Let’s Read an Old Menu, featuring Chateau Laurier, Ottawa, Canada

Hello, everyone and welcome to Let’s Read An Old Menu! This is another in a weekly series looking at restaurant, hotel kitchen, and lunch counter menus from the 19th and 20th centuries. Sometimes things will be familiar, sometimes they’ll be weird. But one thing you can count on is that they’ll almost always have cottage cheese on the menu, and they’ll almost never actually explain what’s in anything.

What’s For Lunch?

Room service at the Chateau Laurier, the fanciest hotel in the entire province of Ontario in 1946. This week I thought I’d do something a little different– we don’t have a kitchen menu per se (I tried, but I couldn’t find it), but rather a menu of room, meal, and service rates. This was a five-star hotel just after World War 2– which incidentally I think makes it the second-earliest we’ve gone so far in this column, as well as our first international digs (other than in last time’s McDonald’s article.)

Is The Restaurant Still There? If not, what can we find out about it?

You bet your sweet bippy it is.

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The Chateau Laurier was originally built by the Grand Trunk Railway company and opened for business in June of 1912, across the street from Ottawa’s Union Station– which today is not a railway station but home to the Canadian Senate. Its opening was originally scheduled for April of that year, but was delayed by the death of Grand Trunk president Charles Melville Hays, who was one of over 1,500 passengers who were killed in the sinking of the Titanic, which we’ll cover soon (I know people were excited for it for this week but the McDonald’s article was a big project that took a lot out of me and if I’m doing the Titanic I want to cover it in similar detail.) In 1914 it played host to the first recruits for the Brutinel Brigade, Canada’s first fully-motorized army unit, which is today commemorated by a bas-relief.

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Postcards depicting the original drawing and dining rooms circa the early 1920s.

Following years of financial difficulties after Hays’s death, Grand Trunk was nationalized in 1923 and the Chateau Laurier became property of the Canadian National Railway. From July 1924 to 2004, its top two floors were repurposed from guest usage to serve as the home of the English and French language CBC stations for Ottawa. Throughout the 1920s and 30s it continued to expand in both scope and prestige, hosting royalty, celebrities, politicians, heads of state, and other elites. A high-water mark came from 1930 to 1935, when Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett kept a suite at the Chateau Laurier as his private residence.

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The Chateau Laurier’s Seafood Cocktail recipe was featured in The Second Ford Treasury of Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Places, a 1954 travel/cookbook released by the Ford Motor Company as a promotion.

Beginning in the 1960s, however, its fortunes began to decline for several years, especially once Union Station closed. Beginning in the 1970s it was also home to Yosouf Karsh, a famous photographer– his 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill is the one you probably think of when you imagine Churchill. In 1981 it was designated as a National Historic Site, and beginning in 1983 underwent major renovations. In 1988, the Chateau Laurier was sold by the Canadian Government to Canadian Pacific Hotels, today known as Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, who continue to operate it to this day. It was also the inspiration for the Hotel Du Canada at the Canada pavillion in Epcot! In 2018 it became the setting for a webseries of the same name, however the series is filmed in the Royal York Hotel in Toronto.

$1 Canadian in 1946=$14.42 Canadian in 2019=$10.82 American

With that in mind, despite its reputation, the Chateau Laurier in its heyday was quite reasonably priced! Imagine getting the most expensive rooms at a five-star hotel anywhere in the world for the equivalent of $162 today. Notice that at the time some of the single rooms did not include private baths. The East Wing was the hotel’s first major expansion, opening in 1929. This menu mentions the Grille Room, an underground restaurant where the specialty was prime rib, but it doesn’t mention the Jasper Tea Room, a dining room and dance floor which was decorated with totem poles and was replaced in 1965 with a pseudo-English Tavern called the Cock and Lion, causing a dispute between management and the wait staff’s union. Sadly the union didn’t win.