DOWNTOWN CAMBRIDGE: A NEIGHBOURING COMMUNITY – RIPE FOR A VISIT
WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘I can’t believe we haven’t eaten here before,’ I remark to Cai, my ever-present TOQUE co-pilot, as I carefully spoon a dollop of horseradish onto a generous-sized oyster and lift it to my mouth. Slurping back the briny goodness, I add: ‘I already can’t wait to come back.’ I chase down the oyster with a gulp of Goose Island IPA and scan the plethora of dishes laid out in front of us – eager for my next bite.
‘Have you tried the burrata?’, asks Cai, noting my searching gaze. ‘It’s pretty incredible.’ Served with summer berries, compote, and grilled bread, this dish of fresh cheese made from mozzarella and cream is always a good pick. But there are so many choices. Crispy calamari with pickled jalapeno, cilantro, and chili sauce. Buttermilk fried chicken bites with spicy aioli. Barbacoa and Chicken Fried Mushroom Tacos with avocado crema, pickled chilies, red onion, cilantro, andlime. And, of course, the oysters – served with lemon, mignonette, hot sauce, and horseradish.
I push my knife into the squishy hunk of burrata, spread it onto a slice of grilled bread, top it with some compote, and go to town. Here – in this expansive open-air dining room, on the banks of the mighty Grand River, at the exquisitely-restored Cambridge Mill in historic Galt.
Our mission on this Friday in mid-July is clear – and extends beyond this sumptuous lunch at the Mill. It’s an exercise of explorationand discovery: of venturing forth from our respective homes in Guelph and Elora to scout the idyllic quarters of downtown Cambridge. For its historic architecture. Quaint galleries. Killer boutiques. Picturesque river walks. Good eats. And sweet watering holes. Indeed, during these uncertain times, when far-flung summer travel has (for now) become a thing of the past, adventures much closer to home are the order of the day. And downtown Cambridge – also referred to by many as ‘historic Galt’ – is a perfect daytrip destination.
Cai and I arrive downtown mid-morning – having taken the (not so scenic) twenty-four from Guelph. It’s revelatory, really: how quickly the seemingly never-ending strip malls, fast food joints, and gas stations of this drab thoroughfare make way for the elegant stone buildings, inviting riverfront properties, and shop-filled streets of historic Galt. Turning off the twenty-four onto Water St North, we pass Galt Collegiate (a fantastical heritage building that could double as Hogwarts in any Harry Potter saga), and then past the Mill (where we’ll find ourselves for the aforementioned lunch), and park along Ainslie St South – next to Monigram Coffee Roasters.
A staple of the downtown Cambridge community since it first opened almost a decade ago, Monigram (this, its primary location, tucked intoa re-purposed century-old red brick) remains an essential fueling station for any trip into Galt. Americanos in hand, we meander along Ainslie – site of a handful of Galt’s gems. Along the way, we poke our heads in at Art of Home (a favourite home and lifestyle boutique that’s become something of a destination for Cai’s wife, Sonia), The Witty & Co (whose large assortment of whimsical glassware, quirky lifestyle accoutrements, hot sauces, bartending essentials, bonsai trees, and irreverent matchboxes always offers a surprise), and no words (a curated gallery space and artisan shop with works from local artists and artisans).
We pop in at Cedar Lake Studio – yet another beautifully- curated space along the Ainslie corridor – where Cai immediately recognizes, hanging on the far wall of the gallery, a number of framed prints by Guelph-based artist and printmaker, Clive Lewis. ‘I love his work,’ Cai remarks to Cedar Lake proprietor, Susan Benton, as she strolls towards the Lewis display. Ontario bank barns in black-and-white. A row of silos standing at attention in front of a deep blue sky. A sepia-toned detail of a hay trolley. ‘I’ve got one of his prints at home,’ she reminds me, ‘of a woman in a tub.’ A tribute to the eclectic nature of Lewis’s work.
I peel away from Cai and Susan, who are busy chatting, to explore the space. The array of stained glass, jewellery, carvings and sculptures, ceramics and more – all by Canadian artists and artisans – is impressive. But it’s the bold colours and geometric graphics on a hand-painted canoe paddle by Quebec artist Annie Lajeunesse that seriously draws me in, and it’s not long before I’m lost in the piece. Ever vigilant, Susan follows my gaze. ‘It can be used in the water or hung as a work of art,’ she assures me. I picture the paddle hanging above my collection of bikes – or maybe beside the artisanal- crafted Norquay paddle I received as a gift last year.
It’s time for lunch at the Mill. On our walk toward the dazzling riverside destination whose expansive quarried stone structure dates back to 1844, we make side excursions to Phidon Pens (where Cai grabs a few Field Notes journals andI select a new LAMY Safari pen for my fountain pen-wielding mom), and Cambridge School of Flowers (where I snap up a sweet set of garden sheers for my honey). We pause in front of the gorgeous alleyway beside the flower shop – converted by shop owner Elaine Martin into a rustic, plant-filled space ideal for photo shoots and Instagram. ‘We’ve had a number of wedding photographers bring couples here on their special day,’ Elaine tells us. ‘I’m happy it’s become something of a local attraction.’
A few minutes later, Cai and I arrive at the Mill. We eat. Enjoy. Linger. Chat. But you’ve read all about it already. Just make a reservation. See (and taste) for yourself. You’ll surely share our delight.
Filled to the brim with oysters and calamari and burrata and other good stuff, we agree to walk off our lunch. We stroll from the Mill through Mill Race Park and cross the Grand at the Main Street bridge. Halfway across the bridge,Cai stops. I watch as she scans the cityscape – first left, then right, then ahead, and behind. ‘From this vantage point,’ she remarks, ‘you can really see how far downtown Cambridge has come.’
I follow her gaze. To our left, the recently-restored Old Post Office abuts the river. A gorgeous amalgam of historic stone and bold glass design, this architectural treasure now serves as the Idea Exchange’s impressive digital library. To our right, on the banks just across the river, looms the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture. Housed in the former Riverside Silk Mill building, the School enjoys the distinction of being one of the best architectural programs in the country – and has been a fantastic addition to the downtown community since landing here just over fifteen years ago. Behind us, in the distance, are stone ruins used for the Hulu-produced television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s ‘A Handmaid’s Tale.’ And straight ahead, about two hundred metres up river, the newly-opened Pedestrian Bridge spans the Grand. A tangible sign that the City is growing, expanding, listening to the wants and desires of an energized populace eager to experience the resurgence of this downtown core.
Cai and I spend the rest of our day as tourists do. Westroll through the Cambridge Sculpture Garden past HIP Development’s emergent Gaslight District – a massive mixed development of re-adapted foundry, condo towers, commercial space, and more. We pop in at Foundry Brewing to share a flight and then cross back over the Grand at the Pedestrian Bridge. We peek into EVO Kitchen, and stop by No Udder for a vegan cone. Eventually, we end up on the patio of Thirteen Food & Beverage for one last pint – a Mikkeller IPA for Cai and a Wellington Upside IPA for me.
It’s been a full day. And a successful one too. As I pop back gear into my camera bag, I notice the delicate garden sheers and the LAMY pen I picked up along the way. Specialized items I wouldn’t easily find anywhere else.
I think back to the shopping and food and architecture and drinks we’ve just enjoyed. And I’m thankful for this place. Downtown Cambridge. Historic Galt. A neighbouring community – perfectly ripe for a visit.