Searching for the origins of the caesar

WATCH: The Stampede, proximity to the Rockies: There are a few things that Calgary is famous for. And right up there is the birthplace of a very popular piece of Canadian culture: the Caesar. On this official national day to celebrate the drink, Norma Reid goes on a hunt for the truth of its mysterious origins.

May 18 is National Caesar Day, named for the beloved drink created in Calgary.

Canadians love the cocktail, consuming 400 million Caesars a year.

The caesar typically contains vodka or gin, tomato juice and clam broth — most people use pre-mixed Clamato — hot sauce and Worcestershire, and is served with ice in a celery salt-rimmed glass, typically garnished with a stalk of celery and wedge of lime.

Just like its delicious contents, the origins of where the cocktail came from are murky.

It turns out two Calgary institutions can claim they played a vital role in popularizing the now-famous Caesar.

“One hundred per cent, Walter Chell created it here in the Westin Calgary,” said Michael Cameron, the hotel’s director of operations.

Back in 1969 when the hotel went by a different name, bartender Chell contrived the drink as an “ode” to his Italian heritage.

The mix of clam and tomato flavours is said to have reminded him of his favourite pasta dish: spaghetti vongole.

“It’s his brain child and it’s evolved based on his original recipe over time,” Cameron said, even though the original creation was dubbed ‘the eye opener’ — perhaps a nod to its supposed powers as a hangover fix.

Chell is said to have later changed the name to the ‘Bloody Caesar’ — perhaps a nod to the Bloody Mary, which contains just tomato juice.

By the time Caesar’s Steakhouse opened down the street in 1972, the drink was popular with locals.

Calgary’s 4th Avenue was much less-populated back then, and most food and beverage workers knew each other. Word got around and the steakhouse adopted the cocktail, but with its own unique twist: a secret ingredient and a special spice blend.

“A little tweak to the recipe that remains a secret. We like to think we perfected it and being its namesake made it popular,” said Gerry Stuart, who owns Caesar’s Steakhouse.

The restaurant has been in operation for more than 50 years and hasn’t changed much in terms of its exceptional food and service.

Its memorable decor is the kind of vibe that keeps loyal patrons coming back decade after decade. The caesar recipe is a large part of that legacy.

“Our caesar is still the classic caesar we started with in 1972,” explained Stuart who runs the business along with his wife Connie. Keeping the steakhouse traditional is what patrons expect and it works.

“The caesar is our trademark here,” said waiter Louis Elieopoulos. He’s worked on and off at the restaurant since the 70’s.

“Every table should have a caesar, will have a caesar, must try a caesar.”

How many has he served? “Millions,” he said unflinchingly.

If the famous steak grill featured in the centre of the dining room could talk, it would have a lot of stories to tell. And the cocktail is a central theme.

“What happens at Caesar’s (Steakhouse) stays at Caesar’s, particularly in the lounge,” laughed Stuart.

He recalled the oil hey days of the 1980’s where dozens of pre-made caesars would line the bar ready for customers to simply grab on the way to their seats.

“There’s a lot of stories here. We’d rather not go there,” said Elieopoulos with a huge grin.

And just like its namesake drink, some mysteries are better left as legends.

© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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