The folks behind Wildebeest, Bufala, and Lucky Taco have added another thoughtful expansion to their mini-empire in the form of the anti-sports bar sports bar Bells & Whistles located on Fraser just south of Kingsway. The food is typical sports bar/pub grub/comfort food like burgers, wings, nachos, onion rings, etc, but done with atypical care and better ingredients, served in an atypically bright and family-friendly environment, with a very atypical craft beer menu with absolutely NO macro beer in sight.
Admittedly, the pricing for the food and beer is a bit high (especially for the neighbourhood), but in the week and a half they’ve been open, it’s been absolutely packed. I guess that shows that people have been wanting something like this for a long time and are willing to pay for it. For myself, I really appreciate their approach — casual accessibility, eyes on quality, no “Bells & Whistles” despite the name — but if things were maybe a couple bucks cheaper across the board, I’d come back more often, and with less hesitation.
The name is a reference to sports. Very subtle, but it’s probably most explicity expressed in their coasters (which I’ll show below).
I love the huge windows. Plentiful natural light makes for great food and beer photos 😉
A handy bus stop right in front of Bells & Whistles. Also a handy gun shop across the street. BKH Jerky is just down on the corner in the distance.
Sun Hang Do is also next to Bells & Whistles. Don’t even think about sweeping the leg, Johnny.
When you enter, you’ll see that the whole place is split into two halves. A big U-shaped bar and tables are on the right half of the room, and big picnic tables are on the left side of the room. There’s a large projection screen on both sides of the centre dividing wall. You can see the screen from almost every seat.
I’m neutral/indifferent to the sports thing (unless they show geeky sports like bowling, volleyball, table tennis, snooker, chess, etc), but you might love it. The sound was off all three times I’ve been here.
These linoleum floor tiles remind me of elementary school.
Super comfortable leather chairs at the bar. Footrest height also acceptable for short people (~5 ft).
Handy outlets at the bar. Time to park your ass down and hog the seat for the entire afternoon, dickface.
And hooks! Now I don’t need to be paranoid that someone’s gonna swipe my murse from behind me.
Snacks/starters and salads.
Sides, dips, and…SOFT SERVE! I do prefer soft serve over ice cream. I love the texture and how it tends to be less sweet and rich than ice cream.
They offer 12 dips for $1 each. NONE of them are ketchup. But once you taste the food, I don’t think you’ll miss it.
Cocktails, wine, and a special Dickie’s Ginger section.
Their core beer and cider list. A good range, plus an EXCLUSIVE Twin Sails rotating stout/porter tap! Prices for regular beer list ($6-$7.50) are good. The food prices though I find a bit high. I’ve spoken with many people who feel the same way, foodies or not. I do understand the pricing since they use better ingredients:
This whole place feels like a “What if?” question that got answered. “What if we did a sports bar with better food, better ingredients, and craft beer?”
The seasonal tap list. Frankly incredible work here. A good mix of local, Canadian, and import. The Wildebeest group always seems to be able to get Danish To Øl beers on tap.
The Bells & Whistles house “hoppy pale” (5%, $6.50, 16oz) is brewed by Four Winds and is a #slamdunk. A great, light-bodied, accessible pale ale that anyone could enjoy, but has enough citrusy fruity hop aromatics to keep beer geeks happy.
In addition to standard tulip glasses, they use my personal favourite Craft Master One glasses. A funky, interesting design that’s a pleasure to drink out of. That lip does sensually aggressive things to your mouth. I’m ok about those Spiegelau IPA glasses, but these are more fun and less delicate.
The Bells & Whistles coasters I mentioned above. See, there’s bells and there’s whistles. And a subtle connection to sports.
Corn Nuts ($3) are “ketchup chip” flavour. Not simply “ketchup” flavour, but ketchup chip. I take that as being one step removed in flavour from actual ketchup, and it tastes like it too. A notch less ketchupy than say the ketchup chip flavouring on Old Dutch chips. Still an enjoyable beer snack and as good as any corn nuts I’ve had.
Onion Rings ($7) with “tangy honey mustard”.
A very close to ideal onion ring for me. I love battered onion rings so much more than crumby breaded ones (eg. A&W).
Good crispness, not too greasy. Soft, sweet onion. Onion doesn’t pull out when you take a bite. Very few split/broken open onion rings. Eating these is like scoring a goal with each onion ring you put in your mouth and your tastebuds are the crowd that cheer and lose their shit every time.
The All Day Breakfast Burger ($15.50) comes with fries. You can upgrade to onion rings, garlic fries, or caesar salad for $2 more.
This is the breakfast burger you didn’t know you needed! It’s got a maple sausage pork patty, American cheese, hashbrowns, fried egg, and their secret sauce. Everything’s balanced just right. It’s a burger that’s defined as much by what it isn’t, as by what it is. Nothing is too rich, too salty, or too greasy. The crispy-edged hashbrowns give a bit of texture and wonderful fried potato goodness. They’re pretty much like tater tots in triangular hash brown form.
On paper it seems heavy but in fact eats very easily and doesn’t leave you too weighed-down or gross-feeling. That milk bun is great. Soft, fresh-tasting, and the perfect vehicle. I also like how all the burgers are wrapped in paper to keep things clean and easy to eat. It might be too early to say, but I think this is already their signature dish.
Herb aioli. I wasn’t kidding when I said that there’s no ketchup in this place (aside from the corn nuts). Perfectly fine condiment. I’ve been too distracted to try any of their other dips.
The fries are also a near-ideal fry for me. They’ve got that double-fried quality to them with good crispness. Whenever I see some fries that are jagged and hollow inside, it’s usually a sign that I’ll at least like the fries. Especially when there’s chili on top (which I’ll talk about below).
Twin Sails Woke Up Like This Imperial Spelt Porter (7.5%, $7.50, 16oz). This was a friend’s drink.
Engine House No. 9 Atma Brett Saison (5.5%, $10, ~14oz). One of the more pricier options on the seasonal beer list. A really great brett saison though. Might be gone by the time you read this.
“Enjoy It Straight Up!” Soft Serve ($4) in a frosted mini-goblet.
The soft serve has a great smooth, thick mouthfeel and great milky not-too-sweet flavour. But the serving size is frustratingly small! I’d estimate it as being about half of the size of what you could get at Soft Peaks in Gastown for similar price. They have some enticing sundae options, as well as a beer float option that uses the current Twin Sails stout/porter. I totally support that. Just wish it was cheaper OR a bigger serving.
On your way to the washroom, you’ll see these games.
This guy suuuuuucked*. But granted, his kids were fucking up his game by hovering around his legs.
* Don’t worry, I suck even worse.
As seen in the guy’s washroom. Mike Tyson LOVES pigeons.
This first visit was mainly me eating, with Wicca just nibbling. Things tend to add up fast here. But tastewise, a startlingly good first visit. All the flavours and execution were on-point and not an ounce of pretentiousness. The least “bro” sports bar ever.
My personal feeling about multiple visits (which is standard practice for most professional food critics) is that the general public doesn’t have enough time or money to give a place more than one chance. I know it’s harsh for restaurants because they only get one chance to keep a customer, but that’s reality. Luckily, my first visit was a #homerun so I had no problems going again with a fellow food Instagrammer.
The Classic Burger ($15.50) with aged cheddar, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and secret sauce. I upgraded my fries to onion rings for $2 more. The patty contains short rib, brisket, and chuck.
Again, that milk bun is great. Based on Japanese milk bread, it’s the perfect soft vehicle for all their burgers. It doesn’t call attention to itself too much or overwhelm the fillings. The burger itself though was a bit of a letdown. It was fine but didn’t hit the high that the breakfast burger did. The lettuce and tomatoes were fresh and did their job perfectly, and the cheese and pickles just right. But the beef, while good in beefy flavour, lacked char and juiciness. They retained some pinkness in the meat, which I love seeing in trusted restaurants, but it’s almost like the meat was too lean and therefore too dry, even when cooked medium/medium-well. I know the Wildebeest/Gooseneck Hospitality crew can do better. It doesn’t have to be an Upstairs at Campagnolo Dirty Burger. I appreciate that they’re trying to do a classic, simple burger with fresher and better ingredients. But for this price, I’d rather eat something that hits my buttons more.
Side of Garlic Fries ($7) with roasted garlic purée, parsley, parmesan, and container of garlic rosemary aioli. Fries on this visit weren’t as crisp as last time. I did enjoy the medium-intensity garlickiness though. The aroma is heavenly for garlic fiends. I strangely enjoyed the plain fries I had last time more.
KFC ($10), which is “Korean Fried Cauliflower” with pickled cucumbers, sesame seeds, green onions, and tossed in a Korean fried chicken kochujang-type sauce.
Not a fan of this one. Somehow the batter was kind of firm and dense rather than crispy. The texture was also homogenous — the batter and the cauliflower inside seemed to have the same texture, so there wasn’t much enjoyment while eating it. Sauce lacked punch. Brings to mind the worst offenses committed by the biggest corporate chain restaurants that water down Asian food by offering noodles bowls, wok-tossed this ‘n that, and Asian wraps. I know these guys are capable of much better.
There’s also a version of this dish that uses chicken for $12, but I’m in no hurry to try it.
Bright spot: my dining partner’s Crispy Chicken Sandwich ($17) with breaded buttermilk chicken, lettuce, pickles, and black pepper mayo.
He upgraded to a caesar salad for $2 more. By all accounts the sandwich and salad were great:
I’ll have to try this sandwich next time and report back.
The bill for two with three beers came to almost $100 with tip and tax. I’d love to come more often, but I can’t do those prices as often as I’d like.
Third Visit: Zwanze Day
It was a Saturday and Bells & Whistles didn’t open until 11:30am, but by 10:50am there was already a big lineup to get first dibs at a beer geek’s Belgian wet dream: Cantillon.
Zwanze Day is Cantillon’s annual event where select bars around the world get to serve exclusive Cantillon “Zwanze Day” beers. For many places, it’s a VERY special event because they wouldn’t normally receive so many fresh Cantillon kegs, if any at all.
Bells & Whistles scored BIG TIME by being the location for Zwanze Day this year. It’s an exciting privilege. Note: the official Zwanze Day was supposed to be September 23 but due to various issues, Bells & Whistles had to delay their Zwanze Day to October 14.
By the time Zwanze Day happened, Bells & Whistles were only open for a week and a half. But they dealt with the crowd well enough. Even though there were some hiccups with beer orders, the staff were very apologetic and corrected mistakes as best they could.
The special oolong tea-infused Zwanze Day beer was very limited, so we were all given tokens to use to order said beer. It was their way of keeping orders of that particular beer to one per person.
Beer friends remarked at how spacious the room felt, and were happy that tables weren’t all jammed up against each other.
Taps seem to be unlabelled. I dunno how they deal with that, but for a brand-new place that was slammed, they coped pretty well.
I’m not going to go into much detail about the individual beers, rest assured that Cantillon are the king of lambic beers. Wild fermented, sour, funky, vinous, fruity…their range of beers actually taste very different, especially noticeable during occasions like this where you can taste and compare so many at once. Some were moderately complex, others stunning in their clarity — all hovering around 5-6.5% ABV.
The crowd favourite was the rhubarby Nath Lambic (5%), which was the first beer to run out, about an hour into the event. I also enjoyed the Zwanze Day beer Cuvee Bijette (5.5%) brewed with oolong tea.
Coco Crisp Soft Serve Sundae ($6) with chocolate sauce, Skor Bar crumble, white chocolate, and pretzel pieces. Not mine, but ordered by the dessert fiends, and they enjoyed it a lot.
My Chili Cheese Fries ($10) topped with “Ballpark Chili” and aged cheddar. The serving size again seems too small. In fact, a server brought out a second order by mistake and from the corner of all our eyes it looked at least a third bigger than my order 🙁
The fries weren’t quite as crisp as my first visit, but it was still enjoyable. The cheddar doesn’t melt well, so you don’t get that “ooooo, ahhh” stringy cheese effect, but the chili tastes so good it doesn’t matter. I originally made vague, tentative sharing gestures, but after I started slobbering over the basket, I took the communal fork back and finished this all by myself.
The meat is the same combination of short rib, brisket, and chuck that’s in their burgers. The grind is finer, so it gives a loose, almost creamy consistency to the chili. It’s what I imagine real American ballpark chili would taste like…the kind that’s scooped onto hot dogs using a stick. You must’ve seen videos like that, right?
The chili has a nice bright tomatoey quality. I can’t pick out any specific seasonings, but it all screams out “tasty!” I’m getting a whole bowl ($10) next time.
We tried a couple non-Cantillon beers (L-R): a hyper-sour barrel-aged Cascade Figaro (10%) sour blonde ale blend with white figs and lemon peel, and a wonderfully aromatic and damn drinkable To Øl Sur Citra (5.5%) sour American pale ale. It was tough getting through that 10oz of Figaro. It’s Boombox-level of sour 😉 . Any place that puts To Øl beers on tap is an automatic winner. I can drink their Sur Citra (and Sur Mosaic) all day, any day.
Even though St. Augustine’s on Commercial Drive shows sports and has more taps, I’d much rather come here for better food and cleaner beer serving etiquette. 12 Kings has a raucous atmosphere and awesome pinball machines, and is probably the nearest direct competition…but the rooms are SO different, I almost see it as comparing apples to oranges.
It’s still early days for Bells & Whistles, and it’s still undetermined if the neighbourhood can sustain this place and its prices, but they’re already doing a lot of things right, and not that much wrong, so I can’t help but feel that this place is a huge positive for our scene.
That Breakfast Burger!