Lunch on the Humber

The Old Mill in Toronto is a long-established restaurant and banquet centre, what is now called an event space. It has long been been associated with sporting clubs nearby including a golf course, and added a hotel almost 20 years ago.

The site is the banks of the Humber River, flowing to Lake Ontario through the western part of the city. The Old Mill is nestled in the leafy, somewhat hilly (for Toronto) Kingsway section. A series of mills of various kinds was built there starting in pioneer days. They all burned ultimately.

As far as I can tell, no distillery was ever associated with that particular milling centre.

The restaurant was established in 1914 by a developer who took charge of the derelict site as part of laying out much of the Kingsway. I don’t live near there but get out there sometimes on walks and on my bike.

The Kingsway combines Ontario white bread ambience with a dose of downtown-style diversity. The latter is exhibited in the restaurant scene on the main drag (Bloor Street West) but probably too now in the residential population.

The Kingsway has its own feel anyway, and The Old Mill is a nerve centre.

The Old Mill has generously made available on its website a series of menus from the mid-1930s, mid-1940s, and mid-60s. One of them is pictured, from 1970. The other images herein are also taken from The Old Mill’s informative website.

This menu, while to some degree reflecting the approach of contemporary country clubs in North America, also demonstrated prevailing culinary values in Canada.

The word conservative comes to mind, although in truth it’s a value-laden term that doesn’t really mean anything at bottom.

If you compare the lunch menus of The Old Mill from the 30s and 40s, they are very similar: not much changed over that long period. The same is true of the dinner menus, which are more elaborate versions of the lunch menus.

Since 1970 Toronto has undergone many food revolutions, both ethnic and mainstream, increasingly too in synch with what is going in any large North American city and indeed beyond.

Today, a vegetarian option or more than one is obligatory almost everywhere. In 1970, not a single main course offering was vegetarian.

In the 1960s the fare at a solid place like The Old Mill was based on beef, chicken, ham, lamb, and a fish or two. The fish was usually either halibut, salmon or trout (none really associated with our Great Lakes, which provided many species for the table then and still does).

The food was probably excellent, as all these dishes will shine if made with good ingredients carefully. The Old Mill always had a good reputation and retains it to this day.

Ham steak and pineapple … it was a staple of restaurants all over North America at one time, and not just cafes and diners. The genius who thought to place a pineapple ring, usually canned (in fact the dish tastes best that way) on a ham slice, probably kicked off the craze.

Probably it started in the early 1950s although earlier origins would not surprise. Chicken-in-the-basket with honey pot nearby was a dish of this class – I’m sure some Old Mill lunch menus featured it.

Calves liver is a rare, um, gutsy move for a restaurant in Canada then. I know some people who still won’t eat liver in any form, except a skosh of pate, perhaps. Even then they need to get down one or two of my best Martinis to go for the … gutso, sorry gusto.

I remember roast beef houses serving calves liver with bacon in the 1970s, so perhaps there was always an active subculture rooting for it. British incomers would have helped given they knew faggots at home and other old-fashioned dishes based on liver. (Faggots probably is Roman in origin in England, think of the Italian fegato...).

The Victorians anyway were much less squeamish about innards than the post-Second war generations, and Toronto had distinct Victorian vestiges in the 1960s, not just in architecture. (Heck, we still have a Hotel Victoria, I tweeted an image of it the other day).

Halibut steak is a solid performer – still as good as ever although harder to find now. And the sauce Meunière if well-made would have done it no harm.

Scrambled eggs with sausage seems a little odd perhaps as a lunch dish, but really it was a brunch-style offering, it makes sense to offer it in a country club atmosphere.

And so all-day breakfast, quite the rage today – McDonald’s finally got with the parade – is not really new, like a lot of things in the culinary field.

Cold cuts sounds a bit pedestrian, but people must have liked it and it’s the most expensive dish on the menu! The short ribs is classic mid-century North American cooking, a fine dish in fact but again hard to find today.

Look at the Old Mill’s 1930s wine menus, Chilean white and red wines are well-represented. It’s not a phenomenon of the last 20 years.

Now the curried lamb sounds a little exotic, but not really, curried dishes have been solidly English and British Empire/Commonwealth since the mid-1800s at least. Still, it offered some spicy variety. It was probably popular among travelled businessmen and ex-army officers.

The creamed chicken, a staple of 1950s menus and a once-popular club dish, has gone the way of the dodo.

The desserts are classic North American. The spumoni – oh where did you go I used to love that! – was probably somewhat daring, the Italian population was starting to burgeon here and this was a nod in an establishment context.

Maybe the cold cuts showed Italian influence too, it isn’t a British or old stock American thing, or was a bow to the German crowd out in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON, settled by the Pennsylvania Dutch from the 1780s.

The cheeses hit the main bases then: good local cheddar – Ontario makes some of the world’s best; Quebec Trappist Oka, the Port Salut-type I wrote about a while back; and “blue”, probably Roquefort.

It’s all good Anglo-American food, and made right most palatable although not very fashionable (most of it) today. Almost all the starters too are non-starters on today’s menus, the oysters and maybe smoked salmon apart. All the soups are out of style today, jellied consommé?

The herring was probably great. It was a “Continental” standby for decades after WW II, perhaps encouraged by the many German and Swiss chefs in hoteling and catering then. You almost never see it now except at German or Scandinavian restaurants and Jewish delis.

I wonder what The Old Mill serves for lunch now… maybe I’ll hie out there soon and find out.

But good for them not to forget their past, I like that.