From ex-pats to hippies to the fabulously rich, The Coffee Mill has catered to Yorkville’s shifting population for more than 50 years.
You will find Martha von Heczey perched behind the register at The Coffee Mill from 11 in the morning until five in the afternoon, immaculately put together in an outfit of subtle leopard prints with a string of pearls and matching earrings. The doyenne of Yorkville’s Hungarian restaurant and café, which celebrated half a century in business this past summer, still comes to work every day at 82 years old. True, she shuffles a little slowly around the Z-shaped room, but she has a hug, a hello, or a warm touch for each of her customers. Amid the moneyed flash and rising condos of a Yorkville that’s changed tremendously since she opened The Coffee Mill in 1963, von Heczey’s presence is a reassuring constant.
“Sit down,” she says, pulling up a chair. “Would you like a glass of wine? I’m having one. Please.”
In a city where even the most popular restaurants risk closing after a handful of years, The Coffee Mill stands apart as one of Toronto’s few true dining institutions. A hot restaurant can be packed one month and dead the next: Trends come and go, sushi surges then flattens, tacos rise, pop, and fall back to earth. The cuisine that von Heczey serves—Hungarian and other European comfort foods that are a step above diner fare—is nowhere near trendy. And the espresso-coffee scene that she helped introduce to the city has evolved into massive chains and artisan caffeine bars; throw a stick, hit a coffee shop. Still, there’s something magical about this place, something that stands the test of time.
Born in Budapest, Von Heczey survived World War II and was ushered out of the country by her parents soon after, as the Iron Curtain descended. She ended up in Toronto in 1951, working in retail and as a waitress at a string of Hungarian restaurants that served the ex-pat population living downtown, including tens of thousands of refugees who fled the Soviet Union after a failed 1956 revolution. (There are approximately 50,000 Hungarians living in Toronto today, according to recent census figures.) Von Heczey opened the original Coffee Mill just off Bloor Street, and moved it to its current location, in a tucked-away arcade between Yorkville and Cumberland, in 1973. The Coffee Mill was the hot spot for Hungarians for decades, a slice of Budapest-café society with a killer patio that introduced a new level of cool yet casual dining to the city.
“There always was a certain elegance,” says Eva Phillip, a Hungarian-born customer who has been coming twice a week for 45 years and considers The Coffee Mill staff a part of her family. “You’re drawn to the faces you get to know over the years.” During this frigid season, when The Coffee Mill’s patio is in hibernation, the goulash soup is a necessity, its bowl filled with soft chunks of pork and tender potatoes and carrots in a sweet paprika-–laced broth. A plump cabbage roll, the delicate leaf filled with peppery ground pork and pearls of buckwheat grains, gets zip from a dollop of sour cream. Debreceni kolbascz sausages, stained red by hot paprika and laced with garlic, are scored every inch or so before hitting the fryer, so they curl up into crisp, crimson links paired with warm, sweet red cabbage.
A favorite of von Heczey’s is the veal paprikash, a stew of soft braised veal shoulder that tingles in a gravy rich with sweet paprika and sour cream—and is so warm, you’ll quietly hope it starts snowing once you order it. It’s served alongside chef András Bakucz’s stellar dumplings, which he makes from an egg, salt, and flour dough that’s pushed through a grate. The morsels rise in salted boiling water, as plump and tender as marshmallows. Sop up the sauce with a slice of fresh rye bread that comes pre-buttered, a nod to a wiser time when the concept of dry bread was unthinkable. But if you want to understand what distinguishes The Coffee Mill from all the European restaurants it outlived, order the wiener schnitzel. The pork filet is pounded paper thin, dredged in flour, egg, and Silverstein rye bread crumbs, then quickly fried. It arrives unadorned on a plate like a minimalist rectangle, the air between the meat and the breading puffed up until it deflates once you cut in and take that first crisp, lemony, barely sweet bite.
In her five decades at The Coffee Mill, von Heczey has never cooked a single meal here, nor did either of her two husbands, who have both since passed away. She trusts the chefs and the rest of her staff implicitly. Most have been working here for close to 20 years and know customers by their first names. Von Heczey is like a master curator, painstakingly selecting the talent, then presenting her artists’ creations in an inviting room that encourages both conversation and admiration.
When asked how The Coffee Mill has managed to last half a century, von Heczey just shrugs. She had no children and this restaurant is her life. “The secret to this place,” she says, pointing to her heart, “is in me.”
99 Yorkville Ave., 416-920-2108.