Lunch on the Humber

The Old Mill is a well-known mock-Tudor-design restaurant and banquet space in West Toronto. A hotel was attached about 20 years ago, forming the complex we know today.

The site is a charmer, banking the Humber River as it flows its leafy route to Lake Ontario. The site nestles in the posh, somewhat hilly (for Toronto) Kingsway section. Country clubs and golfing also feature, so it’s high-end suburbia.

The Kingsway as an urban agglomeration blending riverside recreation, trendy shops and restaurants on the main artery, Bloor Street, and gracious homes of aforesaid Tudor and other design.

A series of mills stretched along the Humber in pioneer times. They burned down one by one, and later uses obscured the bucolic origins of these sites.

Taking its name from this heritage, the Old Mill started as a restaurant, in 1914. A developer sought to revalorize a desolate patch on the river.

The 1960s-era lunch and dinner menus collected at the Old Mill’s website* are of good interest historically. The food shows a “club” approach, understandably for the area. While not adventurous by today’s standards it was probably good eating, as the Old Mill has always had a top reputation.

The dinner offerings were a slightly more elaborate version of the lunch plan.

Mains for these meals were based on beef, chicken, ham, lamb, and a fish or two. No veg options, then. The fish was typically halibut, salmon or trout, none particularly associated with our Great Lakes.

Perhaps this was due to pollution then endemic, although commercial fishing has rebounded in the Lakes due to environmental measures. So whitefish and yellow perch, say, can be found in restaurants today when in season, but are absent from these 1960s menus.

For lunch there was ham steak with pineapple, a rare offering anywhere today but a staple in North America then, and not just in cafes or diners.

The genius who first thought to place a pineapple ring on a ham slice kicked off a durable craze, yet now defunct except, when one thinks of it, via Canada’s famous Hawaiian pizza.

You could get calf’s liver at the Old Mill too, maybe a little offbeat for the time although I recall eating it at Winston’s downtown, a noted business and publishers’ hang-out, and in roast beef emporiums in town.

Halibut steak, for its part, was a solid 1960s performer. The Old Mill’s accompanying sauce Meunière surely did it no harm. I can’t recall the last time I saw the combo on a menu, though.

Scrambled eggs with sausages for lunch? Makes sense in a club-like setting. All-day breakfast is now the rage, so we see a kind of precursor.

As to cold cuts for lunch, it sounds pedestrian but people evidently liked it – and it’s the priciest dish on one menu! The short ribs is classic mid-20th century eating, hard to find today in restaurants.

Curried lamb sounds a touch exotic for that time here, but curried food has long been a niche of British and Commonwealth eating. At The Old Mill it probably appealed to travelled types including business and ex-army.

Creamed chicken? Emblematic of 1950s dining, yet now the way of the dodo, for public dining anyway. Yet it, too, is excellent when well-prepared.

Desserts were classic North American types but included spumoni – oh where did you go spumoni, I loved that. A little daring for then I think, but Ontario’s Italian population was burgeoning and establishment venues started to take notice.

Cheese offerings hit the Sixties bases: local cheddar (Ontario makes top quality), Quebec’s Oka Trappist, so Port Salut-type, and simply “Blue”, probably Roquefort or Stilton.

The starters are not much seen on menus in Toronto now: herring, smoked salmon, oysters. Ditto for the soups, such as jellied consommé.

I wonder what The Old Mill serves for lunch today. I should go out and see…

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*The menus are no longer available on the website (that I can see). My discussion of the dishes may interest some readers nonetheless.