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The Coffee Mill: Szia, and thanks for the palacsinta

Owner Martha Von Heczey poses for a photo at Yorkville landmark the Coffee Mill on Sept. 4, 2014.

MICHELLE SIU/The Globe and Mail

In a city where trendy cafés open almost weekly, there was not a single free table on the Coffee Mill's shady, secluded terrace one sunny afternoon last week.

The large crowd that day in the venerable Yorkville institution included an impressive collection of local luminaries. Media tycoons Robert Lantos and Moses Znaimer leaned into a sotto voce conversation along one wall. McDonald's Canada founder George Cohon led a grandchild by the hand through the restaurant.

A few moments later, columnist Barbara Amiel swanned in, with a pair of huge, fluffy white dogs in tow.

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"What breed are those?" I asked Ms. Amiel, whose picture hangs on the Coffee Mill's celebrity wall of fame, not far from that of her husband, Conrad Black.

"Kuvasz," she replied airily. "Hungarian dogs that like Hungarian cafés."

Many customers were there to pay their respects to the 82-year-old owner, Martha von Heczey, and indulge a last schnitzel or Dobos torte. Two weeks ago, news spread that the 51-year-old café will close its doors this weekend, and traffic has been heavy ever since. According to staff, a family dispute precipitated the decision to shutter the business, despite efforts by the landlord to allow it to continue operating.

Petite and stooped, with wavy red hair and dark, expressive eyes, Ms. von Heczey settled at a table inside and sipped from a glass of red wine. She seemed tired and a bit overwhelmed by the outpouring. The café, she said, opened in May, 1963, in the now-demolished Lothian Mews, on Bloor Street (it moved to 99 Yorkville in 1974). "Since then, I have had a wonderful time."

For Toronto's literati, its aging Hungarian diaspora and Yorkville regulars, the Coffee Mill is hallowed ground, one of the city's two original European cafés with bone fide outdoor terraces (the other is Café Diplomatico, which opened in 1968 on College Street in Little Italy).

During the 1960s, the Bloor strip became a kind of mecca for Hungarian eateries, which included the Csarda House, Marika's, Jack & Jill, the Cake Master, as well as the Continental, the Blue Danube Room and the Country Style, all located in the Annex between Spadina and Bathurst. With the demise of the Coffee Mill, the Country Style, known for its Frisbee-sized schnitzels, is the sole survivor of that group.

My parents, who fled Hungary during the 1956 uprising, used to take my sister and me to the Coffee Mill (or, as a fallback, Jack & Jill's in the Colonnade) for Debreceni sausage, pastries, and a lethal Hungarian kids' treat that involved drowning a cube of sugar in a demi-tasse of espresso.

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Ms. von Heczey left Budapest after the Second World War and spent time in Brussels and London before moving to Toronto. She was working at Creed's, a high-end clothier on Bloor Street, when a friend suggested she open a café in Yorkville to cater to the large Hungarian émigré population in the Annex. At the time, only a few stores in Little Italy sold ground espresso, and the Hungarian immigrants had to troop down to College if they wanted a good coffee.

By the late 1960s, the Coffee Mill had become one of Yorkville's most popular destinations. "The place was amazing for people-watching," says employment lawyer Peter Israel, who has been a regular since it opened in 1963 (he came to Toronto as a teenager with his parents, Romanian immigrants).

"It was a magnet for the Bohemian elite at a time when the city was still completely white and mostly Anglo-Saxon, and all the coffee tasted like dishwater," adds Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, who worked there as a waitress during college. "Martha ruled like a queen. She was a gracious hostess with a knack for the business and exacting standards."

She also knew how to create buzz. Ms. von Heczey's late husband Laci, a burly wrestling champion, liked to wander around Yorkville with a tame cheetah on a leash. He greeted customers at the door and managed the lineup to get a table. The couple had a second cheetah, but, as Ms. von Heczey points out, it wasn't friendly. "It nearly killed me," she said.

Many patrons wiled away languid Saturday afternoons on the terrace or inside. Mr. Israel recalls watching epic arguments between journalist George Jonas and civil rights advocate Allan Borovoy, who, he observed, "wouldn't agree on whether it's light or dark outside." Their crowd included criminal lawyer Eddie Greenspan, Ms. Amiel, publisher Malcolm Lester and the late CBC star Al Waxman.

On weekdays, the café was popular with Yorkville merchants and office workers who would come by for an open-face tuna sandwich or the goulash soup, an irresistible confection of veal, potatoes and paprika served with a side of buttered Hungarian rye. Ms. von Heczey kept her prices low by Yorkville standards, and never altered the menu. As Ms. Wente says, the goulash hasn't changed since 1971.

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In recent years, however, traffic has dwindled and Ms. von Heczey's core clientele have aged. In a city that has embraced café culture with a kind of caffeinated zeal, the Coffee Mill didn't change with the times.

One afternoon this week, long-time patrons Carol Solway and Susan Berman shared lunch at a table inside. They reckoned it might be the last such rendezvous. "I bought my lunch here six days a week for 15 or 20 years," said Ms. Solway, an antique dealer. "I've known Martha since she worked at Creed's."

Ms. von Heczey, who comes to work every day despite her age, walked by slowly. She was bussing tables after the mid-day crowds had dissipated. Ms. Berman grabbed her by the hand and told her, in Hungarian, how much she loved the Coffee Mill's palacsinta, a Hungarian crepe filled with jam, poppy seeds or cottage cheese.

Turning back to Ms. Solway, Ms. Berman switched back to English. "How," she asked wistfully, "am I going to live without it?"

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