There’s only one way to kick this off, and it’s going to play out like an ode to an epic burger. “The Lunenburger”; a burger like no other I’ve tried in Nova Scotia. Picture this: a juicy six-ounce, hand-formed patty of local ground beef, topped with a generous helping of fresh lobster, smoked mozzarella, bacon, and a thick, rich tarragon butter sauce with a few greens thrown in for good measure on a brioche bun speared with a bacon-wrapped scallop. Breathe. No really, breathe. When I say generous helping of lobster, I’m talking knuckle and claw meat stacked so high it’s practically teetering. You can press the fresh brioche bun from Boulangerie la Vendéenne flat with the palm of your hand, hugging this hot mess in a little closer. Burger purveyors often talk about the importance of the right ratio of ingredients per bite, and there are many who achieve it locally—2 Doors Down’s “Old School Cheeseburger” and Ace Burger’s “Deluxe Burger” come to mind. This is different, though; it’s like a twisted take on surf and turf, brunch, and genuine hedonism all rolled into one.
Adam Bower is sitting across from me with a big smile on his face. I have to admit, I’m a little embarrassed in this moment. To start, I cut my burger in half in front of him—a bit of a faux pas, but I had to come up with a plan of attack. I move in for my first bite only to discover I can’t actually get my mouth around it. Warning: I strained my jaw during this interview. With sauce dripping down my hands, cheeks flushed and what I can only describe as a momentary lapse of time travel, I resurface and peer over the top of the bun at Adam, who is still there and still smiling. As great as this is, I kind of need to be alone with this burger and have my way with it.
A Lunenburger is what you call someone who hails from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and this is the first time that someone has used the term in relation to a burger. When Adam and his team started brainstorming, they knew it had to be over-the-top decadence combined with an homage to the town. He admits he got a lot of raised eyebrows in the beginning putting lobster on a burger, but those early naysayers now order it religiously.
Adam Bower is the relatively new owner of the Grand Banker Bar & Grill and Brigantine Inn, but he is no stranger to this town or business, where he got his start bussing tables when he was just 18. Lunenburg is an iconic town with an UNESCO World Heritage Site designation that is home to some of Nova Scotia’s culinary heavyweights; chefs that consistently place on national best restaurant lists—a nod to Martin Ruiz Salvador of Fleur de Sel. Vividly coloured houses, restaurants and inns are stacked up the hill overlooking the harbour. In the summer, the town heaves with tourists, and I’ll be damned if you have not driven all of your visiting relatives here yourself. But where do you go when you want to eat like a local? Or, as is often the case in Nova Scotia, drink with the locals? I believe I’ve found it here at the Grand Banker.
This is the story of a hometown boy who made good. Born in Lunenburg, Adam had to leave to figure out that he wanted to come home. Every time he returned, it was as if time stood still and he could just pick up where he left off. The town was headed in the direction of a retirement community, but these last few years have seen an influx of people returning. He laughs, as it took him 12 years to actually get home.
Adam enrolled in Mount Saint Vincent University’s bachelor of tourism and hospitality management program, returning each summer on work term to the restaurant. Throughout this whole period, he credits the Grand Banker for instilling in him a deep appreciation for people and place. After graduation, he headed out west for four years to the iconic Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge in Alberta. The resort afforded him a range of experience: working the pub and a five-diamond dining room, banquets for upwards of 1,000 people, and even the opportunity to serve the Queen of England. But never for a second did he lose his sights on coming home. It was in Jasper that he met his wife, who also hailed from a small town in the Niagara region.
With a little persistence, his dream of coming home was realized when he landed a job as the food and beverage director for both the Delta Halifax and Delta Barrington. In his five years there, he opened the Harbour City Bar & Grill, which was named the restaurant of the year in 2011 by The Chronicle Herald. This was an accomplishment in his mind, as it’s a challenge to get guests to stay in the hotel with so many options in the downtown core, and even harder to get locals in the door. He also spearheaded their large-scale catering contracts outside of the hotel. The bottom line is that all of this was a great training ground for him to own his own place. And the call came as a bit of a surprise.
The Grand Banker was originally opened back in 1996 by fellow Lunenburger Alan Creaser, who also had to leave town to find his way back. He owned and operated Your Father’s Moustache in Halifax for many years, commuting back and forth to his young family before starting a business that would see him home again permanently. In October 2013, Alan offered Adam the business. This had been Adam’s dream for some time, but he just didn’t feel it was achievable. To this day, Alan remains a mentor and friend, and thus began an intensive six-month journey that had Adam and his wife living in the inn while renovating.
They garnered palpable buzz and community support when they re-opened the restaurant as a seven-days-a-week, year-round operation in April 2014. Beyond their expectations, they hit the business’s best recorded summer numbers a couple of weeks into it. Adam and his wife also had their first daughter. As a testament, all staff stayed on when he bought the place.
Adam is a hands-on manager-owner who works the front of house, and can often be found on the floor talking to customers. No surprise there—he’s a damn good talker, and comes by it naturally. While he was away at school and working out west, his friends nicknamed him the “Honourary Mayor of Lunenburg.” His mother, who grew up in nearby Blue Rocks, often comments that he’s just like his grandfather, always chatting with the neighbours and sometimes even driving into town to talk to more people. “Most of the time it takes me half an hour longer to get something done,” Adam admits, “but that’s just the way it is.”
Adam leaves his kitchen to Chef Jackie Bennett, yet another Lunenburger. Lunenburgers making Lunenburgers. They plan the menu as a team, changing it up twice a year for summer and winter. Adam’s done just about every role in this place except the actual cooking. This menu is extensive and centred around fresh seafood. I’m eyeing a scallop dragger over Adam’s shoulder as he waxes on about how the community made a case for certain signature dishes to remain on the menu, like the Acadian Stew. A bowl hits the table—a large serving chock full of haddock, lobster, mussels, shrimp and scallops with a nice little heat to it.
If there’s a story to tell about certain dishes on the menu, or a local winemaker or farmer, you can be sure he’s going to tell it. And with that, arriving to the table is the Lion Inn Lamb, an homage to the neighbouring inn’s late owner, George, who left a league of lamb lovers in his wake. His wife, Lois, was hounded for the unrecorded recipe, but had thankfully watched her husband make it every day. Lois brought it to Adam and they perfected it together, along with a couple of inn regulars; and the rest is history. On this particular afternoon, she’s at the next table over. She’s not having the lamb, but the rest of her table guests are.
A seasoned sommelier and a craft beer geek at heart, Adam has been stacking the taps with local beers since the beginning. He was the first one to carry Big Spruce Brewing and Uncle Leo’s Brewery on tap on the South Shore. You can order a growler to the table to share, or not. And of particular note, there’s both a flight of local beers and one of wines available. In the summer, a Taste of Nova Scotia seafood sampler becomes part of this fresh-off-the-docks pairing, featuring oysters, scallops, lobster, shrimp and crab.
The restaurant and bar are inviting; pull up a stool at the lively bar, sit in the sunny dining room with a view, hole up in a snug or the coveted Captain’s Booth with your crew. We take a quick circle through the inn with eight rooms and views of the harbour that’s named after legendary boats from Nova Scotia, including the HMS Bounty that his grandfather helped build. I’m seeing the possibilities for both winter and summer stays, especially during events like Spirited Away, the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival or Lunenburg Doc Fest, where you can virtually walk to every venue within a few blocks radius.
Adam doesn’t strike me as someone who can sit still for too long. Lots of live music passes through, including Joe Murphy, who plays here on a regular basis. He often stages “Winemaker vs. Brewmaster” dinners. He also keeps himself busy on a number of other fronts, including being the on-stage sommelier for Gold Medal Plates.
There’s expansion coming, as Adam just purchased a building cater-cornered to the inn and restaurant that now houses his office and a future family-size rental suite. He’s got an idea for re-vamping the front retail space, and the beverage program will expand to include even more local beers and wines, as if that’s even possible given the scope already.
I’m now alone and back to quietly working away on the burger. I’ve succumbed to a knife and fork. It’s lovely sitting here with the mid-afternoon sun streaming in through big harbour-facing windows. I’m watching the ebb and flow of traffic on the water. There’s a little Dave Matthews crooning over the speakers, and the room has a warm undertone of a happy-hour crowd forming. I have to admit, I haven’t been to a place in a while where I wanted to just drop everything, day drink and get a room. Alas, time was not on my side on this particular trip. I’ll be back as soon as I can, Mr. Mayor.