Sunday morning there are very few cars on the 401 to Cambridge, ON. As the 1 ½ hour drive reaches closer, the groves of trees, the wildflowers along the highway and the variety of grasses are a calming change from the cacophony of chrome-to-chrome Toronto traffic.
The Cambridge Mill has billed itself as “The most instagramable brunch spot West of the City,” so I, like a moth to a flame, am on my way. There is a glamorous wedding taking place in the lovely open-air chapel—always a good omen. This sprawling building, Dickson Mill, is built of locally quarried rock, unique for its heart-shaped fossils of ancient mollusks. The dining rooms are spacious, and all tables face the window walls. Awaiting a menu, I am mesmerized by the panoramic view of the Grand River.
“Sorry, no menus today,” says our server enthusiastically, “we have reinstated our Sunday Brunch Buffet. Oh no! The meal I will do my best to avoid is the Buffet. To stand in line with plate in hand lifting covers from hot trays and using serving spoons handled by hundreds of diners before me, holds no appeal for me, particularly during this almost-post-pandemic. I don’t enjoy getting up from the table after each tasting of food, going back to the buffet and searching for that illusive sparkling innovative dish that eluded me on my first go-around.
Hours ago, the roasted potatoes were crisp, the meats were vibrant, the brussels sprouts were green. I give up my place in line to an elderly gent with whom I have been having a friendly conversation while he waits for a new tray of Eggs Benedict, and head for the cold table. It looks familiar, like the takeout counter at my local Sobeys has been transported intact to this dining room. The salads are mundane, with dressings to match.
But wait, here’s a treat. A young oyster shucker is doing a great job on these east coast oysters, and I help myself to a half dozen. Back at our table, we are offered Mimosas. I ask if I could please have a Mimosa without the orange juice, and our server complies with a glass of Prosecco. This, while overlooking the river glistening in the sun is lovely.
A platter of plump shrimp with some spicy cocktail sauce is appealing, but the bread and rolls are cold and dense from a long sojourn in the fridge. The carving station of prime rib, lamb and ham, is indeed a hit, as thick cuts of flavourful beef and lamb, tender and juicy, are layered onto my plate with ladles of jus and chimichurri. There is, without question, value for money here, and the setting is quite unique.
An array of sweets, pastries, and ice cream with a selection of toppings that all the kids love is displayed, but brunch ends for me with a good cup of coffee and a coconut cookie from the dessert section.
Locals know and admire the Cambridge Mill, and everyone seems to be enjoying their afternoon. But it’s a very difficult time to balance expectations. In the current state of the world, buffet brunch menus of years ago are no longer feasible in terms of costs without alienating diners. If you find yourself in Cambridge on a weekend, or passing through Cambridge to visit Stratford, Elora, St. Jacobs or elsewhere in the region, Cambridge Mill is a beautiful destination. Service is attentive and eager to please. The a la carte menu looks wonderful. However, on its own, the buffet brunch requires a commitment of time to and from Toronto.
Cambridge Mill, 100 Water St. North, Cambridge, ON, 519-624-1828
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.