A diner that roves on a frozen river

Under a canopy of dancing Northern Lights, diners enjoy a remote culinary adventure inspired by land, sea and the people who call this place home.

Located on the 58th parallel north, Canada’s subarctic town of Churchill, Manitoba, has a population of just 900 permanent residents. But this low population count more than compensates for the 500,000 visitors who travel here throughout the year. They come for the Arctic wilderness, the infamous polar bears, the playful beluga whales, and of course – perhaps the most special of all – the Aurora Borealis.

The cuisine of Churchill is just as diverse as its landscape, incorporating tundra fare of wild game like caribou and elk, fish such as trout and burbot, vegetables like leafy greens and potatoes, and Arctic berries. And for a lucky few adventurers who make it this far up north, there’s an unforgettable way to experience it all.

On select days in February and March, travellers can board a Tundra Buggy (a large, roving vehicle that is custom built for polar bear viewing) and embark on a remote culinary journey over the frozen Churchill River surrounded by the vast subarctic wilderness, frozen fields and huge snowbanks caused by the drifting snow. After a short drive across the spawling frozen landscape, guests will arrive at the banks of the frozen river overlooking Hudson Bay, where Dan’s Diner – an unusual popup restaurant – awaits.

Seated in a converted Tundra Buggy featuring panoramic windows and overhead skylights, diners are able to view the Aurora Borealis while enjoying an exquisitely curated, multi-course menu featuring regional and local fare inspired by land and sea. Churchill lies directly below the aurora oval, which makes it one of the best places to see the Northern Lights with more than 300 nights featuring auroral activity.

On select days in February and March, popup restaurant Dan’s Diner serves a multi-course menu (Credit: Abby Matheson)

This movable dining hall is part of Frontier North Adventures Tundra Buggy Lodge and is affectionately named after Dr Dan Guravich, 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 that served simple basic meals of corned beef, potatoes and spaghetti carbonara to lodge guests. Cooking out on the remote tundra was Guravich’s specialty, so the diner honours his legacy and love for the area.

How to experience it

Dan’s Diner operates for four to five weeks during Northern Lights season when the river freezes. Travellers can either book individual dinner reservations or the experience can be part of a larger tourism package with Frontiers North Adventures.

The buggy has one long table that seats 20 guests and includes smaller two-person tables as well. The meal is typically six to eight courses depending on the produce available.

These days, the meals are a bit more sophisticated, thanks to the culinary expertise and creative prowess of chef Connor Macaulay, who is in his second season as a Dan’s Diner chef.

“The dishes we make are inspired by this area and reflect the flavours and tastes of the community of Churchill. We incorporate Manitoba growers, producers, fishermen and butchers as much as we can,” said Macaulay. “Meats like elk, bison and wild boar come from a certified butcher in Winnipeg, local fishermen provide fresh fish, and berries are delivered and frozen for use offseason from a Churchill resident who forages them in summer.”

The meals are all prepared in the lodge about 8km away, but the plating and final touches are added while in the buggy just before being served. Once guests arrive, they are greeted with drinks and appetizers as Macaulay and his team introduce themselves and set the stage for the rest of the evening.

Jasteena Dhillon, a lawyer from Toronto, and her niece were recent guests while on a Northern Lights tour. “We loved the experience of dining at Dan’s. We were served a gourmet tasting menu that represented the best Canadian foods. I particularly liked the elk tourtiere (meat pie), bison meatballs and the leek and potato soup,” she said. “After a day of dog sledding, it was a perfect meal.”

Chef Connor Macaulay incorporates foods from Manitoba growers, fishermen and butchers (Credit: Abby Matheson)

Chef Connor Macaulay incorporates foods from Manitoba growers, fishermen and butchers (Credit: Abby Matheson)

She added that as the meal progressed, the sky exploded with colours and patterns of the Northern Lights. “This magnificent finale went perfectly with the delicious butterscotch sticky toffee pudding.”

Dan’s Diner is not just for guests of Frontier North Adventures. Every year the diner hosts a couple of “locals’ nights” where Churchill residents are invited to wine and dine under the night sky. “I love these nights when residents can visit and see all that we are doing. It truly is a very special community, and this is our way of saying thanks,” said Macaulay.

The shared experience of watching Nature’s greatest lightshow overhead while dining is something most patrons of Dan’s Diner remember fondly. “To be presented with a beautifully curated six-course menu of Arctic fare and excellent paired wines in a simple but elegantly appointed Tundra Buggy out on the frozen tundra, as the sky seemed to dance and ripple above, was thrilling and a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said another guest, Mary Mogford from Newcastle, Canada. “This was even more fun because my family in England were messaging me that the Northern Lights had been visible that night all over the British Isles.”

Dan's Diner features panoramic windows and overhead skylights (Credit: Frontier North Adventures)

Dan’s Diner features panoramic windows and overhead skylights (Credit: Frontier North Adventures)

One of Macaulay’s favourite parts of the meal happens at the end of the night. The buggy drivers set up a bonfire along with a small ice bar, and everyone is encouraged to socialise and mingle over a glass of Scotch.

“Honestly, it is the best part of the evening. Everyone is relaxed and having a good time. And when the lights dance over our heads, we thank the stars for great friends, wonderful colleagues and that breath-taking feeling of being alive to experience nature at her finest.”

BBC.com’s World’s Table “smashes the kitchen ceiling” by changing the way the world thinks about food, through the past, present and future.


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