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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Tea Garden Restaurant, Amherstburg, Ontario


The Tea Garden Restaurant was one of the most popular gathering places in Amherstburg. Established in 1946 in a historic nineteenth century residence, it was close to the busy intersection of Sandwich and Richmond Streets. Its size, location and excellent food, affordable on even the most modest budget, all contributed to its success. Nicholas (Nick) and Olga Semeniuk opened the Tea Garden as a family business on June 6, 1946, amid lingering wartime restrictions and shortages. "Meatless Tuesdays" were a part of the menu in the early months and essential food items such as sugar, butter, cooking oil, coffee and tea were in scarce supply. But good cooking and a distinctive personality shaped by the participation of all of the family members allowed the restaurant to grow and thrive.

The Tea Garden was known for its friendly, lively atmosphere. Its diverse clientele kept the conversation stimulating. Typically, milkmen, employees of Mara's Bread, local farmers and factory workers were the early morning customers. By mid-morning, coffee-breakers form neighbouring businesses and offices, the town-hall and the local paper would gather to debate current affairs.
The noon hour saw return visits by many, along with students and teachers on their lunch breaks, salesmen in town for the day and oil-flecked mechanics from the surrounding Shell, Esso, and Texaco stations. The evenings and weekends were family-oriented, with some customers returning for their third Tea Garden meal of the day. Fridays were fast-paced; hundreds of take-out orders of fish and chips were routinely prepared between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., alongside a steady-stream of in-house meals. Business boomed in summer months when the cottagers and tourists vied with the regulars for tables or stools at the counter.

As the town developed and major construction projects were undertaken, the Tea Garden responded and sustained the hearty appetites of various work crews stationed in Amherstburg. In the mid-1950s during the conversion to dial telephones, the Bell telephone "boys" were regular customers, along with Ontario Hydro linemen who were working to accommodate the towns growing power needs. Members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were well-known to the Tea Garden during the dredging of the Detroit River for the St. Lawrence Seaway from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. The restaurant's own work crews were sizeable with up to fourteen staff working peak periods such as Mother's Day. Many young people held their first job at the Tea Garden which provided a steady source of employment and customer service training. With the addition of a banquet room, the Tea Garden became a favourite location for family reunions, wedding receptions and regular meetings of the Amherstburg Rotary Club and other community groups. Other renovations led to the removal of the stucco from the building's exterior in 1961, revealing its original historic stone work. So interesting was the discovery that for many months passers-by stopped to admire and even touch the Tea Garden's limestone walls.

In an era before malls and community centres existed in Amherstburg, the Tea Garden provided a safe and pleasant environment for social interaction. Because of its proximity to the town's commercial centre and major institutions and because of the number and variety of people who visited the restaurant each day, it formed part of Amherstburg's community information network.

Nick Semeniuk passed away in 1964 and five years later Olga sold the business. The building was razed in 1988. While no visible signs of the Tea Garden now remain on Richmond Street, there are many vivid memories and anecdotes about the good food, good times and distinctive personalities from all walks of life who were patrons and employees. This unique family enterprise in many ways symbolized the character of post-war Amherstburg and earned its place in the town's social and economic history.

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