serious food can find success in a region where adventurous diners are not expected.

In the past year or so, Alberta has seen plenty of successes in the same vein. The award-winning Chartier in the small town of Beaumont just outside of Edmonton; food-truck-turned-brick-and-mortar spot, the Westwood in Black Diamond; Airdrie's Main Street Beer & BBQ and the hyperlocal, regional Albertan eatery Hayloft.

"It can be a tougher market to penetrate because [people can be used to] a certain style of dining. What we are doing in Airdrie is not completely different from larger urban centres, but for a smaller town with diverse demographics, our concept is unique," Hayloft owner James Hoan Nguyen explains on the gamble of opening outside of Calgary. "Many diners are unsure of what we are doing and may hesitate to come through our doors."

Still, Mr. Nguyen and his chef Jason Barton-Browne have always stuck to their guns and have been well-received. With prior experience from respected establishments such as River Café and Teatro, the two continually strive to show Airdrie residents how beautiful and approachable regional ingredients can be. "We have guests that may come in feeling uncertain and yet they gave us a chance. When we can show them what we are about and morph that uncertainty into certainty and trust."

Head northwest of Calgary and you'll find Cochrane. The community has been growing steadily over the past decade, being an ideal commuter town for many individuals. In terms of its food scene, there hasn't been much of note aside from the ice cream institution, MacKay's, being comprised of chains, mom and pop eateries.

The success of Half Hitch Brewery, though, is a sign that Cochrane is ready for something a little more interesting. A few years in the making, Half Hitch first opened as a brewery last year and then added on a brewpub in January. Its pale, brown and red ales are all available in Calgary, but the business is seeing Calgarians hitting the highway to see what they are all about.

"We are unique to the town in that we are the first of our kind and we have the opportunity to change where the bar is set for Cochrane's [food scene]," explains one of the brewery's co-owners, Brittany Kozloski. "We are also close enough to Calgary that we see residents coming in daily, yet we are far enough to be on the map as a tourist destination as well."

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Half Hitch's restaurant may not dish out food as refined as Hayloft's, but their attention to detail includes stocking their bar with Alberta-made spirits, offering entirely from-scratch cooking – something which is not the norm in a pub environment – and providing spent grain from their brewing processes to a local farmer who is raising cattle for the restaurant.

"The support from our community has been incredible," Ms. Kozloski says. "We really didn't know what to expect when we opened the restaurant [in the winter] … Cochrane is already on the map for ice cream and we love the idea that our establishment is helping to add to what already makes Cochrane great."

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