The Coffee Mill and old Yorkville: multiculturalism & a changing city

When I saw the piece earlier this week in the Toronto Star about the impending closure of The Coffee Mill, I knew I had to go one last time.

There really was a coffee mill in the Coffee Mill. The coffee was amazing.

There really was a coffee mill in the Coffee Mill. The coffee was amazing.

Tonight four of us went for a last nostalgic whiff, even if the context is long gone. It wasn’t really about the food. There had always been other places where you’d go for the best Hungarian Food, whether on Bloor St West (such as Country Style, Tarogato, L’Europe including the Blue Cellar Room, a favourite student hang-out with cheap beer) or earlier on Spadina (Patria). Only Country Style remains in a district that is still full of students & decent restaurants.

It’s cliché to speak of Toronto’s diverse mosaic, but not so long ago this was a completely white Anglican town with no decent restaurants or culture. The difference between Toronto & Montreal (where my family had lived for a time) was at one time quite startling. They had history, we didn’t, they had food & culture, we didn’t. Or that’s how it was seen in Montreal, and at some level (shame-faced), in Toronto. That’s all so so different now, of course, as we’re much later in several inter-connected narratives for and from a hundred different communities & languages.

There are several different stories that weave together, and this is just one tiny part of one of those stories.  While there were Hungarians in Canada before the revolution of 1956, thereafter? A small flood of refugees came to this country, welcomed—so I heard it—by the wisdom of a minister of the Liberal Government, Jack Pickersgill. I looked for this online, but couldn’t find anything. Perhaps it’s just family mythology, which is not really odd  considering that my family is one of the ones who were already here, having come to Canada (first having gone to Sweden in the 1940s, then Montreal, and eventually to Ontario).  If we’d been struggling to get out of Europe –as so many did– we would have had no conception of the political battles going on here.  But in any case it was the Liberals who were the ones who welcomed the immigrants: or so went the family myth. Much later, fellow Liberal Pierre Elliott Trudeau would enunciate the principles of multi-culturalism that are now fundamental tenets in this country.  While it’s no longer quite so clear, for the longest time, the Liberals were the party of multi-culturalism.

But when The Coffee Mill opened in the 1960s, it was a very different Toronto. Whereas the Hungarian restaurants on Spadina & Bloor West represented one sort of venture–usually with a built in following among other Hungarians– the territory for the Coffee Mill was Yorkville, a neighbourhood that was one of the first instances of gentrification in this city. The edgy cool of the beginnings gradually wore off. Tonight, I was amazed that the neighbourhood was looking every bit as old as we were.

Older actually.

Tonight what struck me was how at one time, the urbanity & sophistication of The Coffee Mill was the leading edge of Toronto’s best & brightest, the place where people came to be seen. The Festival of Festivals –later TIFF—didn’t begin on Queen St West, which is the new de facto coolest place in town, oh no. Their gentrification is a more recent phenomenon, a neighbourhood that is still recent enough to be cool & edgy. No, if you believe the stories I heard –from people who claimed to know Bill Marshall intimately at the time—it all started in Yorkville.

Tonight? The schnitzels were actually really good. The prize, though, was the dessert + coffee, in the form of chestnut purée –riced into light strands—and covered in whipped cream.

The dent is where the marascino cherry used to be.   I ate this faster than expected: because it was so unbelievably good.

The dent is where the marascino cherry used to be. I ate this faster than expected: because it was so unbelievably good.

There’s another week left to savour the place & its atmosphere. But Yorkville is no longer the centre of our universe, and all those other old Hungarian places –save one, namely Country Style—will be gone when The Coffee Mill goes. I’m not saying you can’t go home again. After dinner by coincidence I walked past the apartment where I lost my virginity. When you’re older, home, or the cool places of various rites of passage don’t mean what they used to mean. We’d walked past the site of the legendary Riverboat. We heard a remarkable anecdote which I am probably misquoting . Gord Lightfoot actually picked up the phone (without identifying himself). Whoever was on the phone– when asked the question “is Gord Lightfoot singing tonight”– replied “yeah because they never give me a night off”. That was before the huge career.

Fast forward to 2014.  We’re in the car on the way home, and I dig up that cool clip of Burton Cummings imitating Gordon Lightfoot singing Rod Stewart. It seemed apt, considering the way our adulation fades with time.

The Coffee Mill could be another opera or play because —unthinkably–they’ll be closing in a few days. But that’s it.  They’ll be at 99 Yorkville for another week, closing the weekend after Labour Day.  Good bye Coffee Mill and köszönöm szépen.

( “thank you”)!

This entry was posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Food, Health and Nutrition, Popular music & culture, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Coffee Mill and old Yorkville: multiculturalism & a changing city

  1. Pingback: The real prize, and never mind appropriation | barczablog

  2. george ferenczi says:

    I’m writing a novel called “Circus” about 50s-60s-70s Hungarian Montreal. Looking for those who could say things about Mtl’s Coffee Mill on Mountain Street and the many other Hungarian restaurants on Mansfield, Stanley and Mountain Streets as well as on Prince Arthur and The Main.
    Best regards,

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