Women of Calgary Cuisine: She Did Things First

Sal Howell, the owner of River Cafe and Boxwood, values locally sourced ingredients and sustainable practices.

photography by jared sych


When Sal Howell graduated from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick with a degree in fine arts, she never dreamed she’d soon embark on a career as a successful restaurateur. 

Howell’s passion has always been for design, aesthetic beauty and the spirit of exploration, but, after realizing she’d need a day job if she wanted to keep up with her thirst for travel, she found herself in Alberta and stumbled into a job at the Lake Louise Trading Co. She quickly fell in love with both the mountains and the hospitality industry and decided to stay. 

Joining a group of partners, Howell’s foray into restaurant ownership started with Mescalero, before she co-founded other restaurants including Teatro (which she retained co-ownership of for a decade) and her baby, River Café

River Café opened as a seasonal open-air eatery on Prince’s Island in 1991, transforming into a full restaurant in 1995.Howell loved the concept of having a restaurant on Prince’s Island.

“I was interested in creating something that belongs, and I laboured over every aspect of where we bought the furniture and how we curated what’s in the room,” Howell says. “We’re on an island in the middle of a river in the middle of the city. You still have to walk to get here. I marvel at that. It’s an incredible oasis.”

With both River Café and her newer restaurant, Boxwood, in Central Memorial Park, Howell is careful to make that sense of “belonging” clear in every aspect, from locally sourced ingredients to sustainable practices. Howell is an advocate for fresh, local food, and her commitment to these things isn’t new and wasn’t in vogue when she started River Café 23 years ago.

“There’s a lot of interconnectedness and poetry to what we do here,” Howell says. “I think the values of our culinary philosophy and our operational philosophy are linked together. It’s about being aware of what’s happening in the world and caring.”

River Cafe, 25 Prince's Island Park, 403-261-7670, river-cafe.com; Boxwood, 340 13 Ave. S.W., 403-265-4006, boxwoodcafe.ca

Sal Howell's favourites

Utensil: Vitamix  

Ingredient: Citrus and salt

Least favourite food: Ketchup

Way to relax: Going for walks

Local restaurant that is not your own: I can’t pick just one — I eat everywhere 

Movie: Out of Africa

Drink: Champagne

Food as a child: I ate weird things — I loved lamb and veal sweetbreads 

Travel destination: We have a cottage on Secret Island

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