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Strathcona café is a survivor

The grand old front door of the New York Bagel Café is a survivor.
Not only has it managed to retain its regal composure after years of getting
banged open and closed countless times a day, it has also emerged from one of
the worst fires in Edmonton’s history relatively unscathed. Except for one
slightly charred upper corner, that is.

Grace Kalinowski has always owned the café—first, in its
original location just off Whyte Ave, and now in its reincarnated form on
Gateway Boulevard, just north of the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market. She,
like the door, is a survivor. When the fire ripped through the historic
Duncan block on March 13, 2003, she and the tiny little café had
already spent over 20 years of their lives together. But that night changed
everything.

Kalinowski says that although she lost everything, she never considered
calling it quits. “It was my life. I wanted to reopen; I had to
reopen.”
So she did. Only not right away—it took time to find the perfect
space—over a year. And that perfect space had to be in Old Strathcona.
“I knew the area, I lived in the area, I loved the area.”

Nothing was quite right until the day she spotted a For Lease sign in the
window of a restaurant on Gateway Boulevard. She arranged a meeting and knew,
as soon as she walked in, that this was the place she’d been looking
for—it felt like home. “I took it on the spot, without even asking the
price.”

After a few months of renovating, that historic front door was once again
swinging open and closed, welcoming customers into its cozy interior. And
Kalinowski was back where she wanted to be.

Cooking has always been a part of Kalinowski’s life. She grew up in
Poland, and home-cooked meals were part of her everyday life. By 13, she was
cooking and “inventing things.” Her parents would give her money every day to
buy groceries, and then it was up to her to turn those groceries into dinner.
“You didn’t have fast food or slow food or whatever. It was just home
cooking.”

Things weren’t quite the same when she came to Canada, just-married and
pregnant. It was here that she got her first introduction to junk foodand
fast food. “I was surprised mothers didn’t cook for their babies.”

She and her husband rented a basement apartment, he put in long hours at
work and she looked after their daughter and learned English, mostly with the
help of TV and the news. Tired of the basement suite, Kalinowski took a job
as a caretaker so she could live above ground—in a third floor suite of
the building she worked at.

Within a couple of years they both knew they wanted to open their own
business, so they figured out a way to buy Pizza Place in Hub Mall. “I had
never made a spinach salad or a pizza in my life.” She hadn’t even worked in
a restaurant before. But she invested six weeks of her time, training day and
night, and learned everything she possibly could.

It was hard, though. “I worked from 8 in the morning until 9 at night, all
day, every day.” And it wasn’t the little café she really wanted. Two
years of years of working non-stop was enough; they sold Pizza Place and
packed up for a much needed vacation. When they got back, Kalinowski spotted
the For Lease sign at the old New York Bagel Café location just off
Whyte. “It was so little and so perfect.”

Back then, Whyte wasn’t the trendy spot it is today. Albert’s and
Hanratty’s were the only other places that offered something to eat, and
there was an old-fashioned drugstore across the street at the corner Second
Cup now calls home. “It wasn’t a very interesting street yet.”
Along with a contractor/friend, she took that empty space, complete with
concrete floors, and totally transformed it. “I wanted a little, cozy,
beautiful place with good coffees and cakes and little things.” But she knew
she wouldn’t make money on just coffee so, since she ate bagels a lot, she
decided to offer bagel sandwiches as well.

That “perfect little place” lasted for just over 20 years. Now she’s found
another perfect little place.

Although much of the feel of the original café has been recreated,
with the antique tables, earthy colours and the warmth of oak, there are
differences. The new location is bigger—the “little place,” as she
calls the original café, only had five tables. And the new New York
Bagel Café is now the proud owner of a kitchen. “I had no kitchen at
the little place, just a little bar where I could make sandwiches.” With no
kitchen, cooking was out of the question. So she offered good coffee, bagel
sandwiches and cake.

Now that Kalinowski has a kitchen, it allows her a bit more creativity
with the menu. She’s kept the original bagel menu, and you can wander in at
any time of the day and order from it, but there’s also a brunch menu that’s
served every day from 9 – 3, and a small evening menu as well.
Kalinowski still does most of the cooking, but she does have a chef—her
“master egg-maker”—who whips up most of the breakfasts. She spends so
much time concocting homemade soups and plump perogies that “a lot of this
restaurant’s customers don’t know what I look like—they know my
daughter, Ada, who serves them sometimes, and my story, but not me
personally.” She does miss the personal touch she had in the “little place,”
but also needs control over the kitchen.

Everything is made in-house, except for the breads and bagels, which come
from Bon Ton Bakery. And Kalinowski uses organic and local ingredients
whenever possible. “Whatever I can buy from the farm, I do.”

The café’s specialities include bennies (eggs benedict), and those
perogies and soups. “I love bennies. They’re not just a bagel with eggs and
hollandaise sauce—it’s also about what goes in-between.” She loves
thinking up new combinations and has come up with spinach/feta and even foie
gras.

They still specialize in good European coffee. “We like to drink good
coffee, so we like to make good coffee,” Ada piped up from across the room.
“We’re not as uptight as certain baristas, but we do make good coffee.”

And the door is pretty impressive too. V

New York Bagel Café
8430 Gateway Boulevard NW
780.432.2003 

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