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Title: Before Starbucks came the Hungarians - The Hungarian Presence in Canada  •  Size: 19295
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Hungarians in Canada - 2001 Census

Canada’s Hungarians as Reflected in the 2006 Census

Canada’s 2006 Census: A portrait of the foreign-born population

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Hungarica Canadiana -A Summary of Archival Sources - John Miska

The Hungarian Exodus Exhibit

How 'the 56ers' changed Canada

Migration of Hungarian Roma to Canada and Back - Paul St.Clair

Revolution Revisited - Events of the 1956 Revolution -
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Introduction     History     Recollections    


Before Starbucks came the Hungarians




Letters to the Editor  The Gazette. Montreal, Que.: 
In search of our daily java fix, Montreal coffee aficionados head to Caffe Art Java on the Plateau or Mile End's Cafe Olimpico or Toi Moi & Cafe.


LESLEY CHESTERMANThe Gazette. Montreal, Que.: Oct 24, 2006. pg. A.3
In search of our daily java fix, Montreal coffee aficionados head to Caffe Art Java on the Plateau or Mile End's Cafe Olimpico or Toi Moi & Cafe.


For the slightly less obsessed, La Brulerie St-Denis, Starbucks and Second Cup are the chains of choice for cappuccino, espresso or latte.


Montreal coffee lovers in the 1950s, '60s and '70s did not have such a wealth of options. But the discerning knew that for a serious cup of coffee, Hungarian cafes and restaurants were the place to go.


Establishments like Riviera, Kis Mocca, Opera, Pam Pam, the Coffee Mill, Tokay, Carmen, Mocca, Opera, the Continental, and Rose Marie were serving European-style coffee decades before the owners of the Brulerie St-Denis were pulling their first espresso shots.


Gazette columnist and McGill professor Joe Schwarcz, a Hungarian emigre who arrived in Montreal in 1956, can still recall his aunt Lily Yaurnick's restaurant, Riviera, on Stanley St.


"I was 9 years old, and I remember Riviera was where I first saw television, Wiener schnitzel that hung right over the plate, and my aunt's big espresso machine."


Today, there are few Hungarian restaurants. A generation ago, there were many going strong. After the influx of Hungarians fleeing the 1956 revolution, these cafes offered not only the flavours of continental cuisine to Montrealers, but a taste of home for new emigres.


Budapest-born Johnny Vago, 83, is well known as the former owner of many downtown bars and restaurants, including Casa Pedro, the Boiler Room and the Sir Winston Churchill Pub. After arriving here in 1951, the young architect made his mark on the downtown core, where he designed and built more than 150 bars and restaurants, including Pam Pam, Carmen and the Riviera, where many of the owners were friends.


He's also often cited as the first to bring the coffee houses of his homeland to Montreal.

"In Hungary, people rarely invited friends into their home," he said. "People met in coffee houses. They spent their days there, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, reading newspapers and playing chess. Writers wrote books and artists drew sketches. It was a congenial place to meet.


"The Hungarian cafes in Montreal also had a huge impact, artistically yes, but businesswise as well. Starbucks does not have the same ambience. They're designed to make money. But the Hungarian cafes were also a pleasant place to be. I still miss them."


Whether or not Olga Penzes misses the days when she owned the popular Hungarian cafe and restaurant the Coffee Mill is harder to judge. Penzes, 88, arrived in Montreal in 1959 with only the contents of a 50-kilogram suitcase to her name.


In her late 40s at the time, she had a degree in finance, and her husband, Joseph, was one of Hungary's top chefs.


"My brother-in-law opened the Tokay restaurant with us in 1960," she said. "He had the money, but we had the talent."


A year later, the couple bought the Kiss Mocha restaurant at 2046 Mountain St. and turned it into the Coffee Mill.


"My first request when we bought the restaurant was a big Italian coffee machine," Penzes said. "One lever on that gold machine had five kilograms of pressure and the other had 10. We had the best coffee of all the cafes, because all the Canadian restaurants and even Pam Pam used smaller machines.


"And we went through a lot of coffee, 80 pounds of espresso coffee and 250 pounds of regular coffee a week."


However, the taste for strong, European-style coffee was slow coming.


"Canadians couldn't stand espresso at the time," Vago said. "They were spitting it out."

Penzes concurred: "At first Canadians found the coffee too strong. But eventually, they loved it."

Who were they? According to Penzes, Hungarians made up only about half the clientele. The other regulars included professors and students from the two neighbouring universities, as well as doctors, businessmen and shoppers from Holt Renfrew and Ogilvy's.


And coffee wasn't the only draw at the Coffee Mill. In a review by the late restaurant critic Helen Rochester in the '70s, the restaurant was lauded for its roast duckling with braised cabbage, and bean soup, which for a few cents more could have a generous portion of sausage added.


"We sold lots of sandwiches and we had 14 different kinds of cake, as well as four different pies and two kinds of strudel," Penzes said.


"We offered a continental menu with 56 dishes. Nothing was frozen, nothing was artificial, and everything was homemade. Coffee with toast cost 20 cents. And in 1961, a full-course meal was 99 cents, the same price for Wiener schnitzel a la carte."


After 26 years in business, Penzes closed the restaurant in 1987.


"It was enough," she said. "I worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day. I didn't have weekends. I didn't have vacations.


"I worked from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. When I started, it was dark outside and when I went home, it was dark again.


"They were good days, but they were hard days. But I was happy when the customers were happy. That was the secret of the Coffee Mill. Everyone felt at home."


Yet now it seems as though the next generation of Hungarians prefers to stay at home.

"The clientele moved out," Vago said. "Young people today would rather go and have a drink."

"The Hungarian customers are older and older," said Georgina Pragai, owner of one of the city's two remaining Hungarian restaurants, Cafe Rococo.


"As for the younger ones, I have a hard time figuring out which customers are Hungarian and which are not. They don't necessarily speak the language, but they do have the Hungarian taste."


And that taste lives on in this small restaurant. When Pragai first arrived in the city, she worked at the now-defunct Austrian restaurant Cafe Mozart, and then for Vago as the pastry chef at the Sir Winston Churchill Pub.


Now, Rococo remains one of only two Hungarian restaurants in a city that once counted so many.

"I don't understand it," Joe Schwarcz said. "Even in Toronto, I can only think of a couple of Hungarian restaurants that remain, and I've only found one in New York.


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