Lunch on the Humber

The Old Mill. Everyone knows it here, the long-established restaurant and banquet centre in west Toronto, or event space in modern parlance. The hotel was added almost 20 years ago. Many sporting clubs feature in the area, including for golf.

The site is a charmer, on the banks of the Humber as it flows its leafy route down to Lake Ontario. The Old Mill is nestled in the posh, somewhat hilly – for Toronto – Kingsway section. A series of mills was constructed in Humberside from pioneer days. They all burned down, ultimately, but later uses as noted supplemented the bucolic origins.

Taking its name from the olden times a restaurant was started in 1914 by an area developer on a derelict site.

The Kingsway as an urban agglomeration to my mind is combines a riverside sporting ambience, the Bloor Street West corridor of hip shopping and restaurants, and handsome mid-century (the last one) homes of strap-work, plaster, and stone.

The Old Mill has generously made available on its website menus from its archives. These date back to the 1930s, 40s, and 60s.

The 1960s lunch menus over that period are rather similar. The same is true of the dinner menus, which are more elaborate versions of the lunch menus. It’s a “club” menu approach as one would expect, while the cooking doesn’t seem adventuresome today I’m sure the food was excellent if, as I’d expect, prepared well from first-rate ingredients. The Old Mill always had a good reputation and retains it to this day.

Since 1970 Toronto has undergone many food revolutions, in synch with other large North American cities and indeed beyond. Today, a vegetarian option, or more than one, is obligatory almost everywhere. In 1970, no main course offering at the Old Mill was vegetarian, in tune with the times.

In the 1960s, the fare was based on beef, chicken, ham, lamb, and a fish or two. The fish was usually halibut, salmon or trout, none particularly associated with our Great Lakes, perhaps due to the high levels of pollution by then (now partly ameliorated).

There was ham steak and pineapple, a rare offering anywhere nowadays. It was a menu staple all over North America back then, not just in cafes or 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.

Chicken-in-the-basket with honey pot was a dish of that sort – I’m think some Old Mill menus featured it in the 1960s.

Calf’s liver was offered, perhaps an offbeat offering for the time but one that featured around town. I remember it at Winston’s downtown, and in British-style eateries in the business district.

I still know some people who still won’t touch liver in any form. The Victorians certainly were much less squeamish about innards than the postwar generation, and things have come around again I think, partly via the influence of Italian and other once-foreign cuisines.

Halibut steak is a solid 1960s performer – still as good as ever although harder to find now. The sauce Meunière featured surely did it no harm, can’t recall the last time I saw that on a menu though.

Scrambled eggs with sausage seems odd perhaps for a lunch dish, but really it was a brunch-style offering, which makes sense in a club-style setting.

And all-day breakfast is now the rage, so really this was  precursor. The cold cuts sounds a bit pedestrian, but people must have liked it and it’s the most expensive dish on the menu! Short ribs is classic mid-century cooking, a fine dish but hard to find today.

Curried lamb sounds a little exotic for the day, but curried dishes have been solidly British or Commonwealth since the 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.

Now consider 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.

I wonder what The Old Mill serves for lunch now… maybe I’ll go out there soon and find out. But good for them not to forget their past, I like that.