Lunch on the Humber

The Old Mill is a long-established, restaurant and banquet centre in Toronto, an event space in today’s parlance. A hotel was added almost 20 years ago. The venue has long been been associated with the sporting clubs in the area that include a golf course.

The site is charming, the banks of the Humber River as it flows through the western part of the city, down to Lake Ontario. The Old Mill is nestled in the leafy, somewhat hilly (for Toronto) Kingsway section. A series of mills of various kinds were constructed in the area starting in the pioneer days. They all burned down, ultimately.

A restaurant was established in 1914 on a derelict site by a builder who developed much of the Kingsway. I don’t live near there but sometimes go on walks, or my bike.

The Kingsway is a comfy district of which The Old Mill is a nerve centre. The area to my mind combines old school Ontario and newer influences especially in the restaurant and bar scene along Bloor Street West.

The Old Mill has generously made available in its website menus from its archives. They date back to the 1930s, 40s, and 60s. The one pictured is 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, yet 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.