The Wheelhouse offers fine dining with 1930s flair and modern local flavours.
This story originally ran in the February 2014 (V8I1) edition of Yukon, North of Ordinary.
While its stark exterior presents little to the imagination,once patrons pass through the antique wooden door and into the foyer of the The Wheelhouse it’s as though they’ve stepped back in time. Light fixtures and signage near the Whitehorse restaurant’s entrance conjure thoughts of the ’30s. This ode to the decade continues in the dining room,which is adorned with wheelhouse nameplates, wood cases, tin cans, pulleys, and archival photos recalling a time when sternwheelers were the apex of the Yukon’s transportation system.
Owner Art Webster says developing this concept was simple.The goal: create an innovative atmosphere where patrons know they’re in the Yukon. “It’s partly because of the location of this venue—on the banks of the Yukon River, a couple hundred metres downstream from Shipyards Park—in a city where the logo is a sternwheeler.I knew right away I was going to do a sternwheeler theme, a Yukon-heritage theme,” he explains, gesturing around the restaurant,which opened in April 2013.
“I think I’ve been on the Yukon River probably 20 or 25 times,and I’ve always imagined a sternwheeler coming around the next bend. Sternwheelers played such a vital role in both the economic and social history of the territory. It’s hard for me to not think of that.”
An antique cookstove against the back wall of the space acts as a station for the servers, while a near-scale replica of a wheelhouse contains the bar built by Dawson’s Troy Suzuki, who worked on restorations of the SS Keno and SS Klondike.
"OUR LONG-TERM GOAL IS TO BE AN INSTITUTION FOR YUKONERS AND A DESTINATION FOR TOURISTS."
Arriving at a theme was simple, but entering the restaurant business was slightly different for Webster. He’s no stranger to the territory, though—the former MLA and cabinet minister with the NDP was also mayor of Dawson City in the mid-1990sand previously owned and operated art galleries in Dawson and Whitehorse.
“A restaurant, in a sense, is still keeping with what I’ve done most of the time over my 40 years in the Yukon, always dealing directly with the public,” he says. “Plus, the art and the creativity that goes with that—it seemed very natural to me, even though I’ve never harboured any desire to own a restaurant. I’m not a great chef, I stay out of the kitchen, but I saw a really great business opportunity in town.”
As Webster admits his lack of culinary skills, a smirk spreads across executive chef Robert Luxemburger’s face. The two had a chance meeting when the restaurant idea was in its infancy. Luxemburger was head chef at a hotel in Revelstoke, B.C. He initially came on as a culinary consultant for Webster and was enticed to stay for the long haul.
“This is a great opportunity for any chef,” he explains. “I liked the fact that Art seemed to really be on top of the whole business plan and the décor and was leaving the food to me. It was nice tohear that there are still people who don’t want to micromanage and will let you do what you want to do.”
Having spent over 20 years in the industry,the Red Seal chef was tempted by the opportunity to diversify and create an upscale menu.
“We’re trying to give people something different, and in doing so I think we’re trying to move along with the food trends,using locally sourced foods and using local proprietors,” Luxemburger says.
He points to menu items like the birch syrup and beer braised bison short rib served with barley and aged-cheddar risotto or the grilled Arctic char with in house smoked Hungarian sausage as some of their most popular fare. Luxemburger prides himself on running a kitchen where nothing is processed. There’s even a pastry chef on staff making all their breads and desserts.
This was the vision Webster had all along, marrying historic ambience with delicious, healthy food and creating a comfortable place to indulge. Glancing around the dining room, he points to the variety of settings, from the formal tables to the comfy booths, intimate seating in the elevated wharf area, and a more informal communal bar crafted from salvaged wood.
“I think it’s attractive to not just locals,but also tourists,” he says. “Our long-term goal is to be an institution for Yukoners and a destination for tourists.”
And while Webster continues to incorporate more items from his personal collection to the décor—and be constantly on the look out for new additions—he beams as he confirms his concept has truly been achieved. Y