The Bullocks Bistro – a Yellowknife landmark – lives up to its promise: hot beer, lousy food, bad service
Heather Greenwood Davis/For the Toronto Star
YELLOWKNIFE, N.W.T.—It should’ve been the perfect cap to an extraordinary experience. Instead it felt like a slap — the kind where the assailant hauls back before delivering it and is left winded by the act.
After days in the Northwest Territories that included meeting champion dogsled racers, chasing the Northern Lights, and a slow boat ride to a deserted island for lunch, my fellow journalists and I were on the hunt for the perfect ending. We wanted to experience an authentic local night out in Yellowknife. One that we could (and would) write home about.
We thought we’d found it in Bullocks Bistro.
Since we’d arrived local after local had mentioned the pub in the heritage building on the water’s edge where fish and chips are the specialty. When one of the locals mentioned that the wait staff were rude (“She’ll yell at you”) and the owner surly, we bit. These may not be the things a diner is looking for, but for a journalist? Pure gold.
We arrived at the ramshackle log cabin all smiles. A smattering of posters pasted to the exterior wooden frame set the mood. A frame next to the door promised that it would all be worth it: Inside it a copy of a Reader’s Digest and the headline, “The Best of Canada.” Intrigued, we read the article that in fact went on to proclaim the bistro as having the best fish and chips in the country!
My friends and I grinned at each other. This was going to be the story maker.
Inside, a mix of tightly packed picnic style tables, bar counters and chairs meant the roughly 40 people in the room would likely know each other better by the end of the night than they did when they arrived. The walls and ceilings were covered under years of business cards, license plates, randy bumper stickers, photos and grafitti. Clear indications that this was more local hangout than “bistro.” I loved it.
Drinks are self-serve. Three convenience store-style coolers on the side of the room offered alcoholic and non-alcoholic options. I grabbed a cooler. A friend grabbed an apple cider. A third opted for a ginger ale.
And then we sat. And sat. And sat.
Eventually a woman with a notepad began to approach. I waited for her to yell or hand us a menu or make eye contact. Instead she spoke:
Someone cautiously asked for a menu.
After an audible sigh she ignored the request and countered: “Halibut or char? It comes with chips and salad.”
“I’ll have the halibut please,” I said in a perky voice. She didn’t even nod in my direction.
There was another order of halibut. My friend was considering the char.
“Where’s it from?” she asked.
“Out there,” came the growl.
Eventually the meal arrived.
The fish was overcooked and oily. The fries weren’t crisp. The salad dressing was bitter.
The char was inedible. My friend grabbed a second cider to wash away the taste (no luck) and then gave up after a few bites.
But we were content. This was Yellowknife and we were among the locals. We finished our drinks and asked for our bill.
“Pay at the register,” came the response.
We approached the register happily chatting. Sure the food wasn’t great but it was a fantastic experience.
When the ginger-ale drinker got her bill the chatter stopped: $50.
I was next. Same meal. Different drink. $60.
I think I heard the salmon eater gasp for air. Then I felt it. The windup.
And the slap: $70.
How could this be? I thought back. Exotic fish? Nope. Hand-caught by tribe of men facing extinction? Nope. Pricey digs with overhead to maintain? Nuh-uh.
Not one of us questioned the bill. We hadn’t asked the price beforehand and she hadn’t offered it.
We were expecting to pay. But $70? For fish and chips?
We were stunned. We literally stood outside, silent, staring at our respective bills.
And that’s when I saw it.
Among the littering of “cute” signs and flyers that graced the outside of the cabin and just beneath the stunning Reader’s Digest approval, a sign I hadn’t noticed earlier.
“Hot Beer, Lousy Food, Bad Service: Welcome. Have a Nice Day.”
Sometimes you have to believe what you read.
Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Her trip to Yellowknife was subsidized by The Canadian Tourism Commission (www.canada.travel) and Northwest Territories Tourism (www.spectacularnwt.com).