Located on the 58th parallel north, the Canadian subarctic city of Churchill, Manitoba, has a population of only 900 permanent residents. But this low population more than makes up for the 500,000 visitors who travel here throughout the year. They come for the arctic wildlife, the infamous polar bears, playful beluga whales and of course – perhaps most special of all – the Aurora Borealis.
Churchill’s cuisine is as varied as its landscape, featuring tundra game dishes like caribou and elk, fish like trout and minnows, vegetables like leafy greens and potatoes, and arctic berries. And for the lucky few who make it this far north, there’s an unforgettable way to experience it all.
On select days in February and March, travelers can board a Tundra Buggy (a large touring vehicle built specifically for polar bear watching) and embark on a remote culinary journey over the frozen Churchill River, surrounded by vast subarctic wilderness and frozen fields. and huge snowdrifts formed by snow. After a short drive through the sprawling frozen landscape, guests will arrive on the banks of a frozen river overlooking Hudson Bay, where Dan’s Diner – an unusual restaurant.
Seated in a converted Tundra buggy with panoramic and skylights, guests can gaze upon the Aurora Borealis while enjoying an exquisitely curated multi-course menu featuring regional and local dishes inspired by land and sea. Churchill lies directly below an aurora oval making it one of the best places to see the Northern Lights, with the Aurora Borealis visible for more than 300 nights.
Dan’s Diner serves a multi-course menu on select days in February and March (Image credit: Abby Matheson)
This mobile dining room is a part Frontier North Adventures Tundra Buggy Lodge and named after Dr. Dan Guravych , a photographer and polar bear enthusiast who first came to the area in 1979. In 1983, Guravich converted an old school bus into a mobile kitchen. where simple main courses of corned beef, potatoes and spaghetti carbonara were served to the guests. Cooking in the remote tundra was Guravich’s specialty, so the restaurant honors his heritage and love of the area.
How to survive it
Dan’s Diner is open four to five weeks during the Northern Lights season, when the river freezes over. Travelers can either book an individual dinner or the experience can be part of a larger travel package with Frontiers North Adventures.
The buggy has one long table that seats 20 guests, as well as smaller tables for two. The meal usually consists of six to eight courses depending on the available products.
Today, the dishes are a little more sophisticated thanks to the culinary experience and creativity of Chef Connor Macaulay, who is in his second season as the Executive Chef of Dan’s Diner.
“The dishes we prepare are inspired by the area and reflect the aromas and flavors of the Churchill community. We involve Manitoba growers, producers, fishermen and butchers as much as possible,” Macaulay said. “The elk, bison and wild boar meat comes from a certified butcher in Winnipeg, local fishermen provide fresh fish, and berries are shipped and frozen for use in the off-season from a Churchill resident who grows them in the summer.”
All meals are prepared at the lodge approximately 8 km away, but plating and finishing touches are added in the buggy just before serving. As guests arrive, they are greeted with drinks and snacks while Macaulay and his team introduce themselves and set the stage for the rest of the evening.
Justina Dillon, a Toronto lawyer, and her niece were recently guests on the Northern Lights tour. “We enjoyed our dining experience at Dan’s. We were served a gourmet tasting menu that showcased the best of Canadian cuisine. I especially liked the moose tourtiere ( meat pie), bison meatballs and leek and potato soup,” she said. “After a day of dog sledding, it was the perfect meal.”
Chef Connor Macaulay prepares dishes from Manitoba producers, fishermen and butchers (Image credit: Abby Matheson)
She added that during the meal, the sky exploded with the colors and patterns of the Northern Lights. “This lovely finale went perfectly with the delicious sticky toffee pudding.”
Dan’s Diner isn’t just for Frontier North Adventures guests. Each year, the eatery hosts a couple of “locals nights” where Churchill residents are invited to wine and dine under the night sky. “I love these nights when the residents can visit and see everything we’re doing. It really is a very special community and this is our way of saying thank you,” Macaulay said.
The shared experience of watching nature’s greatest light show overhead while dining is something most Dan’s Diner diners remember fondly. “To receive a beautifully curated six-course menu of arctic cuisine and fine wines, paired with a simple but elegantly designed Tundra Buggy on the frozen tundra, with the sky seemingly dancing and undulating above it, was exciting and unforgettable. – an experience of a lifetime,” said another guest, Mary Mogford from Newcastle, Canada. “It was even more fun because my family in England told me that the northern lights were visible all over the British Isles that night.”
Dan’s Diner features picture windows and skylights (Image credit: Frontier North Adventures)
One of Macaulay’s favorite parts of the meal comes at the end of the night. Buggy drivers have set up a bonfire along with a small ice bar, and everyone is encouraged to chat over a glass of scotch.
“Honestly, this is the best part of the night. Everyone is relaxed and having a good time. And when the lights dance above our heads, we thank the stars for wonderful friends, wonderful colleagues and this exciting feeling that we are alive.”