Every year, in the days before the start of Stampede, there is a lot of buzz about the latest in deep-fried, battered, midway shock foods on a stick. But there’s more than deep fried, doughnut bacon cheeseburgers and scorpion pizza to eat on the grounds this year.

On Thursday night, Calgary Eyeopener restaurant critic John Gilchrist and I (along with a handful of Calgary food media) got the chance to sneak a peek at the Stampede’s more upscale dining options, from casual pub food at Maverick’s to the best seats in the house at the ultra-exclusive ranahans and the Lazy S. While most Stampede visitors prefer to get their calories on a stick or in a bag to eat while walking the midway, there are a few spots you can settle in to a table and give your boots a rest.

Mavericks

Chowing down and serving it up at Mavericks in the Big Four building. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Mavericks and The Range

Mavericks, located a level above The Range in the Big Four building, now has a host set up out front so you can check on available tables without going inside. On the menu: classic casual pub fare like burgers, ribs, wings, calamari, stuffed Yorkshire puddings and yes, even salads, with prices ranging from $12 to $22. They have plenty of seating on two levels, interesting cocktails, and gluten-free options, including burger buns from local Care Bakery. (Don’t miss the Cowboy Crepes for dessert – stuffed with vanilla ice cream and topped with warm Nutella.) Down below at the newly revamped (by F&D Scene Changes in Ramsay) Range, Tim Hortons is on the grounds for the first time this year; in fact, 10 of the 14 vendors are new, including Añejo Mexican Restaurant, Holy Smoke BBQ, Freak Lunchbox and Subway. The space has been rearranged with the vendors around the perimeter and seating in the middle. It's food court-style with a Western flair.

The Range

Anejo's Mexican cuisine is on offer at the Range this year. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Grandstand suites

If you have a little more money to spend and are looking to get up close and personal with the rodeo cowboys and chuck wagon drivers, the brand new, luxuriously decorated infield suites at the Grandstand will bring you close to the exhilarating action, with your own private attendant to serve chef-prepared tapas, drinks, or whatever watching bucking broncos puts you in the mood for. The suites range in size to accommodate 30, 50 or 70 people and cost up to $30,000 for one event, plus the cost of liquor (they’re rented out for the rodeo, and again in the evening). The price tag includes plenty of bells and whistles and a private seat deck so you can feel the wind in your hair as the chucks race by. There’s such demand for this unique Calgary experience that even with a price range in the tens of thousands, the suites were sold out before this year’s Stampede started. (The only way to get closer to the action is to be on the racetrack.)

Stampede infield

Julie Van Rosendaal gets close to the action on the Stampede infield. (Elizabeth Chorney-Booth)

Fine dining at ranahans and the Lazy S

There has been much speculation over the years as to what goes on over drinks at ranahan’s and the Lazy S. This is where corporate Calgary's movers and shakers rub elbows.

For 10 days every year, ranahans' lounge offers a western high-style experience for members and their guests. The menu features locally-sourced ingredients, and there’s a suitably impressive wine list. Directly above ranahans, on the fourth level of the Grandstand, the Lazy S is an exclusive restaurant and lounge – undeniably the best seats in the house.

ranahans

The Stampede's inner sanctum: ranahans, where the movers and shakers meet. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

This year Chef Mike Dekker, culinary instructor at SAIT and former Executive Chef at Rouge, is spending a month of his summer holiday back in the kitchen. For the first time this year, Dekker leads a team of fellow SAIT instructors including Steven Lepine (runner up in the 2010 Bocuse D'Or Canadian Qualifier), Andrew Springett (former Executive Chef at the Wickaninnish Inn) and Hayato Okamitsu (former Executive Chef at Catch), which means three executive chefs will be on hand to serve 700 per day in two seatings – for the rodeo in the afternoon and Grandstand Show in the evening.

The chefs are happy to be back in a restaurant kitchen after a busy semester in the culinary classroom. They are creating a tasting menu that changes every two days, with main course options (think braised beef short ribs and blackened catfish) staying the same. Up here, packages are all-inclusive, with swanky seats (that even have wine holders) for watching the events, but just like the infield, both ranahans and the Lazy S are already booked up throughout Stampede – so in this case if you want to get in, it’s good to have friends in high places.

Chef Mike Dekker

SAIT culinary instructor Mike Dekker is spending his holidays cooking up fine fare at the Stampede. (Julie Van Rosendaal)