Martha von Heczey is owner of The Coffee Mill, a fixture in Yorkville since the early 1960s. She is pictured beside the same the UNICEF fountain that has also been a Yorkville fixture for decades.
Photo by Rick Madonik
Yorkville's past history remains stubbornly and miraculously alive at European-style outdoor café
The rising folk music stars moved on decades ago, the Toronto International Film Festival has migrated south, the high-end shops and condo developers have swooped in.
The Village of Yorkville has undergone many drastic changes over five decades. But some things never change. On a beautiful summer afternoon you can still relax on the sublimely secluded patio of the Coffee Mill, enjoying goulash soup, open-face sandwiches and a café latte.
As for Yorkville's legacy as a 1960s hippie playground and capital of folk music - well fond memories of those days will be recalled and celebrated this year at Luminato. On June 17 - the day before the first of the festival's two Joni Mitchell tribute concerts at Massey Hall - three veterans of the era when Joni and many other future stars drew crowds to cramped coffee houses will beguile a lunchtime crowd at the Luminato hub in David Pecaut Square with yarns from the 1960s and 1970s.
Sharing their memories will be two famous performers, Murray McLauchlan and Sylvia Tyson, and an offstage witness named Nicholas Jennings, who worked behind the counter at the Riverboat, and later wrote a book about it.
Alas, the Riverboat - the most famous of the folk-music coffee houses that lined the street - is long gone, and so are many others. Proprietor Bernie Fiedler was forced to close the Riverboat in 1978 after 14 years. Not even the Victorian building whose basement it once occupied has survived, but today you can read about it on a Heritage Toronto plaque that was installed on the sidewalk in front of the Hazelton Hotel, on the north side of Yorkville Avenue, just east of Avenue Road.
Happily, one touch of Yorkville history remains stubbornly and miraculously alive. On Thursday, May 16 the Coffee Mill celebrates its 50th anniversary. Martha von Heczey, a Hungarian immigrant who had landed in Toronto and was working as a sportswear buyer for the upscale retail store Creeds, had an idea. On a whim, and with a small bank loan, von Heczey founded the city's first European-style outdoor café.
On May 16, 1963, the Coffee Mill opened in a courtyard called Lothian Mews, tucked behind the north side of Bloor Street West. Its success came as a surprise, because few believed that proper, middle-class Torontonians would sit outside and relax like Europeans.
In 1967, after divorcing her first husband, the café proprietor met and married Laci von Heczey, a former champion wrestler from Hungary, who walked into the café one summer day. He had a cheetah on a leash, which was part of a nightclub act he had devised.
During the hippie era, she imposed ground rules, including mandatory footwear.
After 10 years, she moved two blocks north to a small mall with Yorkville Avenue on one side, Cumberland Street on the other, and a delightful secluded patio between. In 1984, she even managed to reclaim the UNICEF fountain - the centrepiece at Lothian Mews, which had been placed in storage. Designed by Jack Harman as a promotion for the Canada Save the Children Fund, it depicts a girl carrying a baby on her back and a boy standing beside them. And today it remains the focal piece of the Coffee Mill's patio.
Martha, as she is known to regulars, has been running the place non-stop for five decades, with the help of loyal customers who have been returning for years, like members of an extended family.
Among those whose photos you can spot on the walls: Al Waxman, Barbara Amiel, Gordon Pinsent, Tom Kneebone, Edward Greenspan, Anne Mirvish, Dusty Cohl, Pierre Berton and Anna Porter.
In my family, it has been the ideal place to celebrate birthdays, weddings and book launches, like a club without the membership fee. To me, it is also very conducive to catching up on media and showbiz gossip, conducting interviews, and running into old friends. There are hardly ever any surprises on the menu. What keeps us coming back may be that it feels less like going out to a restaurant than eating at home.
The May 16 anniversary festivities include an open house from 11 a.m. on and a ceremony at 3 p.m. featuring Hungary's ambassador to Canada, Laszlo Pordany. I wouldn't dream of missing it.