Summer Reading – Lunch With Lady Eaton

Lunch with Lady Eaton – Inside the Dining Rooms of a Nation
Carol Anderson and Katharine Mallinson
206 pages, Ecw Press; April, 2004

When the first department stores opened across the country, they were considered to be (as they sometimes still are now) the death knell for small Mom & Pop stores that specialized in one niche market. And while some department stores like Wal-Mart continue to expand their grocery offering, higher-end shops have all but wiped out their food and grocery departments to specialize in higher-end luxury goods. But there was a time when Canadian department stores not only sold every dry good item imaginable, but they also made and sold food, both in their restaurants and as grocery items.

Case in point would be the long-defunct Eaton’s. The beloved Canadian department store chain began as a dry goods and hardware store under the guidance of founder Timothy Eaton. Early on, the store included coffee shops and restaurants in addition to a massive food hall. Eaton’s made their own baked goods on site, they owned dairies in rural Ontario which supplied the cream for the store to make its own butter, and by the early 1900s, the lunchroom of the downtown Toronto store was serving 5000 meals a day.

But what we know of dining at Eaton’s can mostly be attributed to Eaton’s daughter-in-law, Flora McRae, who became Lady Eaton when she married Jack Eaton in 1901. Flora became part of the Eaton dynasty and by the 1920s had begun pushing the board of directors to improve the dining establishments within Eaton’s stores across the country. The lunch counters and cafeterias were fine but Lady Eaton wanted something more upscale.

Starting with the Queen Street store (located where the southernmost end of the Eaton Centre sits today) Lady Eaton created The Georgian Room, a finely appointed restaurant that would appeal to ladies of stature as well a the businessmen who normally ate out at lunchtime. The idea expanded to other Eaton’s stores in Winnipeg and Montreal and when the Toronto Eaton’s store moved north to College and Yonge in the 1930s, The Round Room was the jewel in the crown of the art deco department store.

Lunch With Lady Eaton traces the course of the restaurants within the Eaton’s chain from the first lunch counters and food halls to the 60s and 70s when Eaton’s stores started to suffer and eventually close. It also acts as a biography of Flora McCrae Eaton and her contributions to the Eaton dynasty and Canadian society.

Anderson and Mallinson have done a great deal of research; the book is full of photos from the 1900s right up to the 70s, and even includes a selection of recipes used by the various restaurants and bakeries – including a recipe for fruitcake that makes 25 -1lb cakes.

Of course, the College Street Eaton’s store closed in the 70s when Eaton’s moved back down to Queen as part of the Eaton Centre; and while most of these gorgeous old restaurants and dining rooms are long gone, Torontonians are very lucky to have access to The Carlu, the space that was formerly The Round Room, and was restored to its former glory, right down to the Lalique fountain that sits in the centre of the room.

It’s hard to say what Eaton’s would be doing on the dining scene if the chain was still around today. Their biggest competition, The Bay, has signed contracts to outsource all of the restaurants in the chain, with the Oliver and Bonacini chain running a street level restaurant and a fine dining space in the flagship store at Queen and Yonge, while another company takes over the cafeteria-style offerings in the basement food hall.

Before their demise. Eaton’s (as is the case with The Bay) had begun to move away from grocery offerings as well. A move toward “brand boutiques” at The Bay means that the plethora of candy options formerly available are now down to a couple of mid- to high-end brands, and bakery items and prepared food items decrease on a near-yearly basis. The days of baking bread and pie in-house, or a house brand of butter (from cows raised on the store’s own farm) are ancient history.

Lunch With Lady Eaton is like a step back in time that evokes a desire to don a hat and gloves, and spend a day shopping and dining on tea sandwiches and martinis. It’s nostalgic, but also an excellent piece of Canadian history that reveals the inner workings of a business that every Canadian over 30 can remember fondly.