How a quest for Alberta's best steak led to a Nova Scotian couple buying the Bruce Hotel

They landed in the tiny hamlet of Bruce, Alta., in search of Alberta’s best steak. But they got more than they bargained for.

'I Googled 'best steak in Alberta’ and Bruce Hotel’s what comes up, and still does to this day'

Jay and Carlene Walsh are the new owners of the Bruce Hotel. (Rod Kurtz/Twitter)

They landed in the tiny hamlet of Bruce, Alta., in search of Alberta's best steak. But they got more than they bargained for.

Carlene and Jay Walsh moved from Nova Scotia to Alberta in 2014, looking for a better life. Jay wanted to try something distinctly Albertan.

"I said I want to have steak," said Jay, in an interview on CBC Edmonton's Radio Active on Friday. "We're in Alberta, land of beef. So I wanted steak. And truth be told, I wanted a big steak. So I Googled 'best steak in Alberta' and Bruce Hotel's what comes up, and still does to this day."

The Walshes got in for the Valentine's Day dinner, and they immediately felt at home.

"It was just very East Coast here," said Jay. "Everybody's having fun, everybody's talking, it doesn't matter if you know the people beside you or not, you just chat with them."

Popular steak dinner

Sunday to Thursday, there's not a lot going on in Bruce. But Friday and Saturday night, that all changes.

Every weekend, the hamlet goes through a population explosion as people come from all over Alberta and other parts of Canada for the Friday and Saturday night steak dinners.

The dinners were the brainchild of Debbie Boyd and Karl Pickup. They bought the hotel in the late 1990's, looking to escape the rat race in Calgary.

Karl Pickup and Debbie Boyd bought the Bruce Hotel in the 1990's and served its popular steak night for more than 20 years. (Rod Kurtz/Twitter)

They had 13 people the first night they did a steak dinner. These days, up to 200 people will come through for steak night in the hamlet with a population of less than 100 people. Bruce is located about 115 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, along Highway 14 between Viking and Ryley.

"I know I didn't cook every steak the best but I also was smart enough to know that if we created that steak night and we did a good job at it, then people wouldn't have to drive to Edmonton all the time," said Boyd. "And it's quite funny because now it's mostly Edmonton coming to us."

Last year, after some health challenges, they decided to sell but wanted to make sure the Bruce Hotel went to the right people.

By then, Jay and Carlene had been regular customers for years. Jay was hesitant to buy the hotel when it went up for sale, but knew it was Carlene's dream.

"As much as I wanted to say no, I thought about both sides," said Jay. "If it does sell and somebody buys it and tries to change it and it doesn't float, then it's gone forever. That's a big part of this place, a big part of the history in central Alberta, gone. And then there was her side of it, her dream."

The couple took over as the new owners of the Bruce Hotel last October. Part of the deal was that the Walshes wanted all of the staff to stay.

"They're a part of this place," said Carlene.

And of course, the steak dinner remains.

In the entryway of the Bruce Hotel, hangs a picture on the wall: two framed pages from the Bruce Hotel guest book. One page shows the Walsh's on that first night they visited the hotel for that first steak dinner. And the other page is from their first night as owners, putting on their first steak dinner. The inscription reads, 'Dreams do come true. Now and then.'


Thandiwe Konguavi is an award-winning journalist who was born in Zimbabwe and has received honours from the Canadian Church Press, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association Canada. She is a web writer and editor of First Person columns at CBC Edmonton. She is also the digital producer of CBC's docuseries Black Life: Untold Stories, debuting on CBC Gem and CBC-TV in October. Reach her at thandiwe.konguavi@cbc.ca.

With files from Rod Kurtz